Having Trouble Getting Started?
Strategies to help you stop procrastinating, get unstuck, and stay on track.
Posted Jul 28, 2020
“I don’t have enough time.” “It’s too hard.” “This will take too long.” “I don’t know where to begin.” “I’d rather be doing something else.” “I get distracted by (you name it).”
Many of us struggle with putting things off—procrastination. There is something we want or need to do, and we don’t get to it, even though we know procrastinating isn’t in our best interest.
Beginning something new—a diet, a project, an assignment, an exercise plan, cleaning the closets, looking for a new job—starts with the first step. Psychologist Ellen Langer, Ph.D. (2019) writes that if we take one small step, that step leads to another and eventually even a challenging goal becomes achievable.
Psychologist Timothy Pychl, Ph.D. (2010) explains that procrastination occurs when we delay performing an action even though we know our delay may negatively impact ourselves or others.
Where do you fall on the procrastination continuum?
For some of us, an occasional tendency to avoid a task is not much of a problem. For others, putting things off is a habitual behavior that can interfere greatly with the quality of our personal and professional lives. According to Pychyl (2010), we can start by recognizing our habitual patterns. He suggests writing down the tasks we typically delay, including the associated thoughts and feelings we experience. This process can help us build greater awareness about what we are hoping to accomplish and what’s getting in the way.
When it comes to the habit of procrastinating or changing any habit, we can get remarkable results by making one small shift at a time (Clear, 2011). In the beginning, creating a new habit is more important than actually achieving the goal. Author James Clear recommends aiming for 1% improvement each day. Building toward habits that work for us can involve deciding the kind of people we want to be and then empowering our progress with a series of small wins, one step at a time. As we build new habits, we get unstuck, creating a process that helps us get on track and stay on track toward our objectives.
7 Practical Strategies to Get Unstuck, Get Started, and Stay on Track
1. Any progress is progress. Wrap your brain around the idea that even minimal progress toward a goal, can help you get unstuck and begin forward momentum toward achieving it. Choose one small piece of the goal and get started. Start with low hanging fruit—a task that seems easier to begin with. Even small bits of progress toward a goal can enliven you to feel more positive about the objective and your potential (Sheldon, 2004). And then these small steps—one by one—begin to add momentum toward your objective.
2. Just Start. Once you begin the task you will often discover it’s not as “bad” as you’d anticipated or feared. Sometimes, once you begin, you might wish you’d started sooner creating more time to work. Taking one small step at a time gets the ball rolling down the hill toward completion and accomplishment.
For example, Fred has a project that’s due in one week. He feels stuck and is avoiding the project. Finally, he gets unstuck by taking just the first step.
- Day 1: He creates an electronic file and types a working title, his name, and the date. He congratulates himself on getting started with the first step.
- Day 2: He jots down a few simple ideas—just basic notes to get started. He searches for resources and information on the Web.
- Day 3: He begins a rough draft of the outline and scope of the project. He calls a colleague to get some background information.
- Day 4: He researches a few more ideas and resources.
- Day 5: He composes a rough draft for much of the project and that evening he stops to pick up a treat for dinner.
- Day 6: He edits the draft and emails it to a supportive friend/colleague to take a look and cheer him on.
- Day 7: He finishes the project—and treats himself to a one-hour jog at the beautiful park near his home.
3. You Don’t Have to Like It—Just Do It. To achieve a goal, your current level of motivation does not have to be high. “We can do something even if we don’t feel like it” (Pychyl, 2010). Just beginning the task can positively shift your motivation and attitude.
4. Break Tasks into Smaller, Right-Sized Chunks. Get a reasonable understanding of what’s needed to complete the task effectively and on time. Chunk the steps by making a list of what needs to be done to reach your target.
As you break the task into small, manageable, reasonable steps—be honest about with yourself about what you can accomplish in a particular time frame. Allow yourself relaxation and rewards as you complete steps. Keep track of your progress and adjust tasks and your commitments as needed.
5. Don’t get stuck in fear or trying to make it perfect. Remind yourself to be reasonable about what you expect from yourself, others, and the situation (Brown University, 2008). Gently offer yourself kindness and self-compassion—remember you are human as we all are (Neff, 2011).
6. Think Ahead; Create an If-Then Plan. Prepare ahead for what you’ll do when the going gets tough (Legrand, Bieleke, Gollwitzer & Mignon, 2017; Oettingen & Gollwitzer, 2010).). An if-then plan can stimulate your capacity to overcome challenges and shift “I can’t” and “I don’t want to” toward “I can” and “Yes, I am.”
Automatic contingencies like these examples can help in many situations:
- “If I feel bored when I’m doing this task, then I’ll take a breath, focus my attention, and keep working.”
- “If I want to check my email during the hour, then I will leave my phone off (or turn it off if it’s on), and continue doing my work.”
- “If I feel like I need to eat a sugary snack, then I’ll walk for 10 minutes instead.”
7. Invest in Your Well-Being as You Progress. Remember that your most valuable asset is yourself, so invest some time and energy for self-care to refresh and renew. Renowned leadership expert Stephen Covey (2003) had a wonderful term for this renewal that he called “sharpening the saw.” Taking some time to care for your own well-being can pay off big time to help yourself get unstuck, get started, and stay on track. For example, pay attention to getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthfully, and pausing for a bit of mindfulness/meditation (Walker, 2017; Green, 2002).
This post is for educational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.
Brown University (2018). Overcome Procrastination. Retrieved from https://www.brown.edu/campus-life/support/counseling-and-psychological-services/index.php?q=overcoming-procrastination
Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy and proven way to build good habits and break bad ones. New York, NY: Avery.
Covey, S.R. (2003). The 7 habits of highly effective people: Personal workbook. New, York, NY: Fireside.
Greene, B. (2002). Get with the program: Getting real about your weight, health, and emotional well-being. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Langer, E. (2009). Counter clockwise: Mindful health and the power of possibility. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Legrand, E., Bieleke, M., Gollwitzer, P. M., & Mignon, A. (2017, April 10). Nothing Will Stop Me? Flexibly Tenacious Goal Striving With Implementation Intentions. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/315912581_Nothing_Will_Stop_Me_Flexibly_Tenacious_Goal_Striving_With_Implementation_Intentions [accessed Sep 21, 2018].
Neff, K. (2011). Self Compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY: William Morrow.
Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P.M. (2010). Strategies of setting and implementing goals: Mental contrasting and implementation intention. In J.E. Maddux & J.P. Tangney (Eds.). Social psychological foundations of clinical psychology (114-136). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Pychyl, T. (2010). Solving the procrastination puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for change. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
Sheldon, K. (2004). Optimal human being: An integrated multi-level perspective. New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.