There are two ways to not get something done: Doing a lot and doing nothing. The trick to getting your list of tasks done is to understand your method of not doing it.

Everyone I know has something they really need to do but just can’t make it happen. I am not talking about big life issues, like, “Find a new career,” and I’m not talking about moments of frivolity, like, “Relocate to a swing state.” I’m talking about the stuff like, “Send resume to new friend of friend.” Or “Write weekly report in the new format boss requested.”

Even these tasks that are seemingly manageable are, in fact, opportunities for procrastination. This is the kind of procrastination that bothers me the most. Huge projects are understandably hard to start because maybe you can’t tell what needs to be done. And life-changing goals are understandably intimidating to work on, because maybe they won’t work. But tasks that take less than a few hours are the ones we should all be able to perform with little fanfare.

Doing nothing is my procrastination mode of choice. I am great at breaking down large projects into manageable tasks. And I am great at prioritizing. I even have a knack for carving out time in the day for my tasks. But then I fall apart. Some days, I just can’t get myself to do the tasks. I find myself flailing – doing the easy items on my list even though they’re not important, or, worse, reading and rereading minor sections of the newspaper. The “Furniture for Sale” ads look fascinating when they lie on top of my to-do list.

Doing a lot is harder to recognize as procrastination because people who do a lot trick themselves into thinking they are actually working on their task. Procrastinating by doing a lot means that you are busy doing things that don’t matter. People who do a lot as a way to procrastinate are usually researchers and investigators. For example, instead of writing an outline for a speech about the price of tea in China, you surf the Internet looking for a joke you read somewhere that you’d like to use for your opening. But the joke is not really part of the task. The task is the speech and the joke is something you could add if you want to, at the end, when the presentation is done.

Okay. So look at the top of your to-do list, which you are probably not working on now as you read this column. (Although bless all of you who have put “Read Penelope’s column” at the top of your list!) Hopefully, because you understand the process of breaking down large projects into manageable tasks, the top item is a manageable task. And now you can figure out if you are not finishing it because you are doing too much or too little.

The reason that doing a lot and doing nothing are so similar is that they are both ways of coping with the fear that you’ll do a bad job. But here’s something you should be even more scared of: The stress of not being able to accomplish tasks you set out for yourself. Procrastinating always feels bad, and the relief of finishing something always feels great. So recognize whether you are a person who needs to stop or start, and entice yourself into action by remembering the joy of getting a difficult item off of your list.

10 replies
  1. Emily
    Emily says:

    ‘The “Furniture for Sale” ads look fascinating when they lie on top of my to-do list.’

    Exactly.

    It’s amazing how much I can get done when I actually look at the to-do list I’ve made… Sigh.

    I think I suffer from both kinds of procrastination, depending on the day. This is a good thing to notice.

  2. Sharon
    Sharon says:

    I am not sure why I ended up seeing and reading your columns today but it must be for a good reason. Probably because I was procrastinating when I should have been doing an English paper! I suffer more from the type of procrastination that literally freezes me to inaction. I am still not sure how to overcome my fears and perfectionists qualities.

  3. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Same as Emily posted, I too suffer from both types of procrastination. What really hit the nail on the head for me was the last paragraph. I always thought my procrastination was my way to make sure all the details were perfect. The process of striving for perfection. But to be honest with myself, there is a part of me that fears not doing a task right. Recognizing this now, I can try to take a ‘plunge’ every now and then and just start and complete a task and not haggle over every tiny detail. I need to tap into my confidence and move into action!!

  4. J Patel
    J Patel says:

    Hi Penelope. I just ‘discovered’ your blog tonight. I’ve recently ‘discovered’ blogs and love the whole concept of blogging and would like someday to have my own. In fact, someday I’d like to get into publishing (I’m working on it).
    To get to the point, I just wanted to say I really liked the above entry – thanks for reminding me of the fact that it does feel good getting difficult items off of my to-do list. I love to procrastinate and the last year I had some serious (official) items on my to-do list which involved contacting various people and finding various pieces of information, etc, etc. The task was stressing me out and the fact that I kept adding it to my new to-do lists was frustrating me. I finally decided to deal with it, and as usual, whilst doing it and after accomplishing the dreaded tasks, I realised they weren’t that bad in actuality. Just the thought of them was more afraid than the actual tasks at hand. I try to remind myself of this everytime I have any similar situations, but I really lack self-discipline (this is in reference to another of your entries I just read about self-discipline – I liked that too). I am going to try read your entries/columns as much as I can because I like the few archived ones I’ve just read. Thanks for the great familar reads that I can relate to.
    J Patel, England

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