Want to stop struggling with yourself and start getting things done?
You know what you need to accomplish. You sit down at your desk at the start of the day fully intending to do it. Or at least make meaningful headway toward your goal. But by the time you finally leave the office in the evening, you’re no further along than you were when the day began.
I don’t know if that sounds familiar to you but it certainly does to me. I start the day with a plan to make progress on a lot of blue-sky projects and by the time I’m done (usually way too late) I’ve taken up the entire day with busy work and haven’t made much progress on my bigger goals. It’s a problem I put to best-selling author and executive coach Wendy Capland. A while back, I wrote a column from an interview with Capland, and as a follow-up we decided she would coach me and that I would write about it.
We cover a lot of ground in these coaching sessions. We talk about my feeling burned out, my proud achievements and professional frustrations. Mainly, she helps keep me moving toward my biggest goals. And although coaching is great and I recommend you get it if you can, one of the methods she uses is simple, straightforward, and so effective anyone can use it to put an end to procrastination and start making progress on the things that really matter.
Step 1: Pick a few important tasks that you can commit to.
Don’t try to tackle everything all at once. This isn’t the time for your to-do list of every niggling thing you don’t want to forget. Pick important but perhaps challenging tasks that you know you need to do to get where you want to go, but just can’t seem to get started. Calling up that big customer. Pitching that new project or idea to your business partners or investors or your boss. Writing a business plan for the company you’re planning to start. Your list should have three to five items on it at a maximum.
Step 2: Pick deadlines for these items.
For each of the three to five items on your list, pick a date by which you can have it done. These deadlines should not require you to pull an all-nighter, or work through every weekend. They also shouldn’t assume that you will put aside all your other work and eliminate all distractions, focusing only on these tasks. You already know that won’t happen.
These dates shouldn’t be in the far distant future, but pick deadlines that you know you can make without killing yourself. Stagger the deadlines so you don’t have more than one task coming due on the same date. Then write those deadlines in your calendar. As Capland explains, if you write things in your calendar, they become like appointments with yourself, appointments that you’re likely to keep.
Step 3: Tell someone else.
This is the hardest step and truthfully it’s a step I’d be likely to skip except that fortunately I have a coach. Even if you don’t have one, do not skip this step. Pick a friend who can be your accountability buddy and ask if your friend will help you keep on track with some big goals. Choose someone who’s also working toward goals and offer to do the same for your friend. Don’t be shy about asking. Chances are, your friend will be flattered and happy to help.
Tell your accountability buddy exactly what you plan to and by what date. Better yet, do what Capland has me do after nearly every session: Write an email describing each of the tasks and its deadline and then send it off to your buddy. Ask your friend to send a similar email to you so you can help each other stay on track with both your goals.
Step 4: Plan when and how you will check in.
Pick a date when you and your buddy will speak by phone or video chat to see how each other is doing. A phone call, video call, or in-person meeting is the best way to do this—if you’re just checking in by email or text, it may be too easy not to take the deadline seriously. It’s also much harder to blow off or squirm out of keeping a commitment you made when you’re actually talking to someone in real time—there’s an embarrassment component that will serve as a useful motivator to get you going on those tough tasks.
Step 5: Repeat.
After your check-in, take another look at your list of tasks. Cross off the ones you’ve done. Remove any that are no longer relevant, or that you’ve decided not to do. If there are tasks you haven’t done but still intend to, leave them on the list. If you’ve crossed some tasks off, consider adding new ones. There may be other important tasks you’d like to accomplish, or you may have some new tasks that resulted from the first set. Your full list should still be no more than three to five items. If you have more tasks, they should wait until the next round.
Set new deadlines for your updated tasks, including those that didn’t get done last time. Once again, these should be realistic deadlines (and now that you’ve done this exercise once, you may have a good idea of how much time you’ll need). Write the new deadlines in your calendar, and then send them to your friend. Set a time for your next check-in. And so on.
Will following this method stop you from ever procrastinating again? No. There’s nothing on earth that can do that. But it will enable you to push past your own resistance, set "stretch" goals, and stick to them, and you can come back to it any time you get stuck. Like most writers, I’m a Grand Master at procrastination. If this works for me, it will work for you too.