It’s human nature to procrastinate — but it can be devastating for your future goals if you continually procrastinate on projects that are important but not urgent. In this article, the author offers five strategies to overcome procrastination on ambiguous but essential tasks: 1) Get clear on the vision. 2) Identify concrete steps. 3) Take (small) action. 4) Create forcing functions. 5) Limit competing distractions.
Every professional occasionally drags their feet on certain projects. It’s easy to put off tedious tasks, like filing expense reports, or emotionally draining ones, like writing up a negative employee performance review. Indeed, research has shown that procrastination — rather than being a moral failing or sign of laziness — is actually a subconscious strategy to avoid negative emotions.
One of the most common reasons we procrastinate is that certain projects may feel ambiguous or amorphous. We become overwhelmed because we just aren’t sure what to do or where to start, leading to “task paralysis.” As I discuss in my book The Long Game, that can derail our efforts to make progress on long-term goals, even while we fill our time with what we recognize as comparatively trivial matters. If you find yourself repeatedly ignoring a particular line item on your to-do list, even when it may be critical for your future success, here are five things you can do.
Get clear on the vision.
Especially if a particular project has been handed to you by a manager or colleague — “write this grant proposal” or “research this opportunity” — it may be unclear what they’re actually looking for. Do they want a 20-page deep dive or a one-page summary? An analysis you can present to the board or your quick take? In the midst of our “freeze response,” we may not even realize we’re unclear on the scope, so it’s important to go back to first principles. What, precisely, are you being asked to do? What is the desired output, and how long do you estimate it will take? Clarifying the intention can often help get us unstuck.
Identify concrete steps.
Even when you’re clear on the vision — or if you’re pursuing your own — it may not be self-evident how to get to your desired destination. Especially if you’re tackling something you’ve never done before (such as launching a new product), you may have a to-do list brimming with possible activities, but feel uncertain which are the most critical, or in what order to pursue them. (Conduct focus groups? Develop a prototype? Create a marketing plan? Test a pricing strategy?)
In those situations, it’s useful to speak with colleagues who have done something similar in the past. If that’s not an option, you might consider hiring a consultant with relevant expertise or carefully studying and reverse-engineering what others in your field have done in the past. You don’t have to mirror their moves exactly — your innovations may turn out to improve on the norm — but being aware of past best (and worst) practices can help you develop an initial plan and make conscious choices about where you’d like to deviate.
Take (small) action.
Ambiguous projects — because they’re unclear — often feel enormous, so it makes sense they often get pushed to the back of the line. But as Stanford professor BJ Fogg has noted, taking even a tiny action creates positive momentum that makes it easier to complete the full task (just as flossing one tooth makes you realize it’s not much more effort to floss your entire mouth, writing one paragraph of a progress report can propel you along into finishing it). Identifying a task you can accomplish, even if it’s not the most strategic (such as sending an email or fixing the layout on a presentation deck), may disrupt your inertia and make it feel easier to return to the task in the future.
Create forcing functions.
If you’ve been procrastinating, it’s probably clear that willpower alone won’t suffice to motivate you (“I’ll definitely make it happen this Thursday”). Instead, build in “forcing functions” for yourself to ensure your compliance. Just as hiring a personal trainer quasi-guarantees better exercise compliance (you’ve already paid for the session and it would be rude to stand them up at the gym), you can set up accountability mechanisms for yourself, like scheduling a weekly check-in with your manager or a trusted colleague.
You can even choose to virtually “cowork” with others to stay accountable for your progress on a given day; participants announce what they’ll be working on at the outset of a session and report back at the end. You can also create your own “rules” to keep you moving forward. In the past, when I’ve been on deadline, I would occasionally hole up at a café (so that being hungry or thirsty was no excuse) and wouldn’t permit myself to leave until I’d finished.
Limit competing distractions.
As humans, our minds are wired to seek out dopamine hits, including the “thrill” of reading and responding to messages that hit our inbox and scrolling through new social media posts. No one thinks this is actually productive, yet it’s devilishly hard for most of us to resist. Even if you’ve taken the steps above to facilitate your work on a given project, it’s still easy to be lured away, so it’s important to proactively limit the distractions you face. Otherwise, you’ll always be tempted to choose the quick hit of crossing off a minor to-do item (ordering your sandwich for the lunch meeting or checking to see how many LinkedIn connection requests you’ve received), rather than diving into messier (and more amorphous) tasks that are meaningful.
Experiment to see what works for you; you might try keeping your phone in another room, using software to limit your access to certain websites, or even using a computer that’s not connected to the Internet in order to make progress on in-depth writing projects.
It’s human nature to procrastinate — but the stakes vary widely. While it’s suboptimal to let your inbox fester or delay filling out certain administrative forms, it can be devastating for your future goals if you continually procrastinate on projects that are important but not urgent. By following these strategies to overcome procrastination on ambiguous but essential tasks, you can become a better long-term thinker — and doer.