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How to Do It Tomorrow Instead of Never

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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.


Photo by Liam Matthews

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Rachel Massey April 3, 2017 at 2:18 am

If only I’d read this last night…

Vishal April 3, 2017 at 3:34 am

Nice suggestions David. Really genius move by your dad to interrupt you about a task when you were busy doing what you didn’t want to be disturbed in.

Will implement your technique of breaking down difficult tasks and laying the red carpet. A trick which has worked for me (somewhat) is imagining how I’ll feel when the task is over. That pushes me to at least get started. Once I start, I don’t leave it for an hour. At the end of the hour, the task is far less intimidating and I’ve accomplished much more than imagined.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:34 am

It’s amazing how easy it is to forget why we have something on our lists in the first place. Of course there are rewards to doing hard things, but for some reason I forget that completely and get preoccupied by the difficulty of it.

Vishal April 3, 2017 at 9:33 pm

So true, David. I fall in that trap often too.

Burak April 3, 2017 at 4:02 am

So practical and to the point.
I’ll give it a try… tomorrow :)

Andrew April 3, 2017 at 4:04 am

As an added bonus, I find that upon doing all the “prep work” the day before, one common way for it to end is for my brain to say “ah screw it I’ll just do it [the hard part] now”.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:40 am

Totally. That’s a great feeling. Doing the prep work makes you realize that there’s really not much to the hard part anyway.

Zoe April 3, 2017 at 4:13 am

I think this does work for some tasks… but you also have to learn what can be spread over several days and what can’t. If it’s a single task, then yes, but if you’ve got a big job to do, I think it’s okay to spread it out if you have the time to do so (I’m talking about freelancing jobs in particular). Yes you could do it now, but if you’ve reached burnout point with it for the day, then I think it’s okay to recognise that you can pick it up the next day.

Nirbhika April 3, 2017 at 4:37 am

Good suggestions. And a really good reminder that the actually unpleasant part just last for a few minutes.

Also, have you tried bullet journaling? It seems to work for a lot of people but somehow I haven’t been able to make it work.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:44 am

Yes! The bullet journal is the only workflow-management system that has worked for me, and I use it every day. I think the reason it worked for me is that it doesn’t fall apart if you don’t look at it for a few days. It’s very easy to get right back into it from where you are, and you don’t have to have a perfectly defined “system” before you begin. I found with GTD and other stuff it all falls apart if you get away from it for a week or so.

Joe April 3, 2017 at 5:31 am

Anxiety, the next gumption trap, is sort of the opposite of ego. You’re so sure you’ll do everything wrong you’re afraid to do anything at all. Often this, rather than “laziness” is the real reason you find it hard to get started.

― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:47 am

Yeah laziness is kind of a lazy diagnosis for the inability to get stuff done. I don’t think laziness is all that common, we just tend to attribute any sort of aversion to work or finishing things to laziness, when I bet in most cases it’s something more complex psychologically.

Denise Belanger April 3, 2017 at 3:10 pm


Peter Akkies April 3, 2017 at 6:20 am

Hey David,

Your advice to break a project up into small steps reminds me of David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I use this strategy all the time, and it really does reduce my resistance to getting started on hard things.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:51 am

I found GTD was good for organizing your affairs and making sure you don’t forget anything, but didn’t have much to say about how to get yourself to actually do things. It seems geared for people who don’t have any serious procrastination issues, but who are trying to manage a huge workload. I struggled for years to implement it but it was missing that element for me. I still do have bits of pieces in it in my mind though, such as “processing” my inboxes and collecting reminders though.

michael April 3, 2017 at 6:28 am

I am going to look for a like button for this article, tomorrow.

michael April 3, 2017 at 6:29 am

Found it!

Gunhild April 3, 2017 at 6:30 am

Love this! As always.

Curtis M Michaels April 3, 2017 at 7:52 am

On the rare occasion that your blog does not speak to something specific in my life, your candor still touches my mind and heart. Bravo!!

This particular blog was not so rare as your work goes. This one I needed to read.

You ARE putting these into book form, yes?

Curtis M Michaels April 3, 2017 at 1:38 pm

ok so I found the books. Thanks!!

Vicki April 3, 2017 at 7:56 am

“Bad-impulse matador”! I laughed so hard :)
Great article, you have such a talent for getting to the core of things.
I often use this technique, but had never realized that I do. I find the itemized list really helps me as my mind will scatter the details and cause confusion and inefficiency (procrastination) if I don’t.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 8:55 am

I find little details matter, in particular how neatly written the list is, even how it’s placed on the desk. That seems like the theme of this last year, discovering how big a difference details make to the mind.

