Conquer Procrastination: Step 4 – Pair the Pleasant with the Unpleasant

In the immortal words of Mary Poppins, “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Sugar – or its psychic equivalent – doesn’t just work for medicine; it can help improve the “taste” of any nasty, scary, or unappealing task. Why do you think there are so many TV sets in gyms? No one actually wants to think about working out while they’re doing it!

If you find yourself bogged down in the pursuit of your goals, try this same principle. Figure out a way to pair up something you don’t want to do with something you love. Some ideas:
  • Take a class with a good friend. Not only will you feel obligated to show up for your sessions, the time will go faster when you’re distracted by entertaining conversation.
  • Listen to music or podcasts while you’re working out, cleaning out the garage, or decluttering the attic.
  • Cutting back to pay off your debts? Make it a game with your family and see who can spend the least, come up with creative ways to save, or unique plans for making a little extra cash. 
  • If your goal is to be on time, get yourself a Mickey Mouse watch so you can keep track of the minutes in style – and smile every time you look at your watch.
  • Can’t seem to get around to writing that book that you resolved to finish this year? Treat yourself to a cup of your favorite expense latte when (and only when!) you’re sitting down working.
  • If making follow-up sales calls is the bane of your existence, sweeten the experience by sitting out on the back deck in the sun, or having your partner massage your back while you’re on the phone.
The key to making this strategy work is to not cheat. That means you have to hold yourself to skipping your latte if you’re not working on your novel, or refusing the backrub if you’re not on the phone with sales prospects. The more you limit your treat to the time when you’re actually working toward your goal, the stronger the association between working towards your goal and pleasant feelings. If you cheat, you short-circuit that connection.
 
Of course, it still comes down to you doing what you said you'd do. But hopefully by aligning not-so-fun tasks with pleasant associations, you'll be more inclined to get it finished.

Conquer Procrastination: Step 3 – Break It Down

We’re an impatient society. We want it all, and we want it now. After all, this is the era of “It’s there in 30 minutes or it’s free!” and next-day Amazon deliveries. Why should we wait and take our goals a step at a time?

Because that’s really the only way to achieve them. In fact, taking a little longer to achieve your heart’s desires may be better for you in the long run:
  • It gives you time to adjust to changes along the way.
  • It lets you overcome obstacles and develop new skills that you may need once you’re on the top of the mountain.
  • It allows you to evaluate whether the goal you’re aiming for is really what you want.
Achieving large goals in a single fell swoop usually only happens on TV or in the movies; the rest of us have to take the not-so-short cut. In fact, trying to tackle a big goal all at once can actually discourage you, as perfectionism, fear of failure, lack of confidence, and other negative emotions can arise if you try to change too much at once.
 
Here’s how to break your big goal down into manageable chunks:
  • Set your first milestone only as far ahead as your headlights shine. Right now, you may not be able to see the entire path from where you are now to where you want to be. Instead of trying to map out your whole plan, just map out the next step. For instance, if you want to go back to school to finish your degree, you know one thing for sure: You’ll need to find out how to apply to school. Make that your first goal, and set a reasonable deadline. Don’t worry about the rest of the steps (getting transcripts, taking an entrance exam, applying for financial aid) until you’ve tackled that first step.
  • Work in chunks you’re comfortable with. Many of us are very comfortable planning about three months in advance; this is the length of an academic quarter in school and a financial quarter in business. Figure out what you need to accomplish in the next three months, and map out steps for doing so. At the end of the quarter, review your accomplishments and map out the next quarter.
  • Base your daily list on your longer-term goals. Break down daily activities based on your quarterly or monthly goals. Each activity on your list should be something you can accomplish today that moves you forward to your bigger goals. That way everything rolls up together, and you’re not wasting your time on unimportant tasks.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. How do you achieve any goal, no matter how large? The same way – one step at a time.