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The Right Now List

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Some percentage of you are your own boss, or work from home, or otherwise have a dangerous level of flexibility around when you actually get to work.

Some of you also know you’re especially prone to procrastination, even on a good day.

If you’re both of these things, you know how deadly the combination can be. Severe procrastination isn’t just annoying or frustrating, it’s a tragic loss of life. You let days and weeks go by for no good reason and hate yourself for it.

After battling with this for several decades, I have no cures but many tools.

Here’s one that helps me a lot. How to Do Things readers already know this trick, but it deserves further unpacking in anyway, because it really works.

Whenever I’m anything less than completely enthusiastic about getting to work, which is almost always, I put a square yellow sticky note in the corner of my desk and write “RNL” at the top.

This stands for “Right Now List.” A Right Now List is a short list of the first two or three things I need to do right now — not eventually, but at the absolute beginning of the task I’m currently trying (or hoping) to do.

The key is that the items on the Right Now List are so tiny and easy that even a masterful procrastinator won’t talk himself out of doing them. Things like:

  • Open Microsoft Word
  • Find the document I was working on yesterday
  • Scroll down to where I left off

These tasks are too easy to trigger the procrastinatory mind’s usual objections — that familiar, weaselly inner voice that goes, “So… uh… do I truly need to do this right now?” RNL tasks are such easy and immediate wins that it’s more tempting to do them than to make sheepish arguments to yourself about why you should do them later.

Even the most shrewd procrastinatory mind cannot believe its own arguments here: Is there any way I can double-click this icon tomorrow instead? Maybe I can get up a bit early, make some stiff black coffee, and then scroll down.

RNL for researching a blog post

So you start. You do these trivial first actions, because they’re so stupidly easy, and then you’re working on the task. You’re inside the compound. You’re no longer trying to “get started.” Most of the resistance is gone, it’s clear enough what to do next, and it feels good to continue.

All the Right Now List does is articulate the beginning of the task at hand into more granular steps than we typically think we need, right down to two-second movements like “Take the ledger from the shelf. Open it to the last complete month.”

Normally, tasks are defined on a “to-do-list” level: “Get ledger up to date,” “Figure out Valentine’s Day plans,” or “Get back to Fred.” Although these phrases seem clear enough to direct your efforts, tasks expressed on this level are still quite abstract, and invite abstract thinking and worry that mushrooms beyond the task itself, inhibiting you from starting. Such descriptors don’t indicate how or where to start, and they raise too many questions that seemingly need answers before you feel ready to properly deal with the task. Will Fred O.K. my proposal? Is he already mad at me? Do people still use PowerPoint for this kind of stuff or am I some kind of early-aughts dinosaur?

By that point, which might be only ten seconds after glancing at your to-do list, you’re already clicking over to a Substack you’ve been meaning to read.

The Right Now List circumvents this pattern. Instead of focusing on the whole task in the abstract, and inviting all of its baggage into your head, you focus only on what needs to happen right now, with enough granularity that nothing on the list is harder than trivially easy.

RNL for finishing a product launch plan

RNL tasks usually consist of assembling the necessary documents or tools and then looking over them. You make your little list of too-easy-to-fail tasks, begin knocking them off with ease, and suddenly you’re no longer skulking around outside the task’s gates, conferring with your procrastinatory demons.

Instead, you get yourself inside right away. Then, when the task’s inevitable challenges come, they don’t occur in the unbounded expanse of the imagination, while you’re still convincing yourself to get to work. They happen when you’re already working, you have your tools with you, and your inertia is that of action and not inaction.

You don’t have to think very hard about what should go on the Right Now List. They will be actions so obvious it seems absurd to write them down: finding the appropriate file, clearing a space on your desk, opening a blank document on your second monitor.

Indeed, most people would never write these steps down — and many of them struggle with procrastination. Writing them down despite their triviality reminds you that you can start virtually any task with no pain or confusion.

If starting is half the battle, and you can make that half trivially easy, the other half seems perfectly doable.


Need help getting things done?

The big productivity books are written by people who don’t especially struggle with productivity.

The rest of us find other ways. I shared mine in this post.

Photo by Keith Hardy

Ann January 27, 2023 at 2:08 am

Brilliant. Thank you for another tool for this master-procrastinator’s kit.

