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What are the two steps for beating procrastination right *now*?

 

Get the silly ideas out of your head: No, you won’t do better work by procrastinating. And you will not have more time next week. In fact, leaving things unfinished makes you stupid.

Reviewing the research on procrastination, there are two successful strategies that stand out:

  1. Dashes
  2. Commitment Devices

What are those and how can you use them to get stuff done on time?

 

Dashes

“…a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute.”

A big part of procrastination is dread. The task seems terrible and overwhelming. And that’s the first issue that needs attacking: those feelings.

By breaking the problem down into smaller chunks — even comically small ones that require only 1 minute of activity — and doing just that one little thing, you prove to yourself the task isn’t insurmountable.

The most motivating thing in the world is progress. Any trivial progress can motivate and boost positive emotions that will help build a productive momentum.

So this sounds good in theory but you’re probably thinking: what’s that first step and won’t that be horribly, horribly painful? For any procrastinated task, first thing is to take one minute and just write down the steps you need to do to finish the task:

I tell myself that I will merely write down the steps needed to complete the task. Just a rough draft, at first, and that’s it. Maybe just 3 steps. I then add more steps, breaking the 3 steps into smaller sub-tasks. I then add some details, and thoughts, notes of things that I shouldn’t forget when doing this task. I just think the task through and write everything down. After a little while, I will be a proud author of “The Complete Guide To Finishing Task X for Dummies”.

And:

Now, for some unknown reason, when there is nothing else to think about, and there is no way to screw this task up, because everything is laid out in front of me, I just start working on the task automatically. I might do just the first baby micro-step at first, but that’s OK. It follows to the next, and to the next, and before I know it, the task is finished.

This should be enough to kill negative emotions, build some momentum and get you going.

But what if it’s not? Enter Commitment Devices.

 

Commitment Devices

You know that rewards and punishments can be effective in building good behavior. You also know that if you were that disciplined with rewards and punishments you probably wouldn’t have a problem with procrastination…

This theory can still be the backbone of a very effective strategy — once you take that pesky “you” out of the equation.

Give your friend $100. If you get the task done by 5PM, you get your $100 back. If it doesn’t, you lose the $100.

Or make it $200.

Or make it $200 that the friend doesn’t keep — they donate it to the KKK or NAMBLA in your name.

Get the picture? That’s a commitment device.

This strategy has been successfully used for weight loss, to reduce spending, etc, etc.

The most important thing is the default position. You can’t say “I will give them $200 if I fail.” No, you give the $200 first. The default is: they have your money. You want it back? Get the task done on time.

No close friends you trust with your money? Try stickk.com.

 

The Combo

1) Establish your commitment device. Send your friend that money, your most cherished possession or whatever has the most painful downside you can think of. The default position must be that you’re already screwed and need to un-screw yourself.

2) Take one minute (use a timer if you like) and write out the steps needed to beat the problem. This should help you get past the negative emotions and start building momentum. If not, it definitely showed that you can do one minute of work. So take a break and next time do two minutes and make the list of steps more detailed, breaking it down into even smaller, stupidly easy steps. Momentum yet? Well you can definitely do three minutes and tackle the stupidy easy first step on there…

 

But What If…

Executed properly, this gets most people where they need to be. But…

Maybe you still blow it. What should you do then?

The research has a good answer: Forgive yourself. Otherwise the dread and negative feelings grow and you create a vicious circle. So remember that procrastinating is not the end of the world. (Even procrastination researchers have a sense of humor about it.)

 

The Final Trick

You’ll succeed every time if you keep one rule in mind:

If the dashes aren’t working, they’re not short and easy enough. If the commitment devices aren’t working, they’re not big and scary enough.

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About Eric Barker