How to Break Your Procrastination Habit and Get Real Work Done

September 14, 2016, 12:00 PM UTC
Businesswoman relaxing at desk
Businesswoman relaxing at desk
Paul Bradbury Getty Images/Caiaimage

Do you ever wake up in the morning and say, “Today, I am going to spend the day in reactive mode — running around putting out fires, constantly checking email and wasting time on Facebook when I get really stressed.”

Of course not. We all know it’s important to do the important things — strategic planning, understanding our numbers, calling that potential Fortune 500 partner — that are critical to the growth of the company. And yet we often find ourselves putting them off, rationalizing that we need “a big chunk of time to focus” or “to be in the right mood.” Why do we do that?

Welcome to human nature.

For one, we put off tasks if they’re cognitively-demanding. Creating a new investor presentation, for example, requires deep, strategic thinking that our brain is fundamentally wired to avoid.

As humans, we also resist anything that hints of emotional discomfort. If the task requires looking at our financials, we feel a sense of panic when we see our run rate (and wonder if we can make next month’s payroll); if it’s deciding the next key hire, we’re afraid of screwing up (like we did last time); or, if it’s something we don’t inherently enjoy, like sales calls, we feel incompetent or inadequate (and hope nobody finds out).

If it’s any consolation, the most successful, accomplished people face this struggle too. They just know how to master their psychology and win. Here’s a five-step process so you can join them.

Step 1: Break through the psychological inertia. The first step is to simply accept the mental resistance. Research has shown that people tend to delay tasks because they feel they aren’t in the right mood and believe they’ll be in the right mood later. There’s no guarantee that will happen. Break through and just start. Fortunately, inertia is more like a wall than a steep grade — once you break through, momentum takes over.

Step 2: Pinpoint the resistance. If you’re procrastinating, keep in mind it’s often just one particular aspect, not the entire task, that’s creating resistance. Ask yourself: “What exactly am I dreading?” (Even better, write it down). For example, it may not be putting together the investor presentation itself that you’re avoiding but the hassle involved in gathering accurate data, or the memories of past rejection. You might generally enjoy connecting with potential strategic partners, just not the actual moment of requesting a commitment.

Identifying the precise point of resistance prevents emotion from coloring your whole attitude so you can come up with a specific action to work through the block (e.g. asking a mentor to role-play a big sales ask).

Step 3: Use time as a tool. If that mythical “big chunk of time to focus” does ever materialize, it often creates such pressure that you still end up procrastinating. It’s important to remember that it’s harder to start something when you don’t know how long you’re going to be doing it. So, put a limit on how long youre going to be doing something 15 minutes, say. Your mind will relax its resistance because it can see a limit to the perceived discomfort.

Related: 3 Ways to Develop Mental Toughness Right Now

Step 4: Set micro-goals. When you’re pushing a stalled car, you aim to move it a few inches at first, not six feet, right? Likewise, no project is a monolithic action that you do in one giant, fell swoop. Start with a micro-goal, one so incremental that it creates no resistance. Open up a Google doc and write one sentence, for example, or bullet point a rough outline on a napkin. Years ago, when I joined a health insurance startup to gain sales experience, I found I could jumpstart my dreaded bi-weekly lead and coldcalling sessions and get into the groove by dialing two or three numbers that I knew from past experience no one would answer. Micro-goal: leave three voicemails. Check!

Former SEAL Commander and entrepreneur Mark Divine says, “When we set our sights on micro-goals, we achieve micro-wins, which quickly stack up and develop a sense of momentum and ‘can-do’ instead of ‘can’t – won’t.’ That’s because micro-goals leverage our biology. When our brain perceives that we’ve ‘done’ something, it produces serotonin—the body’s ‘feel-good chemical’ – creating a sense of calmness and satisfaction that builds our confidence and motivates us to take on the next task.

Step 5: Stop in the middle. For large, ongoing tasks, the trick is to create a sense of momentum even when you stop. Once you’ve established traction, steal a tip from Ernest Hemingway, who used to stop writing in the middle of a sentence: “Stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next.” Knowing exactly what your next action is minimizes inertia and makes it easier to pick up where you left off.

There’s no getting around it: Doing the hard, important work comes down to managing your psychology. The secret that high-performing entrepreneurs know is that resistance and avoidance are more painful than actually taking action. They know that knocking that big task off their to-do list produces a disproportionate sense of satisfaction — which then creates a virtuous cycle that makes it easier to tackle other seemingly hard projects.

– Renita Kalhorn is a leadership development coach and a mental training mentor with Navy SEALs RDAC.