Calen January 27, 2023 at 2:29 am

Almost every trick I have learned to help me move forward boils down to exactly the principle you have listed here. They’re all variants on the same principle of taking the first step and the first step only instead of thinking about the whole project.

The greatest enemy of your ability to do things is the goal-setting part of your brain, because it can set goals that are so large you don’t want to do them.

The way around it is to recalibrate that part of your brain by only setting goals that you don’t feel resistant to. And almost any task, even the most involved ones, can be boiled down to a series of steps that are small enough that they are not objectionable.

You always seem to send me these posts at the right time, David. I swear it; for like the last seven years, at least since I started my doctoral program, and probably for a couple years before that, one of your posts will wind up in my inbox and I’ll read it and wonder “how the hell did he know what I needed to hear today?”

I think a lot of your readers have this experience with your writing. I suspect it’s because we all share similar recurrent struggles, and are therefore all on the same wavelength. But I wanted to let you know that I appreciate it.


David Cain January 27, 2023 at 9:55 am

>The greatest enemy of your ability to do things is the goal-setting part of your brain, because it can set goals that are so large you don’t want to do them.

I didn’t quite think of it that way but this seems true. For me the RNL works because it bridges the gap between considering a thing mentally and doing it physically. Once you’re doing it physically, it becomes bounded in the mind to the concrete reality of the task. Until that moment, the task is hypothetical and the brain can find endless reasons not to do it.

As a result of that goal-resisting phenomenon, I had not set explicit goals for myself in a long time, because historically I never achieve them. I still get worthwhile things done, through habits and to-do’s but setting and achieving a long-term goal has always felt like a thing only other people can do. I have finally made some real goals for 2023-24 and I’m still finding it difficult to bridge that gap, but at least I’m more aware of where the gap actually is.

Calen January 27, 2023 at 6:05 pm


I use “goal” in a pretty loose sense of the term. Really, what it is, is that prior to starting any endeavor your brain forms distinct opinions about what it must look like in order to be worthwhile. And then those become the standard you monitor progress against, and the gauge you used to determine the worth of your path.

You have to have noticed this. If you suggest a workout plan to somebody, for example, they will give you pushback not based on the reality of the plan, but on their imagined final result. Suggest weight training to a friend, for example, and they will tell you they prefer cardio because they don’t want to get bulky. As if it doesn’t occur to them that they can stop and hold fast at any intermediate point, with all the benefits and none of the bulk.

I have found that when I try to do something–anything from forming a habit to working on a project I have due in a month–my brain will come up with a vision of the work it entails and the results it will produce, and that vision will be what my emotions react to.

So, unless I am aware, and patient, it is easy for “write the next paragraph of this paper” to turn into “write the paper.”

That is often what trips me up. And it’s not just for projects but for habits, as well. Where I have succeeded it has been because I have deliberately taken steps to undermine this process of over-inflating my assumptions about what I must be doing.

Nethra January 27, 2023 at 3:26 am

I do this too! I also keep a small notepad where I quickly “vent” if I need to untangle emotions in the moment, and can’t write introspectively. Often it’s gibberish but does a great job of letting my brain know it’s been heard and can get back to the task at hand. I scroll through this list at the end of my day, and if something really important lingers, I transfer it to my journal to write about in detail. The rest I tear up and clear the slate. This is gold when I need to stop a task somewhere and walk away – I note down where I left things, and also when I come back and have to do a small mental dance to find the flag from which I need to journey forth. It’s a fantastic mindfulness exercise as well – Shinzen calls these microhits!

David Cain January 27, 2023 at 10:04 am

This reminds me of Julia Cameron’s “morning pages,” where you begin each day by writing out three pages of what’s on your mind.

Often I will use sticky notes as physical “bookmarks” when I leave something I’m going to resume later. I put the note on top of the file, paper, or tools, and write the very next thing to do with them. Finding that “point of resuming” by thinking about it is really hard for me and it tends to make me avoid resuming at all.

Now that you mention it, all of these little self-guiding rituals would be great places to do microhit practice.

