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Un-Procrastination: The Next Step

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.  -William James

A couple of weeks ago, I invited you to make an “Unprocrastination List” – a master list of things long procrastinated - and to start tackling it, one thing at a time.  

Completing long procrastinated tasks can free up enormous amounts of energy - the energy that you are currently using to beat yourself up for not having completed those tasks.

But that list sure looks daunting!  Here's how to get past the overwhelm and get going:  chunk it down.

Look at your list and identify the very next step you need to take on each item.  I discovered this technique in David Allen's Getting Things Done book a few years back, and (when I remember to do it), have found it to invaluable for managing projects large and small.  And for things I have procrastinated, it is essential. 

For example,  the first item on my Unprocrastination List was “new pair of pants.”  Now I know that for many people, getting a new pair of pants would be a simple retail transaction.  Go to the store, take a pair off of the rack, and go pay for them.   But I have trouble finding pants that fit and flatter, and can try on 20 pairs and not find any I like.   I had been thinking about getting a tailor to make me a pair using my favorite (now battered) pair, but dreaded both the cost and the thought of parting with my pants for a week or two.  What would I wear then? 

So, on my list, I identified the next step as “call the tailor and get a cost and time estimate.”  But then I realized that that wasn’t the very next step.  The very  next step – the first step toward completion of this project – was to look up the phone number of the tailor.  So I did that right then (2 minutes on the Internet) and wrote it on The List.  The next step was to call the tailor.  I procrastinated that until the following day. ;-) 

I called the tailor and found out that the cost was much more reasonable than I had imagined.  The next step was to go to the fabric store to buy the material.  Done when I had a chance to shop, two days later.  Next was to take the fabric and my current pants to the tailor, which had to wait a week because that was the first opportunity I had to get there during the hours they are open.  Then I had to wait another week – not because I was procrastinating, but because the tailor’s daughter had a baby.  Remember that there is a difference between delay and procrastination. 

I invite you to take a moment right now to identify the very next step for each item on your Unprocrastination List.  Then when you have a free moment, you can scan the list and tick off one of the “next steps.”  Instead of a big chore, you’ll have one small task to complete.  Slow and steady wins the race.  This will also allow you to bunch errands that can be efficiently done together, rather than going to the office supply store to get folders and realizing after you get there that the dry cleaner is right next door and your dry cleaning is back at home.

So:  what’s the next step?

P.S.   If you've been procrastinating taking a One Hour Retreat, do it before you tackle the other items on your Un-Procrastination List! 

Retreat from Procrastination

It turns out that we can blame our propensity to procrastinate on biology. 

So you’re not a lazy slug – you are the victim of your genes!  Blame it on your limbic system.  An article in the April issue of Real Simple magazine reports that scientists have found that the limbic system, which is the part of the brain that kicks in to cause you to flee from dangerous circumstances, also kicks in to cause you to flee from unpleasant tasks. 

Because the limbic system operates on autopilot, it often wins out against the more deliberate pre-frontal cortex.  The pre-frontal cortex is the part of your brain that can review all of the data and make conscious and wise decisions.  Like, for instance, “if I do the dishes right now, it’ll only take 5 minutes, but if I wait three days, it will take me 15 minutes to scrub off that caked-on gunk and another 20 to do the rest of the dishes that have accumulated.”  Or, as another, more important, example, “if I keep up with my annual health screenings, I'll be much more likely to avoid major health problems down the road."

The Real Simple article includes seven ideas for by-passing the procrastination response and tricking yourself into productivity.  The one that caught my eye – and the one I had never heard before -  was to “plan an unprocrastination day.”  A Real Simple editor and one of her friends cooked up this idea, and spent an entire day (9am to 7pm) doing errands they had long put off. 

While the concept of unprocrastination intrigued me, the idea of devoting a whole day to the dreaded tasks sounded like cruel and unusual punishment, even with the support of a friend. But after reading this article, the idea of unprocrastination  took hold and wouldn’t let go.  So I decided to make my own Unprocrastination List, and just tackle a few a week.    The Unprocrastination List is different than a to-do list.  For one thing, I don't have any intention of doing them all today, or even this week.  For another, I'll stop transferring them from day to day (month to month, year to year....) on my other lists.  I'll just matter of factly tackle one or two at at time, one step at a time.  It’s only been a couple of weeks, but I’ve already ticked a few things off my Unprocrastination List, and made progress on others. 

Perhaps more importantly, I’m more conscious of not procrastinating things in the first place. So today, as I was about to sit down and buff up this article, I remembered that I had a couple of higher priority things to do first.  They weren’t nearly as fun as writing, but they had a higher value in the grand scheme.  My first thought was to do this article first and then do the other things “later.”  Then the irony of that hit me – I was about to procrastinate some non-urgent but important tasks to write an article about avoiding procrastination.  The complete absurdity of that engaged my pre-frontal cortex (and my funny bone), and  I am pleased to report that I "unprocrastinated" the most important things, and completed them.  And then wrote this post.    

What can you unprocrastinate?  Play with that idea over the next few weeks and see where it leads....

For more tips on avoiding procrastination, see .  Or get the April issue of Real Simple magazine if you want more background in the brain science behind the tips.

I’ll be posting some of my own tips soon.  Feel free to share your best unprocrastination tips in the comments box below.

Note to readers:  I’m finding the retreat theme to be a bit “one-note” and I suspect you may be too.  So I will be broadening the scope of this blog to include thoughts on some of those things in life that cause us to want to retreat, and tips and techniques to help us carry the benefits of retreat back out into our daily lives.