When I procrastinate on something, it’s usually because there’s something I find aversive about it. Lately I’ve been trying to find patterns in what these aversions are, and noticed a big one: I usually find the start of a big task much more aversive than any other part. For instance, I often find myself shrinking away from beginning to write papers, whereas everything is fine once I’ve gotten going.
I’m not sure why the act of starting feels so scary, but I’ve found two ways to make it better.
As an experiment, I tried lowering my expectations for what I would get done in the beginning of a project. So for instance:
- “Outline the paper” becomes “Write one sentence that summarizes the message I want to communicate.”
- “Start implementing a feature” becomes “Write one routine that does one part of the feature.”
- “Do my taxes” becomes “Collect all the documents I need.”
It’s a kind of tunnel vision. By focusing on one small part of the task I lower expectations, which makes it much more likely that I’ll meet those expectations, and much less likely I’ll be disappointed in my progress, and so the task seems much more doable.
Keep a Running Concrete Todo List
Lowering expectations involves breaking the task at hand into small chunks, so I can take on a small piece at first. When I started doing that I noticed that I’d see lots of other chunks too. I didn’t want to forget about them, so I started writing them down. The net effect is that I always had a ‘next step’ ready to go, and that actually made the rest of the job go much faster.
What does this look like in practice? Say I’m revising a paper in response to a referee report. I might get started by lowering expectations, and my todo list is
- Read the referee report.
But when I write this down, I immediately notice the other components of the job:
- Read the referee report.
- Split the report into action items.
- Notify coauthors of action items relevant for them.
- Copy response template.
Each of these is a small task. I don’t find any of them aversive! So when I finish the first, I can just get started on the second. And as I identify action items they just get added to the list.
The important rule here is that every item on the todo list has to be concrete and immediately actionable. So for instance if I identify something (X) that I need to do:
- If I can’t do it on my own, the action item is not ‘Do X’ but rather ‘Get in touch with Y about X’.
- If it’s a big task, the todo item will be ‘Break X into small chunks’.
This approach also makes it clear that breaking down big tasks into small ones is real work, which helps me avoid stalling out wondering what comes next.