Ecoteri January 27, 2023 at 8:52 pm

I love your idea of a sticky note with the next thing to do for a pile that I need to abandon for now. I can just feel a letting go within me at the thought of not having to remember, but letting the note remind me. GO US!

Nethra February 21, 2023 at 7:15 am

Love the sticky note idea! And yes, totally agree on the groan-worthy process of having to figure out the resuming point upon return. I didn’t put my journaling together with the morning pages concept, but now I see how they are alike. When I do my microhit journaling, I think of it as a little time capsule I gift to future me! :-D There I will be, helping myself in the near future. Amen to what Ecoteri said below – go us!

Heather February 14, 2023 at 8:53 am

Nethra, you might enjoy this article by Tony Stubblebine about “interstitial journalling”, which is about having a ‘side journal’ to write in between tasks. It sounds on the surface like it could veer dangerously close to procrastination(!) but as you said in your post, it means your brain/emotions feel heard and incorporated into the full picture: https://betterhumans.pub/replace-your-to-do-list-with-interstitial-journaling-to-increase-productivity-4e43109d15ef

Nethra February 21, 2023 at 7:15 am

This is a fantastic read! Thank you so much, Heather, for sharing. :-)

Rocky January 27, 2023 at 7:22 am

“Severe procrastination isn’t just annoying or frustrating, it’s a tragic loss of life.“ This sentence really zeros in on the magnitude of the problem.
Wow !!
As a longtime reader of Raptitude,
I’m aware of your own ongoing struggles with procrastination.
I think it’s beautiful that you can turn it around and help others with their own suffocating battles with procrastination!
You should be very proud of yourself….

David Cain January 27, 2023 at 10:05 am

Thanks Rocky! Will do

Lois Burridge January 27, 2023 at 9:06 am

Procrastinating by reading my mail instead of working and reading this post.
This is a good tool. I too am a member of the severe procrastinator club. I always feel bad when I read articles encouraging me to do less when what I really want is to do more.
Thanks for all your helpful advice!

David Cain January 27, 2023 at 10:06 am

That has always frustrated me as well. Everything I read about productivity seems to assume that most people work too much and are too focused on getting things done. That has never been my problem either, and I’m sure there are millions of us.

Marian January 30, 2023 at 9:03 pm

So heartening to read there are others out there who are also irritated/frustrated or feel guilty on reading articles urging one to slow down, do less etc. I am “Slow(ed) Down” personified. I don’t think I could go any slower – any slower would mean stop! I read those kind of articles and end up saying out loud: “NO NO NO! I am already slowed down, I don’t need to do less, I need to do MORE! Why doesn’t anyone see me?” So thankyou Lois and David and all your commenters for your insight and words of wisdom and for recognising people like me/us.

TechFalcon January 27, 2023 at 10:21 am

Thank you so much for the helpful information.

Mark Kandborg January 27, 2023 at 12:13 pm

To Do:
1 – Comment on Article
2 – Buy Post-it Notes

This is my real list. Nonetheless… at least I’m sitting at my computer and thinking about work, so that’s progress. I’ll have to try to hold a better RNL in my head for now, and get to it. Wish me luck. And thanks!

Pipsterate January 27, 2023 at 3:19 pm

This is good stuff. Do you have any advice on how to apply this to situations where it’s unclear what should even be on the list? I mean situations where you have multiple competing ideas for projects to do, and you’re not sure which to prioritize first, or if it might even be necessary to cancel some of them in order to have time to do the others?

Terry Wall January 27, 2023 at 5:08 pm

Grandpa’s Rule: “Worst First”.

Take the first meaningful small step of the item you are LEAST looking forward to, e.g. “write the opening sentence of this negative report” or “do the first stretching exercise of the 30 in my routine” or “get my snow-clearing boots out of the cupboard”. Whatever it is, give yourself permission to stop doing this item when you have accomplished that one step. Chances are, you won’t stop until you have accomplished several, or until you have made enough progress to switch to the next worst item, which won’t seem so bad because you’ve made progress on the worst one!

The wider question you raise is about prioritising and time allocation. Firstly, if you genuinely don’t know the priorities (i.e. importance plus urgency) then it doesn’t matter which you choose, so use the “Worst First” approach. Secondly, if the volume of items is what is causing you problems then take each of them and put them in your diary on a future day. Estimate the time you might spend on each and don’t fill more than half your available time on any one day. You’ll find this helps you to prioritise as some will become more urgent than others.

