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Can’t Get Started? Can’t Catch Up?

Six ways to get going on that project you’ve been avoiding.

Anna*, a college sophomore, could not get a handle on her schoolwork. “I’m always behind, and just can’t catch up,” she said. “I can’t make myself get started on anything on time. If I would just start on a paper when the professor gives the assignment, for example, I’d be fine. But somehow I always end up waiting till the day before it’s due, and then I stay up all night to finish it.”

Liam*, a young law clerk, says much the same thing. “I keep putting off getting started. Once I’m doing something, I don’t have a problem with it, except that I never have enough time to do the job I really wanted to do, because I start everything late.”

Rob*, a businessman and father of two small children, complains because he keeps putting off going out to run. “If I would just put on my clothes and get myself outside, I’d do it and it would be over. But I waste time, and then I never get out, or I go for a short run when I could have had a long one.”

Janine*, a 39-year-old working mom, wants to get rid of her leftover pregnancy fat. But she cannot get herself to diet. “I start every day with a food plan. But I end everyday overeating. I know I would feel so much better if I could just lose 10 pounds. What’s the problem here?”

Why do we put things off, when it would be so much better and, ultimately, easier, to just go ahead and get them out of the way?

Research suggests that we put things off for a very simple reason: the delay makes us feel better in the short term. Even when we logically understand that we will feel much better after we’ve accomplished whatever goal we’re aiming for — whether it’s to finish a work project, lose weight, or write out a toast for a friend’s wedding (or even our own wedding vows) — we give in to procrastination in order to feel good in the here and now.

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University, in Ottawa, who has a terrific blog about procrastination on the PT website and has written numerous books and articles on the topic, explains something that has puzzled many of my clients, who tell me that they do their best work at the last minute. While we understand that they are putting off something that makes them anxious, they also tell me that they finally can only get started on a task when the deadline is close enough to make them anxious. Dr. Pychyl says that anxiety is an important motivator, so deadlines get them going!

What they don’t count into the equation is the cost of the anxiety of putting something off. Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at the University of Sheffield, in England, has been researching some of these costs. Chronically putting things off can lead to depression, low self-esteem, and may even contribute to physical illness.

Recent studies by Alexander Rozental, a clinical psychologist and doctoral student at Stockholm University, who is conducting ongoing research into the topic, have found that impulsiveness can be one of the problems for anyone who has difficulty getting started and staying on track with a difficult project. If you are easily distracted by your email, text messages, or phone, or even by a sudden thought that takes you in a different direction, you may struggle with the kind of impulsive behavior that interferes with your motivation. An impulse to eat a forbidden food “right now” can make it hard to stick to a long-term goal to lose weight. And a sudden thought of another task that you’ve been putting off can divert you from getting going on a task you have set yourself.

So what can you do?

1. Set your goal. Keep it clear, specific, and realistic. For instance, if you want to lose 10 pounds, don’t expect yourself to do it in two weeks. Steve Mueller who blogs about getting motivated to study suggests that you write your goal down. He says be careful to avoid vagueness, so make your goal as clear as possible. He also suggests that you refrain from negotiating with yourself. Your goal is your goal is your goal.

2. Review your goal, and then break it down into smaller pieces. Leo Babauta who blogs about overcoming a slump says, “Whenever I’ve been in a slump, I’ve discovered that it’s often because I have too much going on in my life. I’m trying to do too much.” To counteract the inertia that goes along with being overwhelmed, Leo says to choose just one single goal.

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That’s often harder than it seems, because if you’re really busy and generally overwhelmed by everything you need to do, probably the minute you choose one goal you start to think of all of the other things that you’re leaving undone. But be tough. If you get this one thing done, you’ll be able to move on from there and do something else. But if you try to do everything, it’s harder to recognize what you’ve finished. You’ll probably end up dissatisfied with yourself and feeling like you didn’t accomplish anything by the end of the day.

3. Start small. Small steps get you to your destination. Jane, who blogs about getting motivated, says, “Ask yourself — What is the smallest action step I can take that will move me towards completing this task?”

That means you might need to break your tasks down into smaller goals in order to make them manageable. Steve Mueller suggests that you “split complex goals into main targets and sub-goals.” Specialists in motivation and procrastination call this “partializing.” Peter Drucker, who wrote the classic book The Effective Executive, long before the age of the internet, says that it is crucial to know the maximum time that you can work efficiently on a particular goal. It may only be half an hour. It’s better, he says, to stop then and come back to it again later.

4. Reward yourself for accomplishing the small tasks. This may mean giving yourself a break to go for a walk or get a cup of coffee. It might mean calling a friend to get some positive reinforcement. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with needing such feedback. There’s a small child in each and every one of us, seeking confirmation and affirmation. The nice thing about being an adult is that we can offer some of that positive feedback to ourselves, but we can also ask for it from someone else.

5. When you slide backward (and you will!) start over again. And if you are having trouble starting again, take some time to figure out what is interfering with your getting started. Look for the mental and physical barriers.

Physical barriers: Let’s start with physical: are you trying to work in a noisy space with lots of foot traffic? Is your desk cluttered with distracting or disruptive reminders of other things you need to be doing? Are you constantly checking email, texts, ims, or the internet? Is your phone ringing all the time?

One client told me that she always cleaned up her work area before she got started on any project. “It looks like I’m procrastinating to some people,” she said, “but actually it’s the way I get into the mindset to do the work.” She always got her projects finished on time.

But some of us have difficulties stopping the preparation once we get started, which means that we cannot move onto the actual activity. If this is a problem for you, you might need professional help managing your distractibility or your difficulty focusing.

Mental barriers: Are you having trouble thinking small? Cut your goals in half, and maybe even in half again. And then focus on a specific task, one that you can accomplish in a short time. Peter Drucker also says that in order to be effective you have to cut out extraneous interruptions — in those days that meant phone calls and collegial drop-ins. Today it can mean making yourself turn off the computer, your phone, and any other outside connections for a period of time. If this feels next to impossible, start small. Do it for half an hour. And see what you accomplish during that time period. Maybe then you can do it for a little longer next time.

6. Talk with someone. Dr. Rozental’s initial research suggests that talking with someone who can help you stay on track can be very useful. This may be a therapist, or a counselor, or even a friend with whom you set up a buddy system — you check in with her when you are feeling the impulse to go off track, and she does the same with you. Being responsible to another person can help, especially if that person focuses you on the first four steps. If you still cannot do it on your own, Dr. Pychyl says, you are not alone. Therapy can help you break old patterns and start new ones. Getting started in therapy can be a first step toward getting started in other parts of your life!

*Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy.


Other readings:

Sirois, F.M. Is procrastination a vulnerability factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease? Testing an extension of the procrastination–health model J Behav Med (2015) 38: 578. doi:10.1007/s10865-015-9629-2

Rozental, A., Forsström, D., Almquist Tangen, J., & Carlbring, P. (2015). Experiences of undergoing Internet-based cognitive behavior therapy for procrastination: A qualitative study. Internet Interventions, 2(5), 314-322. doi: 10.1016/j.invent.2015.05.001

Timothy A. Pychyl: Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change

Timothy A. Pychy:

Steve Mueller:

Leo Babauta:…


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