Paula April 3, 2017 at 8:15 am

Brilliant! :)

Love your writing style too. And your dad!

Ursula in Cádiz April 3, 2017 at 10:24 am

Oh wow! That’s a genius plan. So often I really don’t have a clue WHY I’m not just ‘doing it’: I procrastinate about things that should even be pleasurable. :(
Thank you as always for your insight.

Srini April 3, 2017 at 11:29 am

I can attest to the success rate of this process…handy tip about identifying the hardest step where we make excuses. Going to incorporate that into my routine. When you call it a red carpet, it sounds so much nicer. I do it to save time, but it does make me procrastinate less.

I carry a little notebook which has my to-do list. In this I write down phone numbers of places that I need to call and all information I may need to provide on that phone call; exact meals I’ll be cooking for dinner – I write the prep steps I need to do make this meal happen, put things out on the counter, even the pot in which the meal will get cooked, etc.

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 6:58 pm

> put things out on the counter, even the pot in which the meal will get cooked

Wow, really? Doesn’t that level of planning bog you down?

Rodrigo Borba April 3, 2017 at 2:19 pm

Hi David, hope you read my comment.

I have a problem that I think to much instead of doing. I’m a planner not a doer.

I like to make sure I know where I’m going and why I’m doing something before getting started.

I know that is another way to procrastinate but my situation is different: in my ‘personal life’ I want to do so many things like play guitar, exercise my drawing, watch my favorite tv shows, watch my favorite movies, do origamis, learn how to code, attend to an online course, read my books, write about management, etc, that I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing at the moment. If I start to do any of these items, I feel like I’m leaving the others aside which is very frustrating.

This feeling about do the right thing at the right time never occurred to me, I feel like I’m dedicating attention to the wrong thing.

These items does not have a deadline, it is things for life (habilities that I want to achieve).

And in this cycle I never do anything. I set the ‘red carpet’ and the flowers, and the arrangement, and the decoration and everything – if you know what I mean – but never go straight to the point.

I’m right now paralyzed and frustrated with so many things to do and having few hours a day to do everything.

I wrote this hoping you have any advice or reading to recommend about this subject: I don’t even know how to google what I just wrote.

Thank you!

Geeman April 3, 2017 at 4:06 pm

Hey Rodrigo,
I have had this feeling of overwhelm that you so brilliantly describe many times in my life. I would say stop trying to do all these things for a little while, make one priority and do one thing. That one thing is meditate or learn to if you have not done so before. If you want to know how or you want to get back into it, you are in the right place. Check out David’s camp calm. It has put me into a rhythm of continuation that eluded me for many years.
Then, the procrastination panic will subside and seem clearer for you. You will have space to decide what to do and how to do it. You will come to your own answers I am sure. Best of luck.

Ellen Symons April 3, 2017 at 7:28 pm

Well said, Geeman, and I agree…. Rodrigo, David’s Camp Calm program is a very good and supportive program to start or get back to meditating. And meditating has certainly helped me to stop feeling panicked and overwhelmed by all the choices. I used to feel exactly how you describe but after establishing a meditation practice I am a much calmer person and my choices make me happy. I send you good wishes!

Rodrigo Borba April 3, 2017 at 8:26 pm

Well, thank you for your comment.
Opened a tab with the Camp Calm subject and I’m reading right now about the program.

Thanks to show me a way!

David Cain April 3, 2017 at 7:01 pm

I get that feeling too. Choice overwhelm. We have too much to choose from so it seems like we’re always making the wrong choice, or risking making the wrong choice. I wrote about it here actually: https://www.raptitude.com/2017/01/why-theres-never-enough-time/

I just finished a book that might help you: Essentialism by Greg McKeown. He says we need to make a practice of deliberately limiting the number of things we concern ourselves with, so that we can do a few things well rather than many things badly (or failing to do them at all).

Ellen Symons April 4, 2017 at 10:55 am

Thanks for the article link and the book recommendation, David.

Rodrigo Borba April 3, 2017 at 8:33 pm

Hey guys, thanks for replying my comment.
Somehow I can’t reply you back so here we go.

Geeman: Thanks to show me a way, man. Opened a tab right at this moment to read about the Camp Calm program.

Ellen Symons: Alright, Ellen. I’ll do it! Thank you!

David: I will re-read your post. And thanks for the recommendation, this book was in my wishlist but I’ll make it a priority to buy.

Ellen Symons April 4, 2017 at 10:55 am


Yasmeen April 3, 2017 at 8:46 pm

I have used this technique before!! It’s a very clever strategy. Like another commentor mentioned, I sometimes find when I’ve listed everything out my anxiety or disdain dips just below whatever threshold that makes it feasible.

