Sometimes the reason someone procrastinates is a deep-seated block that takes serious effort to root out. This is where I earn my nickel with clients who come to me to get past blocks. But sometimes we procrastinate because our brains are hardwired to choose activities that are easy and convenient over those that take more effort. When that is the kind of block getting in your way, there are three simple techniques you can take to get around it. Each technique will work individually, but when combined they can be almost unstoppable.

Last week I described the first technique, in which you identify your time-wasters then get rid of them by making them less easy and convenient. This week I’m going to outline an important technique to get you started on something you know you need to do but haven’t gotten around to yet. (By the way, each of these techniques—and the science behind them—is explained in much more detail in The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. So feel free to pick up and read a copy for extra credit. It’s good!)

Willpower has its limits (and when it’s gone it’s gone)

It turns out we only have a certain amount of willpower to work with over a period of time. The more we use it, the less we have, and when it’s gone it’s gone. That’s why crash diets so often end in a huge binge of the foods the dieters have been denying themselves. The dieters kept using up their willpower each time they told themselves “no” until they had none left.

The limit to willpower reserves is also why it can be hard to get started and keep going on a project —you have to make yourself go work on it. Every time you do that, you draw on your willpower reserves. When the reserves are used up, you can’t make yourself work on it anymore. So what do you do?

How you arrange your desk at your desk
Where you put your work affects your willingness to do it.

The short answer is to take willpower out of the equation by making it easier to work on your project than to do anything else. You’ve already made a start on this if you followed last week’s tip and made it harder to access the time-wasters in your day. Now you want to do the opposite and make it easier and more convenient to access your project, whatever it is.

Remove the easy-to-eliminate obstacles ahead of time

Let’s say you are a small business owner with an opportunity to submit an article to a publication that is read by a lot of potential customers. It could really showcase what you do. Not only would that make your cold calls easier since those potential customers would have heard of you, it might even lead to a few of them calling you up to hire you, no cold calls required. The upside is huge. And you just can’t seem to get around to writing the article.

You can call yourself a lazy good-for-nothing (which still won’t get that article written), or you can simply make it easier to get started on the article than do anything else.

If the file of research you need to write it is sitting in the file cabinet ten steps from your desk, move the file to the middle of your desk before you go home. That way when you sit down tomorrow you won’t have to take those ten steps to get started. What’s more, you won’t be able to do anything else unless you physically move the file out of your way. That extra effort to move the file out of the way may be enough to tip your brain into thinking that it is easier to just work on the article than do something else.

Of course this isn’t logical, but logic isn’t the issue here. If logic worked, you would have written and submitted that article months ago. Instead, we’re dealing with a different part of the brain, and that part just looks at initial efforts. That’s why lowering the amount of effort it takes to start up the project can get you moving, even though the overall effort—the “real” work of writing that article—remains the same.

Now if moving the file to your desk isn’t enough to get you going on the article, look at other ways to make working on the article easier. Does the thought of toggling back and forth on your computer between the document with your notes in it and the one you are planning to fill with your brilliant article make you sigh? Then print out your notes and put them on your keyboard the night before you plan to work on the article. Again, you will have removed activities that added effort to your project (opening the notes document and toggling back and forth). In addition, you will have to physically move the notes out of your way to do anything else on your computer, adding a step to working on any other project. Working on the article will become that much easier and more convenient than other projects.

You’ll notice that I suggest you move pieces of your project to a more convenient location the night before. When you do that, you allow your willpower reserves to replenish before starting to work on the actual project. This is in addition to lowering the willpower it takes to get started because the pieces of your project are more convenient. So setting yourself up the night before gives you double the benefit for your effort.

Prove it to yourself—pick a project right now

This approach sounds simple and it is. You actually have to do it, however. So pick something you have been avoiding and put it right in front of you, either physically on your desk or virtually on your computer, so that you have to move it to get to anything else tomorrow. If you trip over your project whenever you try to do anything else, you are on the right track. If you manage to avoid your project anyway, make another simple change that makes it even easier and more convenient to get started on the next day.

Eventually, you will have made enough changes that your brain will decide that you might as well work on your project since it’s right there. Then you’ll “just do it” like you’ve been telling yourself for the past three months. In this way you will see how powerful this technique is, you’ll be more likely to remember how to do it the next time you find yourself procrastinating, and—who knows—you may finally get that project off your To Do list.

If this tip plus last week’s tip aren’t quite enough to get you started on a project you’ve been putting off, there is one more technique you can add to end your procrastination easily. I’ll tell you all about it next week!

5 thoughts on “The Easy Way to End Procrastination

  1. I’ve discovered when I do something like this—set up a project to work on it later—I often get started right away. So by making it easier to do later, I made it easier to do now: a double-fake-out, since the only reason I set it up to do later was to ease the guilt of avoiding doing it now.

    Interesting point about willpower, by the way; it seems like the super-achievers in life often display some out-of-character shortcomings (like somebody who seems to have all the answers but can’t control their poor eating habits or something), so maybe I’ll stop feeling guilty and start “budgeting” my willpower more—does that make sense, do you think?

    1. Cudos to you for finding the work around on your own! There is definitely something to making a project easier to do later leading to getting it done now. A caution here, though: don’t start telling yourself you have to make it easier to do tomorrow in order to do it right now or some part of your brain might go back to thinking that it is too much trouble to do all that work. Breaking up the tasks over time, if only in your mind, is important here.

      I totally agree about the importance of budgeting willpower. Being successful in one area does not have to mean you must have huge shortcomings elsewhere, however. A good way to avoid this is to turn an activity that starts out needing willpower into habit. Established habits don’t draw on the willpower reserves, so you can then turn your recovered willpower to fixing those shortcomings.

      And for those who don’t know, this commenter is actually my husband. Hi Bruce!

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