Smart people thinking out loud about procrastination:

“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.”
Christopher Parker, actor

“If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.”
Rita Mae Brown, author

“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”
Mark Twain, author

“My evil genius Procrastination has whispered me to tarry ‘til a more convenient season.”
Mary Todd Lincoln, American First Lady

“One thing that’s good about procrastination is that you always have something planned for tomorrow.”
G. B. Stern, writer

“What is deferred is not avoided.”
Thomas More, polymath

“Plan to be spontaneous tomorrow.”
Steven Wright, humorist

Are you putting something off?

I’ve had a month where I’ve put off doing a couple of key things. It’s been miserable to witness myself failing to get going with something crucial.

Here’s my death cycle of procrastination:

  1. I set myself a task.
  2. It shows up on my to-do list.
  3. I then do the nineteen other B-list tasks in an attempt to avoid it. Which I successfully do.
  4. I then upbraid myself for hacking my own system of accountability.
  5. I then move the task to the next day.
  6. I repeat steps 2 through 5 three or four or forty-six times. I move into some weird twilight zone where I decide to push the limits of what’s acceptable just to see if I can somehow trigger a disaster of blame and accusation. It’s like I’m floating outside of my body watching myself procrastinate, like some weird video game.
  7. The VP of Everything Else rightfully upbraids me for being a prima donna. I deny it, then confess and admit it’s true.
  8. Return to Step 1.

So how do you deal with things when you get into a procrastination loop?

Here are three of the tactics I use, which (mostly) work:

1. Do the first sixty seconds
I’m a fan of BJ Fogg’s work on habit. Along with Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Fogg is one of the few showing practical, science-based steps to build new, stronger habits. One of his insights is about attaching new habits to a strong anchor. So if I want to meditate in the morning, I find a strong existing habit (for instance, feeding the cats, something I do every morning) and do it after that.

His other insight is to commit to an action that will take less than sixty seconds of the habit. Don’t say, “I’m going to meditate for twenty minutes.” Say, “I’m going to sit on my meditation cushion for a minute.” Commit to the first step and let momentum take you forward after that.

This ties in nicely with David Allen, the guru of Getting Things Done, and his focus on doing the next step only.

2. Get focused
Sure, “get focused!” That’s always a good thing to do.

But I’m talking about using the app Focus Booster. It works the Pomodoro method, which is, in effect, staying task-focused for thirty-minute cycles: twenty-five minutes on, five minutes off. It’s a way of making a do-able time commitment and then maintaining the momentum by taking short breaks.

I used it when I was in Australia in December, and it was the habit-engine that got the first draft of the new book done.
(Curious about that? Why not join this LinkedIn group to get the first insight, news, and gossip.)

3. Rent a nag
Self-discipline and technology will get you so far, but sometimes you’ve got to throw yourself on the mercy of others.

When I wrote my first book Get Unstuck & Get Going, I hired a coach specifically to keep me delivering. I was almost certainly under-utilizing her excellent coaching powers, but it was all about ask me how I’m doing. In short, report in.

I’ve got a few friends where I play the role of asking, daily or weekly, “That thing? What progress did you make?” And I’ve got a few who do the same for me.

The key thing? You have to ask for help. Get clear about what support would help you most. As an added bonus, tell them how you’ll try and hack this form of support, so they won’t fall for it.

Every journey begins…
With a conversation inside your head about how you could put off the journey because you’ve got to do your email or floss your teeth or clean the house or file documents or do anything but take that single step that is, in fact, the first part of the journey.

Anything strike a chord for you here? Drop a comment below and let me know. In your own time, of course.

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons and author of Do More Great Work and the philanthropic bestselling book End Malaria. For more on Michael, follow him on Twitter.