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Procrastination grease: tricks for unsticking stuck tasks

Over the years I’ve come across a lot of different approaches for reducing procrastination on tasks. The advice is great, but there’s too much to remember, so I’ve compiled the most useful ideas into a list for easy reference. If I’ve got a particularly stubborn task on my to-do list, I can find a good technique from those here.

I’ll give you the list first for reference, then talk you through them.

 Techniques for dissipating procrastination

  • Eliminate the irrelevant
  • Schedule the exclusive
  • Declare the undecided
  • Get up early for the energetic
  • Limit the lengthy
  • Isolate the involved
  • Train for the technical
  • Clarify the unclear
  • Chunk down the complex
  • Outwit the unwinnable
  • Restrict the relentless
  • Draft the daunting
  • Relax the rigorous
  • Foretell the fearful
  • Delegate the dangerous
  • Get consensus for the contentious
  • Contrast the uncompelling
  • Connect with the indirect
  • Modify the mindless
  • Inspire the insipid
  • Reward the repugnant
  • Reframe the reprehensible
  • Defy the delayed


Eliminate the irrelevant

Sometimes we hang on to tasks because we feel committed to them but the outcome is no longer relevant, or our approach is no longer appropriate. Should I really still be trying to complete my collection of Panini football stickers from the Euro ’96 tournament? A bit of honest appraisal keeps this in check.

Schedule the exclusive

Tasks that require us to be somewhere special or prevent us from doing anything else at the same time can benefit from scheduling. With these tasks we’re committing to not doing anything else, as much as we are to the task itself.

You just need to tell people that you’re unavailable, you don’t need to explain it’s because you’re knitting yourself some rainbow coloured toe socks.

Declare the undecided

When we haven’t truly committed to tasks we defer them. The easiest way to commit to decisions is to make them public and have other people hold us accountable. This is incredibly potent. Peer pressure may have led to some tragic fashion decisions in college, but that’s no reason it can’t be put to good use now.

Get up early for the energetic

We’re at our mental and physical peak at certain times of the day and sluggish at others. We can recognise when this is, and capitalise on it to tackle tough tasks. I have a tendency to prioritise important but easy tasks for the morning, leaving challenging, slightly less important work for later in the day when I have less energy to focus on it. It takes a deliberate effort to fight this impulse.

Limit the lengthy

Committing to doing a task for just five minutes is a great way to lower resistance. Procrastination often melts away as soon as work begins. This is the technique that I use most frequently.

Isolate the involved

Some tasks require a lot of preparation and clean up, which can contribute to procrastination. You can deal with this by doing the preparation separately, or find ways to eliminate those elements altogether.

Train for the technical

This seems somewhat obvious, but plenty of seemingly difficult tasks can be rendered simple with a little research and training. YouTube videos can be brilliant for this. Also good for videos of cats dressed as people.

Clarify the unclear

This is the cornerstone of Getting Things Done by David Allen. If you can’t clearly picture what you should be doing, you can’t start it. Projects need both clear intended outcomes and first steps. Sometimes we misidentify the first step and put ‘paint the wall’ on our to-do list, when we really should put ‘buy paint and brushes’.

Chunk down the complex

This relates closely to the point on clarity. Working out the mid-steps of a project can be a double edged sword because seeing all the tasks laid out together can be very daunting. I like the horizon planning approach from On the Seventh Day by Ian Gouge. Define the broad steps of your project, adding detail as you get closer to starting each one.

Outwit the unwinnable

Motivation falls off quickly when we doubt our ability to successfully complete a project. For some problems, there are no obvious solutions. Getting help or taking the time to brainstorm potential fixes can clear the way.

Restrict the relentless

There are big projects and then there are long term and even lifelong projects. These require insane levels of commitment. If you phrase the question as ‘am I prepared to sacrifice twenty minutes every day for the next five years’, the answer will always be ‘no’. In this case we need to divorce the behaviour from the long term outcome.

Making an initial commitment short, temporary and focused on fun gives you the chance to build habits that can last lifetimes.

Draft the daunting

This is the ‘shitty first draft’ method from Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. You can free yourself from perfectionist impulses and fear of failure by committing to working on a rough draft, rather than a final version.

Relax the rigorous

When we dream up our own projects we can over-engineer them, creating an unnecessary amount of work for ourselves when often a simpler solution would be perfectly fine. Asking questions like: ‘how would I do this if I only had a day to do it’ can uncover more achievable approaches.

Foretell the fearful

Worst case scenario planning can ease anxiety. When you actually think through your fears and consider how you could deal with them, they become manageable. I also find it helpful to look beyond the task to what I will be doing later the same day, this helps remind me that the discomfort is temporary.

Delegate the dangerous

If you can’t mitigate the risk of a task to a point where you’re able to tackle it, it’s a good candidate to outsource.

Get consensus for the contentious

We resist doing work that will upset, undermine or antagonise other people. This can be mitigated by getting them to buy into our point of view or preparing to ask for forgiveness.

I like the question ‘are they one of the ten people who will be crying at your funeral?’. It makes you consider how much the opinions of others should really matter to you. Naturally this assumes that ten people will be crying at your funeral and not dancing with joy or trying to pry out your gold filings without the vicar noticing.

Contrast the uncompelling

Irritation is a vastly underrated productivity tool. I’m likely to clean or tidy if I’ve hit a point where the mess is really starting to bug me. An easy way to get this to happen is to take a good close look at the mess and picture how nice things would be if it were cleared away. By flicking between thinking about a nice clean kitchen and looking at the hygiene blackspot in my house, I can push myself to a point where I’m prepared to put on the hazmat suit and start scrubbing at whatever lurks in the sink.

Connect with the indirect

Some work is important but doesn’t impact you directly. The best way to tackle this is to make it personal by talking to the people it does affect.

Modify the mindless

Deciding to listen to a podcast or watch a certain show whilst doing a specific mindless activity can give it enough pull to bypass procrastination.

Inspire the insipid

For almost every task, there are people who are passionate about it and take pride in it. Passion is contagious and taking the time to look for inspiration is something we could all do a little more of.

Reward the repugnant

Setting yourself a challenge with a deadline and reward can be incredibly effective, but it is best used sparingly and on mindless tasks. Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels is a great guide to positive reinforcement.

Reframe the reprehensible

This is a harder issue to spot, but sometimes the outcome of a project can seem to contradict your values or self-perception. Ask yourself which of your values the project appears to conflict with, then come up with reasons that the opposite is really true.

Defy the delayed

Constantly thinking in terms of next steps can catch us in a mindset of just doing the minimum required to get something off our desk, rather than getting it closer to being done. We can be secretly happy with delays, when in reality, we could send an email today rather than wait to ask a question in person.

By asking ourselves ‘what can I do today to make real progress on this?’ we can challenge whether a delay is a genuine reason to side-line a project.

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