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Beat Procrastination: How to Want to Tackle Your To-Do List

“Until you value yourself, you won’t value your time. Until you value your time, you won’t do anything with it.” ~ M. Scott Peck

Ten years ago, I stopped procrastinating. Lots of procrastination, then zero—overnight. Cold turkey worked for me. Now I hardly ever procrastinate.

Why the sudden change? How did I do it?

Lists and Procrastination

Like many people, I make lists, including to-do lists, reminders, shopping lists, wish lists, and my what-to-do-when-bored list. I completely rely on my lists to keep my life moving along.

My Dad purposefully decided not to make lists. He believed he could maintain his memory better if he didn’t rely on them. Could be true, because he always had a good memory.

Not me, however. I do seem to need lists to remind me about important to-do things. When I write something on a to-do list, I can get it off my mind for now, knowing I’ll have that reminder. So why not just do that important thing now instead of writing it down? Well, sometimes that’s not practical or possible.

But sometimes it is. Sometimes writing a to-do item on a list can actually be an act of procrastination.

Apparently lists and procrastination go hand in hand for some of us. My reason for making lists is to ensure that things get done, yet writing something on a list can also make it easier for me to procrastinate doing it. Once the to-do item is on a list, it’s off my mind—so it might never get done.

There’s something wrong with that picture. Making lists to remember to do things, and then avoiding those lists because of a procrastination problem? A deadly combo in terms of productivity!

The Insight That Motivated Me to Change

Back to why I went cold turkey about 10 years ago. I had begun to notice that after I accomplished one or two list items, my mood lifted. I felt better about myself and about everything else. Even about the remaining items on my lists.

I had also begun to notice that whenever I was avoiding my to-do lists (procrastination), I became grumpy, moody, and felt a bit down.

That insight finally motivated me to tackle my procrastination habit.

I realized that procrastination is sort of like an addiction. Once a procrastinator, always a procrastinator. For me, it’s definitely an on and off the wagon thing. Just one conscious ‘procrastinate’ can lead to a down cycle.

Being on the wagon is healthier and definitely feels better. Life goes more smoothly for both me and the people around me. I meet my obligations, both to myself and to others.

Tedious To-Do’s vs. Want-To-Do’s

I used to think that getting rid of my procrastination habit just meant facing up to the many tedious or annoying tasks I had been putting off. Sure, life is obviously more pleasant if we can avoid doing those things. “Why do today what we can put off until tomorrow?” Or so we think.

But a procrastination habit can also make us put off doing more pleasant projects. “I’d rather be doing this [fun thing], but I don’t have time; there are more important things I have to do.” Sound familiar?

When did fun stuff get demoted from being valid to-do list items?

We talk about our “bucket lists”—things to do before we die. But why do we have to think about dying before we allow ourselves to put those enjoyable items on a to-do list?

Many of us have somehow come to believe that the pleasant to-do’s aren’t as important as those “should” items—the things expected of us. Well, if those items are so important, how do we get away with procrastinating them for days, weeks at a time?

Yet we do get away with it! Maybe not without some personal emotional fallout, but often without anybody else noticing or caring.

So maybe some of those things are not as important as we’ve been imagining, at least not immediately important enough to bump those more enjoyable tasks right off the list.

The Key: How I Defeated My Procrastination

I no longer put only tedious chores on my lists. I also add pleasant, want-to-do items.Things like a specific craft or art project I’d like to start, a catch-up email to an old friend, an outing to the 218-flavor ice cream store, an afternoon of quiet reading.

My lists are no longer unpleasant or annoying. I don’t avoid them. That’s because my lists honor my obligations and also place value on my personal enjoyment.

Try it. Honor yourself and value your time enough to put those want-to-do items on your daily lists, in among the shoulds.

After beginning that key practice, I began to experience a pleasant result. Whenever I can’t face doing one of the tedious tasks on my lists, I pick out a happy-making task and it still gets me back on the wagon. I’m not procrastinating! I’m still crossing a to-do item off a list. It still results in feeling better about myself and about the day!

Now I watch for the downward mood shift that tells me I’m avoiding something. Maybe I didn’t even realize I was avoiding something, but I notice I’m feeling grumpy. I check in to see if it’s because of procrastination.

Then I do at least two list items. It’s so much easier if at least one of those items is something pleasant I’ve been meaning to do for myself. Then, yeehaw, the day feels better. I feel good about myself again.

It happens whether I select a pleasant to-do item or one of the more tedious tasks.

