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« Welcoming problems as friends | Main | Time Freedom: The Black Cloud Hunt »

Overcome Procrastination with Checklists

One of the reasons many of us have a tendency to procrastinate over big projects is that we always look at the project as a whole. For example we are given a major report to complete by the end of the month and it will take about five days’ intensive work to write. Every time we think about the report we get oppressed by the thought of all that hard work. And naturally this makes us reluctant to begin.

Even if we do begin the report we can’t claim to have succeeded until we have finished it. So however far we get with it we are still oppressed by the remaining work. And it’s only after we have struggled through the five days’ intensive work (or more likely thirty days’ procrastinating and two days’ frantic last-minute effort) that we can chalk up a success and cross that report off our list of current projects.

However even the longest and most difficult task only consists of a series of smaller tasks, which taken individually are easily achievable. So the way to overcome our natural tendency to procrastinate is to break a big task down into smaller tasks. The more we are resisting the project as a whole the smaller we should make the tasks.

The best way to do this is to write a checklist of the actions that need to be done. And always make the first item in the checklist “Write checklist”. That way you know you have an easy first step to give yourself a good start!

Usually with a checklist it’s best to confine yourself to the actions that you can do now. Planning the entire project may in itself be too threatening to allow you to get started. So write down the simple actions that you can take today to get the project moving.

So with the major report, I mentioned above your checklist might go something like this:

Write checklist
Jot down main headings of report
List people I need to contact
Check final completion date
Block off time in diary
Write checklist for action tomorrow

This has taken you a whole lot further than what we usually do when faced with a project like this, which is to sit around doing nothing except wonder how we are going to find enough time to get it done!

As soon as you have written the six lines contained in this checklist you can chalk up your first success by crossing off the first item “Write checklist”. By the time you have completed all six steps, none of which are difficult, I can promise you that the project will suddenly be looking much less threatening. In fact you might even be feeling optimistic about it and be raring to get moving on the steps contained in the second day’s list!

One point to note: Sometimes you may come to an item in your checklist which you haven’t made small enough with the result that you find yourself resisting it. If this happens simply break it down further with a sub-checklist. The secret of writing checklists is always to break things down until the next item you have to do is small enough for you to feel no resistance to doing it.

Reader Comments (3)

I read this article yesterday and wanted to post a comment, but didn't get around to it. :)

Today though, I made a checklist:

- Write checklist
- Open web browser
- Visit this page
- Write my nickname in the Author field
- Enter my email address (optional)
- Give my website address (also optional)
- Think of a witty, insightful or relevant comment
- Write it in the box
- Preview the post
- Make corrections as necessary
- Submit the post

It hasn't helped me complete any of my major life goals, but it still makes me feel like I've achieved something, and some days that's all it takes to get me moving again!
April 27, 2007 at 11:45 | Unregistered CommenterSurferbill

I especially appreciated these comments:

"The secret of writing checklists is always to break things down until the next item you have to do is small enough for you to feel no resistance to doing it."

"Usually with a checklist it’s best to confine yourself to the actions that you can do now."

Thanks for this post.


P.S. Mark, I'd like to hand this article out to my interns: would you mind? And, if so, what type of credit/signature box would you like me to use?

December 13, 2007 at 20:42 | Unregistered CommenterLee
Tiny tweak; if I'm running down my AF list and I come across an entry that's too big or intimidating then rather than putting a dot I put an '->' (arrow) to the right of the entry as a prompt that this entry needs a checklist creating. I suppose one might call it a tool for intimidation diffusion. When the checklist is done I then notice which step is then the most intimidating.

So, step 1. accept that when you avoid taking action, you’re really avoiding pain
Step 2. notice the avoidant behaviour
Step 3. visualise the pain you’re avoiding as a black cloud in front of you. Notice how you’re fed up with the ways in which this pain has held you back in life, and tell yourself that you’re determined to conquer it

We avoid every task for the same reason: Taking action will cause us a certain amount of unpleasant feeling - fear, shame, vulnerability, and so on. The aim is to transform that feeling to one of feeling challenged but not frozen.
November 23, 2013 at 10:48 | Unregistered Commentermichael

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