10 simple tips on how to avoid procrastination

As is often said “a job started is a job half finished”. This phrase very succinctly highlights how pivotal starting a task is to crossing it off your to do list. Having personally experienced many occasions of procrastination – delaying or postponing a task despite knowing that there will be negative consequences for doing so – I thought I would share my ten top tips from both experience and the literature on effectively moving from thought to action.

  1. Understand your why: self awareness is key to many aspects of self development including enhancing productivity. The next time you notice you have been delaying a task, ask yourself why?. Any particular thought or pattern, conscious or unconscious, take note – once you have awareness, you have the ability to change! If you are struggling to get started on a project, consider the reasons. Is this a must do task?, is it going to create value?. Of course, not all tasks are in our control and many have to be completed irrespective of our own desire. However, if they are by choice and we are delaying starting them, are they really necessary or indeed the right tasks?
  2. Leverage your biology: probably one of the most effective ways of avoiding procrastination is to schedule tasks at a time when you are most energetic and motivated. Through the night the hormone cortisol gradually increases to the point where it assists in our awakening and getting on with the day, gradually reducing through the day. Although often referred to as the “stress hormone”, this molecule is essential for action, therefore having a difficult talk in the morning can be far easier. Other helpful tips for raising helpful hormones like dopamine are waking up at the same time every day and also getting into daylight as soon as possible after waking, as this supports our circadian rhythm (the body’s 24 hour clock).
  3. Warm up first: Contrary to some of the advice, I personally don’t believe doing the hardest thing first is always helpful. Like a singer warming their vocals before going on stage, tackling a few smaller, easier tasks and getting into the swing can be a great warm up to the bigger more complex projects. 
  4. Plan to be productive: taking a little time at the beginning of the day to plan and note down your six key objectives can be very effective in keeping focus and staying on track. I have often heard that the first 30 minutes of the day can predict the outcome of the following hours you’re awake and can be the difference between operating like a thermostat rather than a thermometer, setting the temperature of your day rather than being constantly changed by the environment. Build these into the diary. 
  5. Environment: your surroundings are a major contributor to either procrastination or productivity. Removing potential distractions like mobile phones or other devices, which as we all know have been cleverly designed to attract our attention. Bear in mind that it isn’t just the time taken with the distraction but the thinking time the distracting steels from us in both time and mental energy. Finding an appropriate place to focus is important and being aware of the environment that radiates rather than drains focus is essential.
  6. Clear the cache: we have an amazing ability to store information in our short term memory which has a habit of constantly reminding us, particularly when we are trying to focus, send an email, pick the children up, buy the vegetables on the way home etc… Have a pad on your desk and jot down all the to dos, clearing that mental space and allow yourself time to come back to them after you have designated time to the task in hand. 
  7. Mind your language: how we communicate to ourselves and others is probably one of the most important aspects to avoiding procrastination. As Professor Steven Peters points out in his book the Chip Paradox, we have different parts of the brain which are often communicating different messages. The prefrontal lobe, often referred to as the executive functioning part of the brain, which communicates logical and rational reasoning like “I must start this task in order to meet the completion time scale; and also  the other part of the brain, “the chimp” the limbic part,  which is the more primitive part and acts instinctively based on feelings and emotions that says “nah, you’ve got plenty of time go and enjoy yourself or check your emails”. Studys have shown that adopting a more affirming internal and external dialogue has a big effect on action; like, “When I set a time for a task I always start it”, “I don’t move my gym session when I have booked it”. This can be applied to those around you, letting friends, family or colleagues know that you are going to do a task and require their support can be helpful in setting the expectation of starting and completing of a task.
  8. Just one thing: for me personally this is the most effective tip, breaking down every task into simple, easy, steps. With every task I start with “what is the just one thing I can do to start” and these should take no more than five minutes. For example, in starting this article I simply opened up my laptop, opened a Google word doc, named and saved the file. This action took less than 30 seconds but was the “just one thing” that prompted me to then add a few words that eventually resulted in the article that you are now reading. This can be applied to every task, like tidying a room by starting with one corner, or making the bed, putting a few clothes away, even tasks like going to the gym or a run can be broken down into placing your trainers by the front door. The “just one thing” is the momentum of moving the heavy rock into a fast rolling boulder!  
  9. The Hemingway trick: I love this and use it all the time; named after the celebrated writer and Nobel prize winner, Ernest Hemingway, this is a useful technique for creative writing projects. Hemingway would deliberately leave his writing unfinished but with the knowledge of knowing what he was going to write next, making it easy and motivational to return to with energised creativity. I used this tip with this article, finishing writing mid flow rather than completing it and found it provided a sense of excitement in getting back to the writing often with better and more considered ideas and amendments. I do note down some key words before finishing to help me remember my train of thought.
  10. Change your state to “just do it”. The principle which is synonymous with the Nike brand sounds too simplistic but sometimes simplicity is most effective. Many tasks start with some thought, which provokes emotion and feeling which leads to behavior or action equaling an outcome. This tip is about removing the thought and emotion and moving straight to action. I take a cold shower everyday, the benefits of cold therapy are many (see my resource of cold therapy at simonrobertscoaching.com) but if I gave this task some thought my chimp, which we referred to earlier, would highlight all the reasons why I should a have a nice well deserved hot shower. I know the benefits of cold therapy, I feel the benefit after, it requires no further thought, so just do it!


Hemingway Trick: Jessica Stillman, contributed, Inc.com

Stolen Focus: Johann Hari

The Chimp Paridox: Professor Steven Peters 

Andrew Huberman: Hubermanlab.com

Eat That Frog: Brian Tracy 

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