Another side effect—when I feel better about the day, I often feel better about tackling some of the less enjoyable items. An improved mood does wonders for motivation.

It’s all about building a habit of not procrastinating.Listing pleasant to-do’s helps establish that habit. Doing one of them gets me through the delay barrier. I stay on the wagon.

How to Defeat Procrastination: Summary

1. Make to-do lists.

2. Include happy-making items. Things you want to do “if only you had the time.”

3.  Do two list items every day—or more if you like, but do a minimum of two.

4. Don’t skip a day—unless there’s nothing left on your to-do list! (If that’s you, how do you do it?!! I’ve never not had a list on the go!)

If you’re having a day when #3 feels tough, focus on the inevitable after-effect—a mood shift for the better. Keep your heart on that goal. And just do it!

You know you’re going to feel good about yourself after you’ve done those two items today!

Important: Please don’t promise yourself the impossible—that you’ll get through all your list items each day. That’s too overwhelming and likely won’t be successful. A goal like that could take you right off the wagon again, back to your procrastination addiction. If that happens, do two list items and call me in the morning. ;).

What are you procrastinating today? What items are on your lists? What pleasant want-to-do’s will you add to your lists?

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.” ~Emerson

Photo by the half-blood prince

Avatar of Kate Britt

About Kate Britt

Kate is a retired teacher, editor, and technical writer living in Vancouver, BC, Canada. She blogs sporadically at http://ponderthepreposterous.wordpress.com/.

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  • http://mindfulproductivity.net Be

    What a great idea to put the good things on our to do lists.  So simple really yet it never occured to me…..off now to add some good stuff to the list [s] :)

  • ProcrastinationFreeLiving

    Finally! A blog that provides one of the most powerful procrastination management strategies there is.

     procrastination is genuinely a life-interfering behavior!.The cost of
    procrastinating can literally be measured in lost health, years of life,
    and thousands of lost dollars.

    I’ve been researching procrastination very carefully, recently. I’ve
    discovered that overcoming it is really a simple process of transferring
    motivation from the things we love to do and do often over to the
    things we don’t like doing and avoid often. From a behavioral
    perspective it’s all about positive reinforcing manageable
    approximations to high-procrastination tasks.

    Overcoming procrastination involves the same motivational processes that
    underlie the evidence-based treatment of clinical depression and
    autism. It’s also the basis of effective performance management systems
    in the top organizations.

    You’ve captured that process here beautifully, (and interestingly) intuitively and experiential.

    Thanks for sharing such a thought provoking article! Time to go and set up a “happy-making task list for the day!

    Gratefully,

    Duddy,
    ProcrastinationFreeLiving.com

  • http://www.deliberateblog.com Melody Fletcher

    This is so true. I love my lists. One more thing I’ve discovered that really helps regarding procrastination and lists is to break larger tasks or projects up into smaller segments, of no more than 30 minutes each. So, “Spring Cleaning”, which can be overwhelming, becomes “Clean out the bathroom cupboard”, “have the rugs cleaned”, “flip the mattress”. That way, you don’t keep pushing this huge obligation to the next day (every day), but have a chance to tackle bits and pieces of it. Not only does it seem a lot more doable, but you get that sense of satisfaction after each step, instead of having to wait until the whole project is finished. Works with Spring cleaning, blog upgrades, whatever. :o)

  • http://www.facebook.com/jane.sattler Jane Sattler

    I have oft wondered why I put so many things on a pop up list then I ignore the list and dismiss it, so I am never done and always forgetting things.  What great suggestions for some motivation!  

  • Pjuldil

    I am the worst ever, I would rather sit and stare at the wall than get some stuff done I have to do, I am going to really try this method, hopefully I can get rid of the horrible feeling of guilt I feel when I avoid things and not feel so overwhelmed cause the things I had to do today have multiplied  by the next day.

  • http://www.onemanswonder.com Jeffrey Williud

    Great post, Kate! Love the idea of blending in some pleasant to-dos along with the chores. Another device I’m working on is trying to think of the less pleasant to-dos — like cleaning house, washing dishes, yard work, etc. — not as chores, but as experiences. It helps.

  • LeslieHolt2

    Thank you for this. Your thought that procrastination is “sort of like an addiction” is helpful to me. Your article is timely and much appreciated.

  • Patricia R.

