Procrastination can have multiple root causes but a common reason is simply feeling overwhelmed by the task at hand. It might be that we magnify the task in our minds so that a molehill ends up feeling mountain-sized. Or perhaps the task really does feel like a mountain. What can you do? Have you ever heard the question “How do you eat an elephant?” The answer is “One bite at a time.” (Why an elephant, I have no idea except that this is a really large animal!)
In the case of a upsized molehill, one thing you can do is commit to a specific action or a specific amount of time working on the issue. For example, let’s say you’ve got 3 months’ worth of mail piled up on a table. Every time you bring in the mail, the pile gets a little bigger, you feel terrible, and it seems like an even more impossible task to get on top of. In this case, you make a commitment to yourself. The commitment might be two parts: 1) each time I bring the mail in, I will immediately look through it and throw away all the junk and 2) after I have done this, I will spend 5 minutes working through the mail on the table.
This sounds really modest, doesn’t it? Part one, discarding junk mail immediately, minimizes the continued growth of the mail pile so that the task doesn’t continue to grow more daunting each week. Part two makes the task of going through the entire pile of 3 months’ worth of mail something that can be accomplished but not in one massive session. Just about all of us could commit to five minutes of sorting mail, I think, and if you truly can’t, then you commit to 2 minutes. What matters in this situation is less how long and more the fact that you are also promising to yourself that the task has a finite end. You don’t have to agonize over the mail for hours. Just 5 minutes, or two minutes. Once you’ve hit your 5 minutes, you’re done for the day! You don’t have to feel guilty when you look at the table covered in mail because you know you are following a plan that is helping you steadily conquer the problem. But here’s a key point: stop when your timer goes off. When you hit your five minutes, that’s it. Otherwise, you might feel pressure to keep going and then suddenly you are faced with addressing the entire issue at once. At that point, you are back to being overwhelmed. If you hit your 5 minute goal and wish you could keep going, then you can commit to a slightly longer time tomorrow, perhaps 8-10 minutes, in this example.
But what about the task that truly is overwhelming and can’t be done in one single sitting, like a term paper? In a nutshell, the trick is to break down the overwhelming task into smaller, less overwhelming tasks. For example, to write a term paper, first you may need to determine a topic. You will need to do research to find your reference material (books, journal articles, etc). You will need to read your research materials and then, finally, you will need to write the paper. Each of these is a significant task, so if you can break down each task into smaller challenges, that’s great. If you need to find 3 books or articles for your paper, you can commit to finding one each day, for example. You might give yourself one week to read each article or the relevant chapters of each book. Before you write the paper, you might break it down to listing the main points you wish to make or the arguments you wish to present. The next task would be to list the supporting details for those points or arguments. One day’s task might be to write the introduction to your paper. The following day you might write the part of the paper dealing with your first point or first argument; the next day you would focus on writing about the second point or argument, etc. Of course, for this to work, you need to plan it out using a calendar to make sure you can complete the task by its due date.
One key point to remember is that if you have broken the troublesome task down into a smaller sub-tasks but you still find yourself procrastinating, you need to do it again. That is, take your sub-tasks and figure out how to break them down to an even smaller amount. The procrastination is your cue that the task is still too overwhelming. By making it smaller you reduce the amount of energy to overcome the inertia of not acting.
This one blog post certainly doesn’t fully address the significant topic of procrastination, but I hope it gives you a tool for attacking tasks and challenges that feel to big to start.