How to Get Things Done: Part 1 – Beating Procrastination


How to Get Things Done

Do you delay doing things you know you should be investing time into? Do you ever roll out of bed with a large list of tasks for the day, then evening hits and the list is no shorter?

I do.

Procrastination. It’s one of the most dangerous habits because it steals that most precious of all commodities: Time.

In a study at the University of Calgary, psychologist and researcher Piers Steel, Ph.D., found that an overwhelming majority of people reported falling to the dangers of procrastination. Some 80-95 percent of college students reported engaging in procrastination, and that doing so affects more than one-third of their daily activities. Beyond student life, other studies show that about 15-20 percent of the general population suffers from chronic procrastination. [1]

Musicians, are you putting off practicing those difficult etudes?

Students, are you cramming, the night before a test?

Teachers, are you winging it in class because you didn’t start planning your lesson until 10pm the night before?

Visionaries, are you putting off making that uncomfortable first step because you’re afraid people might laugh at your idea?

We often delay for two reasons:

  1. The task is unpleasant, tedious, boring, etc.
  2. The task is something we have a fear of not being able to complete or do successfully.

The fear of failure is a powerful paralyzing agent, as is the feeling of “being comfortable.” Why strain ourselves to do something less pleasant than what we are currently doing? If we try, fail, and only feel worse about it, isn’t it  just easier to not do anything?

Of course, we also know that procrastinating doesn’t just take away time; we know that it also can have detrimental effects on our performance. Imagine the student who crams all night before a test. Not only does he or she likely get little to no sleep, but the learning of information has now been packed into such a short time period that it is much more difficult for the student to easily access the material he studied. Add to that, the negative effects of sleep deprivation, and the outcome is a student who is likely to make many more mistakes than usual, with material that hasn’t had time to be processed into long-term memory.

If you want to overcome procrastination:

  1. Focus on where you are – not on the destination – and move forward from your current position. Many people think of the endpoint,  and become overwhelmed with everything they need to do to get there–so they never start. Shift your attention to your starting point. What needs to be done first? Take your instrument out of the case and warm-up. Open your book and make a note of what you want to read and study in the first hour. Think about your previous class lesson and how you can transition FROM that TO the next one. Commit your visionary idea to paper and make an outline of the first steps necessary to get others interested in it.
  2. Protect yourself from distractions. As you get started, make sure you are away from something that might easily distract you from your task. Find a particular space that you can practice, study, plan, and think. Everyone has their own space that works for them. It does not need to be a library or study room. If you work best in a cafe, or if you express yourself on your instrument most effectively in the kitchen, be there. (Just make sure you are not encroaching on the space of others.)
  3. Once you start, set a short-term goal and accomplish it quickly, then slow down. A very effective strategy that I teach people is to set a goal that be accomplished quickly at the beginning. People are more inclined to continue working when they feel that they have completed something. Warming up with a set of scales or responding to the most urgent email before moving on to your big projects provides the satisfaction that you’ve checked one thing off your list. Your short-term goal should take NO LONGER than 10-15 percent of the total time you will be working.
  4. Harness the power of momentum. You’ve heard that “a body in motion tends to stay in motion.” (We thank Sir Isaac Newton for that.) The lesson is that as you start to gain momentum, it becomes easier to keep going. Once you’ve finished your short-term goal, leverage that compounding factor of forward movement to move deeper and deeper into your work.


[1] See Piers Steel. The Nature of Procrastination: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review of Quintessential Self-Regulatory Failure. Psychological Bulletin (2007), Vol. 133, No. 1, 65–94. For more of Professor Steel’s work, check out his book The Procrastination Equation.

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