    Oh, I felt like you were talking directly at me! I love lists. But, I also feel guilty about having them because my husband makes me feel guilty about writing things done. “Oh, I can remember everything,” he gloats. (So, tell me, why did he have to call me seven times in a three-day period to ask me “When’s the girls’ doctor appointment?” OK, so feeling guilty about making lists is a different issue altogether…)

    Thanks for reminding me that there’s nothing wrong with writing things down!

  • Patricia R.

    Ooops, I put my tags in the wrong spot. I only seeth when I remember that three-day period when he called me seven times.

  • CLJNT

    For years I’ve been doing the things mentioned here but in a much more messed up and unorganised way. For me this article simplifies everything perfectly.

    Thanks.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Isn’t it funny, how we tend to bypass the obvious things that we can do to help ourselves. It was a huge lightbulb for me, too, when I realized good stuff was allowed on my to-do lists. Have fun with your new and improved lists!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Hi Duddy, I had a look at your website. So much there! I’ll go back and read more in the next while. I’m honored that you like my article. I had no idea there’s a possible connection between autism and procrastination, but I can certainly attest to a connection with depression (though I can’t say anything about ‘clinical’ depression). Thanks for your compliments!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    You’re so right, Melody! Short doable items, a real key to ongoing list-success. Makes it easier to get that sense of satisfaction — which for me comes at the moment I cross an item off a list. And continues, seeing what task(s) I’ve gotten through.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Glad I could help Jane. Sounds like you use a computerized list. I used to do that too, but you’re so right, it’s just easy to click to dismiss/ignore/etc. I had to switch back to paper lists — then my current list is sitting on my desk right in my face, harder to ignore. So anyway, have fun working on your to-do motivation!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Yes, Pjuldil, I can really relate to that guilt thing. And for me, feeling guilty is a real de-motivator in itself, so it sure doesn’t help me get things done. I hope my suggested method does help you bypass the guilt about avoiding to-dos. ;)

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Yes, that really does help, Jeffrey, so thanks for adding that excellent point. One thing I’ve noticed about some of those things you list as chores — especially housecleaning — is that doing them energizes me. Sometimes when I’m having a bad day, just cleaning a room lifts my whole mood. I never connected it until this very second, but I just bet that mood improvement is for the same reason as doing a to-do. Thanks for the insight for me!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Thanks for your feedback, Leslie. When I first thought of procrastination as one of my addictions, it really helped me formulate ways to tackle it — just looking at how people tackle other addictions. Hope it helps you too!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Thanks for sharing that story, Patricia. Nope, nothing wrong with lists! I felt guilty for a while after my Dad said his lists helped his memory. But then I just reminded myself, that’s him and I’m me.

    One way you might address your husband’s gloating — compliment him on his amazing memory, tell him how lucky he is. Because he is lucky — I envy people who remember everything. Well, obviously he doesn’t remember *all* of it, but memory doesn’t need to be a competition, right? Hmmm, maybe there’s some activity or task you could add to your list that would benefit him when it gets done — see how glad he becomes about your to-do list then!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    I’m glad my suggestions might be of some help to you, Cljnt. Good luck as you reorganize your methods. Ah, is that your first list item — reorganize your list making, LOL.

  • (another) Bob

    Lately I’ve started calling my lists To Don’t lists.  I realized that putting a To Do item onto a list enables me to procrastinate, because it’s on a list so how could I forget it.
     
    Thanks for this informative post.  I’m guilty on all counts.  
     

  • Iannarlais

    I am a pro procrastinator. I figured that if you wait problems will usually solve themselves and only the important things will bubble to the top. 
    I did ok in life a divorce here, a bankruptcy there, la la la.
    What could I have done if…  

  • http://www.toshophandbags.com/ cheap designer handbags

    What great suggestions for some motivation! they make efficient for us. Thanks

  • Amy

    Good one! I agree, lately I’ve noticed that when I accomplish even a tiny thing on my to-do list, my mood improves quite noticeably, and I feel much better about myself. I started breaking down my tasks into smaller bits which also helps because, remarkably, the feeling of accomplishment is the same :)

  • Jerome

    glad to see people looking at the connection between procrastination and depression…”listlessness” anyone?

    things get pretty interesting when you start looking into the etymology of that word…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000023475546 Jesus Mata

    I just added this to my Instapaper so I can read it later….