Now, you’ve removed everything apart from today’s items so do the first short step of the first item, then decide if you want to do the second. I think you will.

And repeat.

Ecoteri January 27, 2023 at 8:58 pm

What Terry Wall says, above – Grandpa’s Rule: “Worst First”.
However, what I am hearing Pipsterate, is that you have my challenge – a head full of things-to-do that you haven’t poured out on paper yet.
How about taking some time to write things down? I have a spiral notebook that I use when I am overwhelmed with many to-do tasks. I kind of organize and flip back and forth between sections, writing and writing and writing things that are swirling in my brain until there isn’t a pressing whoosh in my head.
THEN I can start to prioritize. Once things are down on paper, I can go through again and see what fits Terry’s Grandpa’s rule.
I call those things “What is bugging me the most”. Sometimes, surprisingly enough, the bugging me the most thing can be quite minor, yet if I get off my duff and DO that one thing, it is like a floodgate opens and I have energy to approach other things!

Terry Wall January 28, 2023 at 8:50 am

Good thinking from Ecoteri (love the handle – it’s almost “Echo Terry”!).

I went on a productivity course where the first thing they got us to do was to create an “everything” list, to cover all aspects of our lives. Then we had to decide on the first action for each and how long each would take and put them in our diaries. We very soon found out that there were literally not enough hours in the day so we had to prioritise and move items to later dates. Once having done this as a paper exercise – spiral notebook ideal – you then put them in your online diary. When the “boss” (or anyone else) asks you to do something else or attend a meeting or event you can point at your diary and say “which of these would you like me to postpone” or “my diary is full, no can do”. Your diary becomes your to-do list and MOST OF IT IS NOT TODAY!

I invented the “Four D’s Rule”. You can action every item in one of the following four ways:

DROP; DELEGATE; DELAY; DO. You don’t have to have reporting staff to “delegate”, of course, just find someone with a stronger need than you to get that item done. By the way, always consider the steps in that order, and immediately following the Worst First test. How satisfying it is to be able to drop or delegate your worst item!

p.s. I am the grandpa in “Grandpa’s Rule”! I invented it for the four grandkids.

Good luck to everyone, and thanks to David for his constantly thought-provoking ideas.

David Cain January 30, 2023 at 10:07 am

The list should be granular enough that it comprises the more obvious physical steps required to get from not-doing to doing the task. You usually aren’t mapping it out far enough to reach decision points.

The RNL doesn’t tell you what task to do, only how to get into it.

Jean January 27, 2023 at 3:50 pm

Thanks for the timely article, David. I recharged my old Kindle and reread “How to Do Things”. Got several blocks done on some deep housecleaning tasks I was mentally stuck on for several weeks. Now I’ve made RNL’s for the next three tasks I want to do and can feel the momentum. This truly works!

michael smit January 28, 2023 at 9:20 am


“a dangerous level of flexibility around when you actually get to work”. Wow, what an excellent way to write about motivation!

First, thank you for all that you have written. I’ve followed you from the start and during numerous purges of online subscriptions yours is one of a handful that always remains cherished.

Secondly, I am in the same boat as you – namely a late diagnosed adult with ADD. I’ve recently learned about interest based motivation and it struck a chord with me because interest can be created. For example I hate doing taxes, but I love to know the state of my financial situation. Hence doing taxes, while unpleasant to me, can be considered a step in something I am interested in. Perhaps in other words I am hijacking one motivation and applying it to another task. This method fails often (or more properly the enthusiasm still wanes frequently), but it is another tool in the toolbox to getting things done. Tying it to your idea of the Right Now list, especially when done as an automatic action as opposed to one that requires a lot of thinking, is another tool.

Once again, I cherish your insight and share your journey.



Mors Alfabesi Bileklik January 28, 2023 at 9:30 am

Brilliant. Thank you for another tool for this master-procrastinator’s kit.


Geoff January 28, 2023 at 1:18 pm

Nice. Absurdly simple and easy to implement.

