Overcoming Procrastination and Shortening the Distance to Change
Posted on February 9, 2022
How to move out of procrastination and into action
I’ve been procrastinating on writing this article for days. Every time I sit down to write it, I suddenly find a laundry list of other urgent tasks calling my name, from answering emails to tackling a pile of dishes, which suddenly seem irresistible. As the week wears on, my anxiety about tackling the task mounts, until the mere fact of walking by my computer gives my stomach an uncomfortable lurch.
Procrastination and avoidance are common human problems. Many of the leaders I coach spend days, weeks or even months trapped in a pattern of procrastination and avoidance, putting off hard tasks, punting uncomfortable but needed conversations, obsessing over long-held ideas without doing anything, and breaking small or large promises they make to themselves or others.
For these leaders, taking a step of action towards these goals is frequently associated with exposing themselves to the risk of failure, disappointment and dashed hopes. One of the causes of procrastination is the pressure to “get it right.” Waiting for the perfect setting and inspired moment to tackle the biggest challenges, for these leaders, serves as a convenient excuse to never take a step of action at all.
Overcoming procrastination needs a strong resolve on your part. When you wait for the perfect conditions to get moving into action, you’ll never get moving.
Shortening the distance is a philosophy that helps you identify new thoughts and swiftly take a step of action, closing the gap between when you first have an idea and when you put some skin in the game.
As Bill Gates famously said, “People overestimate what can be done in one year and underestimate what can be done in ten.”
How to avoid procrastination? Shortening the distance helps you bypass fear and trick yourself into taking a step of action today, ultimately training you to take back wasted time and move you steadily in the direction you want to go.
There is science that supports this approach: According to a 2013 study by Dr. Timothy Pychyl and Dr. Fuschia Sirois, procrastination is our tendency to privilege our immediate emotional mood repair over our long-term interests. When we prioritize instant gratification, like watching another episode on Netflix instead of writing our article, we think we are helping ourselves feel better, but actually we are delaying a deeper sense of gratification and creating the causes for more self-doubt and anxiety.
Unlike grand sweeping plans that can feel paralyzing in their scope and scale, shortening the distance helps you take one powerful step of action now, in this moment. Write one paragraph now. Send one email now. Research one phone number now. Ask yourself: What is the tiniest brave, bold step you can manage now, and then do it in that moment.
Here are 5 ways to overcome procrastination today and send you well on your way before you know it:
1) Identify where you are stuck. When overcoming procrastination, you need to start by identifying a few areas where you know you want to make change, places you have been avoiding taking action, or promises you have made yourself and others but not followed through. The Consciousness Leadership Group encourages looking at the central question “Is anyone waiting on me for anything?” to help get clear about things you are avoiding or places where you are running out of integrity. Brainstorm a list of items, and start to identify action steps that you could take that would start to move you in the right direction.
2) Take tiny, brave steps. For each action step you initially assign yourself, make it smaller than you think. As coach and writer Martha Beck says, the animal motivational system needs high levels of reinforcement for very small moves. Reduce your action step into something that takes no more than 15 minutes. If you are dreading drafting a presentation for work, today’s step is to open the document and maybe write the first slide. Keep dividing the steps in half until you can easily complete one step at a time without feeling overwhelmed. Remember, overcoming procrastination starts with a single step.
3) Eat the biggest frog first. As Mark Twain once said “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Brian Tracy’s book advises that the first thing to do in a day is to complete your most unwanted task, moving it out of your way and helping you feel confident in your ability to do hard things. In overcoming procrastination, make sure to get clear about the actions you have been avoiding that have carried over from your to-do list week after week, and challenge yourself to tackle them first.
4) Get accountable. Identify a partner to help ensure you follow through on your commitments. Set a date and time for when you will check back in on the progress of your steps. Some great action steps are doing online search, calling a coworker to ask for help, posting on social media to ask for help, putting it on your calendar, signing up online, etc. When overcoming procrastination, the more you can involve other people in your action steps, the more you’ll hold yourself accountable to actually follow through on the step.
5) Offer yourself a reward for doing the hard thing. In an article in the NYT, “in the case of procrastination, we have to find a better reward than avoidance — one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future selves.” Create a list of treats for overcoming procrastination and reward yourself amply for taking steps towards your goal.
Shortening the distance between when you first think of an idea and when you take a first step of action on it is a perfect strategy for when you feel overwhelmed or stuck, as it releases energy with each step you take, inching you outside of your comfort zone one step at a time.
Even in the middle of feeling overwhelmed, these steps can successfully inspire subtle change without costing you extra energy and take you closer to overcoming procrastination. Try assigning yourself a challenge today — the next thing you know, you’ll wake up to see the change you want has already arrived.
Gia Storms is an executive and leadership coach and faculty with the Co-Active Training Institute. She is based in Los Angeles.