My Dad had a clever way of getting me to do the things I typically avoided, like homework or cleaning my room.
When he interrupted my Nintendo-playing to remind me of the task, I would explain that while I absolutely intended to do it, I was simply planning to do it later rather than now.
Rather than argue, he would say, “That’s fine, you don’t have to do it now. All you have to do now is tell me when you will do it.”
I hated this tactic. Giving later a definite time spoiled my true plan, which was to do it never. I preferred later over now not because 2 o’clock the next day is a better time than the current time, but because from where I was sitting, later seemed closer to never than now did.
Or in other words, if you squint just right, shirking your responsibilities for another day vaguely resembles having no responsibilities, which is what I always wanted.
But my Dad’s clever question of when dispelled this mirage. Later is just a different now, and there’s no good life that’s free of responsibilities.
Unfortunately, I didn’t internalize this wisdom. Instead I saw his question as one of the shrewd tactics of the opposition in my war against responsibility. I became a dedicated procrastinator and difficulty-avoider for a host of complex psychological reasons I may never fully untangle.
I get more emails about procrastination than any other topic, even though I only write about it once or twice a year. Apparently there are many, many adults who suffer from an uncanny inability to do what it seems like every grownup should be able to do: simply work through a to-do list with the time they have.
Seemingly, most adults can move steadily through their day-to-day workload as though it’s a pile of logs to be split—the only limitation being time and energy, with nothing psychologically fraught about it, and no self-sabotage or existential fears involved.
The upside of being terrible procrastinator for decades is that you develop some rather artful self-manipulation skills. If you can’t slay the beast of procrastination, you have to live with it, so you end up becoming a kind of bad-impulse matador. You come to know the animal’s movements better than it does, learning how to be in just the right position when it comes at you.
I will teach you one of my best matador tricks.
The Art of Doing Things Tomorrow
None of us have unlimited self-control, yet we seem to believe that as grown men and women we should be able to make ourselves do whatever adult things we need to do whenever we need to do them.
In a productivity-related discussion with a friend recently, I found myself saying, “Isn’t it strange that so much of our lives is about getting ourselves to do things—not getting other people do what we think they should do, but ourselves.” The human mind is a complex and conflicted thing.
Because self-control waxes and wanes, there are times when you feel quite prepared to tackle something tomorrow—first thing, in fact—but not tonight.
Sometimes it’s true. With a good sleep and a new day, some things are easier. But this is a dangerous proposition to make to yourself. Tomorrow you might just tell yourself you’ll do it tomorrow. This can go on for years.
I have learned a matador’s trick to make sure you really do accomplish it the next day.
We can call it “red-carpeting”. You decide you will do the Scary Task first thing tomorrow, on one condition: today, you spend your time today laying out the poshest, easiest, flower-petal-laden red carpet walkway to doing the task tomorrow.
You do all the easy prep work you can think of, starting by looking up all the little details that need looking up: phone numbers, lists of alternatives, definitions you’ll need, business hours of places you need to call or visit. Write it all out, or print it up, and set it aside. Write neatly. Make everything attractive. Put it in a file.
Create any necessary computer documents or spreadsheets, title them and save them.
Make a checklist, or a sequence of very clear steps. Dial phone number X. Find and print out Form Y. Fill out form Y. Call Jim with any remaining questions. You want to remove as much ambiguity as possible from what you need to do tomorrow.
Identify the hardest step—the moment that makes you want to put the whole thing off. Put a star by that step to indicate that that’s where you’re likely to start making excuses, or coffee.
It’s completely unintimidating to do all this easy stuff the night before, because your procrastinatory impulse has already been appeased. It all feels safe, knowing that you don’t have to do the hard part now.
Second to last, you tidy your desk or your office. That’s one thing the procrastinatory mind is drawn to anyway. Nothing signals “ready to work” like a tidy office, and the procrastinator typically uses that knowledge to delay the real work at the last second. Tidy up today so that you a) give yourself all the benefits of a tidy workspace, and b) can’t use it as an excuse tomorrow.
Finally, you put your cute little list of well-defined steps right in the center of your workspace, which is otherwise clean and clear.
There you are: your work is cut out for you, on a silver platter, with a red carpet leading up to it. All three clichés are working in your favor.
The next day, the sneaky part of your mind has no more outs. It can’t convince you to tidy up first, it can’t argue that you need more information, and it can’t get lost in the simple tasks leading up to the real task. It can’t convince you there’s a better day or a better time.
That’s because you’ve brought the troublesome item to peak ease. When you get to your desk in the morning, there’s no more runway, and you know it. You must either do the task now, or admit that you’re never going to do it.
And it is significantly easier, for a number of reasons:
You’ve done all the easy but annoying stuff that wears you down before you get to the hard part.
You can’t help but be aware that you’ve never been so close to having this awful thing behind you, and you don’t want to let that precious ease go by delaying further.
The real challenge is now clear. What’s hard about this to-do item is now well-defined and marked with a star. You don’t want to make a certain phone call because you feel self-conscious asking for a favor, but now it’s clear that that’s the real task here: confronting a simple fear of rejection. Everything else is quite easy, and the hard part is over thirty seconds after it begins.
This might be the central insight we procrastinators overlook when it comes to thinking about work: for almost every intimidating task, the truly hard part is very small. It often comes down to a single moment of confronting your nerves.
If you’ve set down a red carpet right to that moment, you can be into the tough part by 9:05 am, feeling like a champ by 9:15, and the rest of the day is cake.