Rodney Sykes January 30, 2023 at 1:24 am

Great post! I’ve struggled with procrastination for as long as I can remember and the Right Now List seems like an innovative and effective solution. Breaking down tasks into smaller and easier steps makes it easier to get started and overcome the initial resistance. I’ll definitely be giving this a try and see how it works for me. Thank you for sharing!

Lynn January 31, 2023 at 11:54 am

David, I just came across your March 2021 very personal article by clicking through this post. I am a 67yo woman who was diagnosed adhd in my late 40s and took 2 years before taking meds became a viable option in my world because hadn’t I managed for so long all ready? Recent industry upset in med availability has me starting over with that process which in itself has a ton of learning opportunities. Thanks for your openness. Looking forward to reading your future posts.

Gibraltar February 1, 2023 at 5:57 pm

As always, thank you for the relevant post. The “compound” where action takes place directed my thinking towards your preceding post with the Two Lists in January.

The List with the less-desirable/regrettable behavior also has a “compound”. The compound one finds themselves in after starting a regrettable act has the effect of losing momentum, maturity and wisdom – the opposite effect of losing mental baggage after getting into the compound of positive action. This reinforces the concepts behind a few of your prior posts including “Wise People Have Rules” and “The Gentle Art of Self-Control”. In particular, the “velvet rope” seems even more profound.

I would love to hear if you had any thoughts.

AK February 5, 2023 at 5:23 pm

I love this idea, I’m trying it now. Well, as soon as I finish this comment. Ahem!

Knitting author Maggie Righetti has this idea of what she calls “idiot tags”. When you put your knitting down for the day/night/whatever, attach a written note that says where you are up to- really, what you need to do next, e.g continue ribbing K1 P1 on size 4 needles. Similar to the RNL list, I think sometimes the trying to work out where you are at in a task that is out of working memory takes a huge amount of energy to get back in there and get the fly wheel moving. And thus a barrier to getting on with it. I kind of like the self deprecating humour of idiot tag, but RNL is definitely kinder :-)

jakejeffereson February 13, 2023 at 6:00 am

یکی از ساده‌ترین راه حل‌ها برای برای زمانی که کد پستی خود را لازم دارید اما به هر دلیلی آن را در دسترس ندارید یا بطور کلی نمی‌دانید، دریافت کد پستی با شماره تلفن است.
برای یافتن کد پستی، راحت ترین و سریع ترین راه سامانه شرکت ملی پست ایران می باشد

Heather February 14, 2023 at 8:41 am

I do something similar with tasks that have taken on a poisonous aura. I call it “Can you?”

I scribble a question small enough that the answer is always yes. As I reply with each “yes”, I do the thing e.g.

Can you:

Open your laptop? (yes)
Find the document file? (yes)
Read the first paragraph? (yes)
Find one mistake? (yes)
Make one correction? (yes)

It’s like handholding. After a few steps, momentum usually builds so you find almost without noticing that you’ve abandoned the pad and are just doing the thing. The tone required is the same one you’d use speaking to an overwhelmed toddler!

Greyter Dag February 23, 2023 at 7:17 am

I think that I will not reveal the secret if I tell you that every day we meet more and more people who prefer home and family over hard working conditions and tight work schedules. Yes, you definitely need to work and earn money. After all, without income, we will not be able to support families. When I worked in a bank. And I had one day off a week. I have not seen my son grow up.
At one point, I decided to change everything. I found a job online. Now I’m a freelance marketer. In my house there is a place for both work and leisure. In order to make it comfortable to work and relax in the warm season, I ordered the best quality Hanso Pergolas Designed in Scandinavia https://hansohome.com/
This gives me the opportunity to get a comfortable place to work, as well as spend time comfortably with my family and friends.

Salome February 24, 2023 at 10:34 am

This is so great idea! Similar to this, I am doing Focus note. I am opening my daily planner at work or at home and write down Focus: and below one or two things that I need to do. Once I finish them, I write one or two more and can even continue to several other small tasks without writing.

Nicus February 27, 2023 at 12:09 am

Looks creepy. I’d never go through that gate. Probably an old lady at the other end of the path that hates dogs and eats children…

Sams_Here March 20, 2023 at 6:40 pm

– Respond to this blog post
– Highlight meaningful sections to Readwise
– Get out more Post-It notes


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