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Only start: “just do it” tips for overcoming procrastination

Yesterday I cleaned my laundry room. I’m not expecting a drum roll here, or cheers or accolades (though that would be nice!) My point is about starting tasks – that often it only takes just starting to get something done.

I’d let the laundry room get ridiculously cluttered for weeks. It’s a multi-purpose room that had come to mean “multi-mess”. Art supplies were scattered around. My teenage sons had unceremoniously deposited cases of food on the floor. My husband had left piles of books out after collecting tomes to donate to the Times Colonist book sale (where I bought at least the equivalent number of books!) And so on.

It was cluttered, it was dusty and it had been bothering me every time I went in it or by it. Finally, I told myself I would clean it for the length of time it took a load of wash to go through (approximately 30 minutes). Voila! In just that short time the entire room was cleared and cleaned.  That was easy!  So why had I put it off so long? I should know from experience that tasks are usually far easier to do than we think they are when we’re procrastinating.

Starting is the key, tiny time chunks the answer to overcoming procrastination

As Mark Shead of Productivity 501 says, “much of the time, once you get started you’ll find that what was really holding you back was just starting the task.”

Shead’s tip for overcoming the procrastination hump is to give oneself 15 minutes to start a task we think will be unpleasant. “Once we start something, it is easier to keep at it, but starting is the hard part.”

I have found this short-time approach can be successful, especially at home where it seems to be tougher to apply self-discipline than at work. For example, sometimes my family or I tackle a kitchen cleanup during the commercial breaks of a favorite show. Other times we put our kitchen timer on for 10 minutes and challenge ourselves to see how much housework we can get done in that time. The limited time commitment seems to help overcome teenage angst (that otherwise can get channeled into complaining about the prospect of a task for longer than it would take to actually do it!)

I’ve also successfully used audio books from the library to divert me while I’m doing housework or other repetitive chores. This method hasn’t worked for my youngest son, however. He decided on his own to try it but I keep finding him in zombie mode, stretched out on his unmade bed, surrounded by dusty furniture and unfolded laundry as the sonorous voice of the narrator reads “Sharpe’s Tiger” by Bernard Cornwall.

This photo taken from maloneyonmarketing.com

I guess it’s a human trait to procrastinate. Perhaps that’s why Nike’s “Just do it!” slogan resonated so soundly with the public.  In the marvelous documentary Art and Copy, a Nike executive described how the campaign inspired people to take life-altering actions, like quitting a job or getting a divorce.

Two decades later, the simple declarative phrase continues to inspire, such that in a global survey in 2009, the Australian firm Nicholas Weston found that the Nike slogan was the number two brand that people had tattooed on their bodies (after Harley Davidson, surprise, surprise!)

Fortunately, we don’t need that level of commitment to get things done. For the most part, we only need to start.


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  1. debbie says:

    Hear hear! I hate doing the dishes, so I put the timer on for 5 or 10 minutes, depending how much I have to do, and race through the task that way. I am a TERRIBLE procastinator, which is nuts, as I get so much satisfaction out of getting chores done. I shall always seek to improve this area of my life! Hope you and the boys are well and doing some nice summer things. Do you check me out on Facebook? We went to Wimbledon yesterday; fab!

    1. Stephanie Slater says:

      Oh boy, it’s pretty embarrassing to take so long to respond to a comment about procrastinating! My excuse is that I’ve taken an online break for a few weeks in order to garden, travel and visit my parents. The timer idea is a good one. Writing coach Daphne Gray-Grant and others recommend using a timer as a way to encourage fast writing (another task that is easy to put off!)

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