I also took up bullet journaling in January which has been nothing short of amazing. I’d be very curious to see if you deviate from the original system at all or if you have any recommendations. Studying other people’s bullet journals is very addictive.

Abhijeet Kumar April 3, 2017 at 11:49 pm

“The upside of being terrible procrastinator for decades is that you develop some rather artful self-manipulation skills.”

For me the biggest challenge doing anything I have set as a goal, is the self talk. It starts with “oh yeah, I will do this well”. Then “I will do this better than anyone else”. And then a dive into a bottomless pit of comparisons, to why do this at all, this is not for me, more categorization, and … I rescue myself through some moments of breathing.

The best self manipulation technique I have learned is to zero down expectations. Doing it is not even in my mind. Meditate to a zero state, and then place myself in the environment where things happen.

My April 4, 2017 at 3:09 pm

great tip! i’ll definitely try this out.

another tip that i got recently, was to define 3 core things about your task:
1. the task
2. the outcome
3. why you want this outcome

I think the most important thing is #3, the ‘why’. why is this task so important to me so i would prioritize it over watching a movie or hanging out with friends? (source: https://youtu.be/Q-rKO2q8BGg)

Nicholas Stroth April 4, 2017 at 4:32 pm

I swear, your advice pieces almost always address one of my biggest problems at the time that you post them.
Maybe it just seems that way because our personal problems are so alike. I don’t comment on here often, I just wanted you to know your blog has given me a lot of timely food for thought over the years.

Mark Kandborg April 4, 2017 at 6:39 pm

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task. But it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” – Helen Keller

Sophia April 5, 2017 at 5:34 am

Thanks David, these are great suggestions, it’s something I’ve been doing consistently for the past month, and its been…. well productive! Ha. And what I’ve also noticed as you have said is that what we think will take us ages to do ends up being a quick and easy task which gives us more free time to do what we want and need get done! Having said that in the past I always use to work so hard that all I would do is work all the time and have little to no time planned to just relax and hangout, and what i have learnt from that is that knowing how and when to relax is also just as important in the process of being productive or else we will just end up burning ourselves out! Thanks again for sharing this article, I’m looking forward to reading more of your work as your content is great and it’s so down to earth and genuine which is rare to find so I’m glad I came across your blog!

David Cain April 12, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Thanks Sophia. More times than I can count, I’ve found to-do lists from months or years ago, and there are still things on it I haven’t done. Some of them end up taking literally only a few minutes.

Working too hard has never been a problem of mine! But I understand it is common. For me I’ve been relaxing too hard all these years and want to finally get some stuff done.

Jen April 7, 2017 at 3:39 pm

Procrastination is my sin
It causes me much sorrow.
I must give this habit up!
–I think I’ll start tomorrow.

Wallet Squirrel April 9, 2017 at 10:25 pm

Honestly, as long as I can knock one thing off my to-do list, I’m happy. My weekly “To-Do” list for my blog grows at a faster pace weekly than I can complete things. It’s insane.

For me, most successful thing I’ve learned to do with To-Do list is block out a day to work on something, or 4x as long as I think it’ll take. That way, I can handle those impromptu interruptions. This can’t work every weekend, but once in awhile I’ll get a nice Saturday to work and it makes all the difference!

David Cain April 12, 2017 at 2:00 pm

I am starting to do this too. Just having one huge thing off your plate is a major victory and is worth spending a whole day on.

Another thing I’d like to do is to block off a day to do all the tiniest, easiest things on my list. Just knock off as many as possible, in order of easiest to hardest, and just see how far I get. My first one is scheduled for next week.

Laura April 12, 2017 at 11:40 am

I really, really love this suggestion. Thank you for sharing!

FinancePatriot April 12, 2017 at 1:36 pm

I think another good strategy is to do things you don’t like, immediately. I am not talking about things that you are putting off because you don’t feel like doing them, such as laundry, but tasks that you will worry about, such as asking for a promotion or in my case, asking for a layoff with severance.

I find the sooner I do them, I can blog about them, and I no longer worry about such things.

David Cain April 12, 2017 at 1:59 pm

I am finally learning this one. Every not-done thing that needs to be done weighs a mental tax on you, and it’s better to stop paying it as soon as possible.

My inspiration for this is a line from the Godfather: “Mr Corleone is a man who insists on hearing bad news immediately.”

The Tepid Tamale April 27, 2017 at 3:10 pm

I missed this post when you first published it. I am so glad I found it now! I am reading it while I am …. procrastinating. I think it does help to know that I am not alone in this. It often seems like others do not have this issue, and I wonder why I do. It resonated with me when you called it the ‘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.’

It’s time to go do some red carpeting.

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