One of the common complaints about the Getting Things Done (GTD) method is that it teaches you how to get organized, but it doesn’t do much to address the actual "doing" part of getting those next actions done. In this blog post, I'll go into some of the common causes of procrastination and how to overcome them.
Not Knowing Where to Start
It’s impossible to get a project done if you don’t have a clue where to begin. Not knowing where to start with a new project usually results in it just sitting there on your to-do list, staring you in the face every day and causing mental stress. There are two main reasons why a project sits on your list without getting done:
- The project is nested on your next actions list, when it should be on your projects list instead.
- And not having properly mapped out the pieces of your project to begin with.
Let's address the first problem. You need to keep your next actions entirely separate from your projects. Only next actions belong on your next actions list. Those are tasks that you don't need to think about what to do because they're self-explanatory, such as, taking out the kitchen trash. Projects that get placed on next action lists tend to linger and not get done because, technically, you can't actually "do" a project - you can only do next actions. Projects are defined as a group of next actions that create an outcome, so in order to get a project done, you have to break it down into next action steps first.
That brings us to problem #2 - not breaking a project down into its constituent next action steps. If you don't break a project down into next actions, then it requires too much thought to figure out what actually needs to be done to move it forward towards completion, and that defeats the purpose of GTD. What works best for me is to use a mind-map to brainstorm ideas and to chunk a project down into bite-sized pieces. By chunking a large project down, you’ll be able to gain a better grasp at the individual next actions that need to be done.
Trying to Make Things Perfect
Perfectionism usually spells out a death sentence for getting things done. Perfectionists tend to be so overly concerned about things being done perfectly that it causes the entire project to stall out, and in some cases, not getting started at all. The reality is that perfectionism is mostly an illusion that's not possible to attain. If this is a problem, then you should re-frame your expectations and aim for quantity, not quality. Aim to just get the project completed without worrying about making it perfect. Testing, fine-tuning and quality control can all be brought in at a later time.
I doubt that there are very many people out there who truly enjoy washing dishes, taking out the trash or writing a dull report, yet those boring or unpleasant tasks make up a decent chunk of our to-do lists and are critical for the daily maintenance of our lives, so they still need to get done. But how do you work on something that you just don't have any motivation or desire to do?
There are several ways to attack this problem, but for me personally, I find that once I get started, I tend to work through it just fine, and actually, my motivation and momentum build on a project the longer I work on it. The main problem is just getting started. So I get a kitchen timer and set it for ten minutes and once I hit start, I perform 10 minutes of pure uninterrupted work before I let myself take a break. Once the timer dings, I take a 2 minute break before I start the whole process over again. I use 10 minutes because it's a block of time that's not overwhelming for me, but you're free to use any length of time that works best for you.
Fearing the Possibility of Failure
The fear of failure stops a lot of projects dead in their tracks. We've been conditioned by society to win so much that taking the risk on the possibility of failure sometimes prevents us from getting started at all. Here's a bit of perspective though - if you try for something, then yes, there's a possibility that you might fail. However, if you don't try it at all, then your failure is 100% guaranteed! Failure is a necessary part of the learning process and you should embrace it instead of fearing it. You can minimize the risk of failure through proper planning and due diligence, but ultimately, you're just going to have to feel the fear and do it anyways.
Lacking Skill Sets
If you don't have the technical abilities needed to carry out a task, then that task will tend to linger and not get done. There are two ways to overcome this problem:
- You can acquire the skill-set(s) needed to complete the task
- Or you can farm the task out to another person who possesses the skills required to get the project done.
Lack of Focus
If the environment that you're working in is too distracting, then you're not going to get work done. You need an environment that's conducive towards the success of the task that you are doing. That might not be an issue if you're doing work that does not require a whole lot of cerebral horsepower, such as cleaning out the garage, but something like writing a report clearly requires a distraction-free environment.
Increase your focus by secluding yourself in a quiet room where you won't be distracted. Turn off your phone and disconnect your instant messenger, email notifications and anything else that can be a distraction. If ambient noise is a problem, then you might want to consider using earplugs or ear phones with white noise running. Both are effective at drowning out noise levels.
Trying to Work Too Much
And of course, procrastination can happen in the most unlikely of places - like while you’re actually working! The law of diminishing returns states that the output of your productivity will decrease the longer that you put unbroken time into it. We’ve all experienced this before. Our work output towards the end of the work day, for the most part, isn’t as good as it was when we first started in the morning. So when we work day and night without breaks on a large, overwhelming project, there’s a tendency to get caught up in a lot of meaningless busywork that doesn’t really push the project forward. On the surface, it seems like we’re working hard, but, in fact, it’s procrastination. Make sure you take breaks to recharge your mind and your energy. Disconnect from a mentally-challenging project and go do something fun. Although you’re not putting time into the project, you’ll find that your productivity for that project will increase tremendously!