  • Hildylmt

    Thank you, i am laughing, looking at my desk with TWO lists. The first is for today, and it is a happy list, a few errands, bank, library etc…Chiropractor, massage (for me) and get started on my dream board. Sounds like I have it together.   Well, the second list is a little different and alittle buried. Items longer pending such as call new clients, dog proof yard, set up magic jack (purchased 2 yrs ago)  take a yoga class (it’s been 3 years) sits undisturbed. Again, thank you for the reminder that I am human. . . my new intention is to break down list #2 into smaller pieces, and transfer one item each day onto my “today” list. Thanks for getting my ball rolling :) 

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Bob, you’re right, putting something on a list *can* make it easier to procrastinate because it temporarily gets that item off my mind. I guess the difference is made by actually going back to the list from time to time to do an item. What my described method does is motivate me to do that — to actually make use of my lists. I hope you can find a way past your guilt-on-all-counts and try this out….. I bet if you had some want-to-do items on your lists they wouldn’t be To Don’t lists anymore. ;)

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Iannarlais, I do like your idea that the important things will bubble to the top. For me, those are things that tend to nag me the loudest, LOL.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    It’s so true, Amy…. that feeling of accomplishment that comes from doing even the smallest thing that I’d been previously procrastinating. I’m so glad you’ve discovered the same thing about the mood~procrastination connection.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Thanks for my chuckle of the day, Jesus. There are apps to help us procrastinate — LOL.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    You’re welcome, Hildylmt. Bot you and Melody (below) have talked about that very important point in good list-making practice — making sure tasks are broken down into small, do-able segments. I hope you can keep that ball rolling with your long-term items!

  • Rivergirl

    So let me admit right here…I’m procrastinating right now!!!!  I’ve been at work all day and I’ve now gotta turn around and do more work. I really don’t want to. But I have to.   So I’ll procrastinate a little longer and this weekend I’ll try to put some of your ideas into action. I like the idea of really trying to do two things on the list. It’s workable, achievable.

  • Toby Ho

    Kate: this is a nice idea. I will try it out. Maybe sneak in some Lost episodes onto the list, huh ;)
    Along with Melody’s suggestion of break up tasks into small pieces, I’ve found what works for me is the following quote by Charles Lowell from drunkandretired.com(I am paraphrasing because I can’t find the original podcast episode):

    The secret of getting things done is…(drum roll)…
        You gotta do shit you don’t wanna do.

    The more I think about this quote as related to my own experiences, the more I believe it. I think the reason is: the more you want to avoid a task, the more psychic energy it takes from you for doing other things you need to do, and it’s going to be a constant drain on you until you actually take care of that thing that you don’t want to do.

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    You made me chuckle, Rivergirl, because I, too, often find myself sitting at the computer when procrastinating. I hope you do try it out this weekend. Two things, definitely do-able!

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Ha, definitely some Lost episodes! Thanks for the Lowell quote, Toby. Not sure that I agree with what it says, but I do agree entirely with your reasoning about it, the psychic energy part. I’m pretty sure that’s what changes my mood, that draw-down of energy while I avoid tasks, that drain on my joyfulness while I’m in a stuck place not-doing things.

  • Apple

    AWESOME

  • Pingback: A New Routine To End The Habit of Procrastinating | Routine Habit

  • BHOOMIKAPAHUJA

    hey Kate !!!!! it was really great reading your article !!!!!!!

    I could actually relate and understand my habit of procrastination as the cause of my sadness . tanx to you!!I have habit of making to do list n then delaying it the most i can.. but never tried want to list .. will surely try it from today itself !!!!  

  • http://sydsense.blogspot.com Sydney

    the problem is, how do i make a list? do you write your to-do items on a notebook?

    http://twitter.com/sydsense

  • http://ponder-the-pre.posterous.com Kate Britt

    Sydney, I have lists everywhere. Little post-it lists, grocery list on the fridge, goal-setting lists in my journal, etc.

    But my main TO-DO list, the one I’m really talking about above, is on paper. I’ve tried using a digital version (Outlook notes, which I also sync to my iPod), but I found that I totally ignored the list in those formats.

    A paper list, I can leave that on my desktop (actual, real desktop, not computer-window desktop, LOL) and it’s right there staring me in the face. Handy for crossing items off, too. For me, there’s something about doing the physical things of list-making, crossing-off, etc. that connects me better with my intentions.

    Does that help?

  • http://twitter.com/kishalynn KishaLynn Elliott

    Congrats on beating procrastination. I’ve always focused on shifting how I feel about doing the things on my to do list that I don’t feel like doing. It’s great advice to start adding more of the fun stuff now too. Nice article.

  • http://todowiz.biz/ Alvis Andersonq

    You put Procrastination in a very good manner, for this I personally use http://todowiz.biz and suggest to others as well.