How to Do What’s Difficult

With all the talk about productivity and success, it’s easy to forget that the human animal is far from perfect. Much as we may know what we need to do, and much as we may want to do it, and much as we may be capable of doing it, sometimes we simply don’t do what we ought to.

There can be a lot of reasons for this, both practical and emotional. I leave most of the emotional reasons for you to tackle through introspection and conversation with those you trust.

In this piece, I want to stick with the practical reasons you’re procrastinating despite your own conscious desires and best interests. (This is different from the positive aspects of purposeful procrastination, which I discuss in my book: How to Organize Your Work and Your Life)

Here are some suggestions on how to get moving forward on a task or project when you’ve wanted to but haven’t:

Elevate Its Prominence within Your Plan

We’ve talked a lot about planning, and the power it gives you over your schedule and your efforts, which in turn help determine your level of productivity and success. That’s why it’s important you give a more prominent place in your plan to any task or project you’ve been procrastinating.

First, make sure the task or project you’re procrastinating gets a block of your prime time – when you won’t be interrupted and you’ll be feeling strong and capable.

Second, give the task or project that remains undone for too long a high level of urgency – even more than it deserved when you first put it on your schedule.

Gear Up

A task or project you’re leaving undone is probably one that feels more challenging than most others you face. For this reason, it’s a good idea to approach it more deliberately.

Prepare to work on the task or project by:

  • Gathering all the resources you’ll need to complete it.
  • Subdividing the task or project into a series of relatively easy mini-tasks.
  • Sequencing the mini-tasks into a sensible order.
  • Visualizing the improved situation after you’ve completed each mini-task.

Having done all this, you can more easily tackle each mini-task with far less of whatever is causing you to procrastinate in the first place.


There’s a reason highly-paid “attention engineers” often try to convert ordinary activities into games: people are more likely to spend time on an activity that’s fun, compared with one that’s boring or a chore.

You can do the same for your own task or project that you should have worked on already.

One method is to “contractually” link work on the task or project with an unrelated activity you enjoy. For example, you can make a deal with yourself something like the following: for every hour you spend “painting the fence” (or whatever is the onerous task or project at hand), you will spend another hour “going fishing” (or whatever is an activity you enjoy).

You can also adjust this ratio: set it up so you will get as much enticing play as you need to generate enough motivation to do the onerous work.

A more drastic “gamification” method can involve negative motivation. For example, make a deal with yourself that if you don’t follow your schedule of work on the task or project in question, you’ll make a sizeable donation to a charity you hate.

Generally, negative motivations are less effective than positive motivations, but in this case, negativity just might drive you to get the job done.

Do It for One Minute

One idea that has worked for me in the past is the “One Minute Rule.” It’s simply this: regarding the task or project I’ve been putting off, all I require of myself is to work on it for one minute a day. After that first minute, if I want to quit, I can.

This approach can help because it’s often the ramping up to the task or project that’s the real obstacle. Once I actually start working on the task or project, it’s often fairly easy to continue until I’ve made real progress.

Even if the task or project itself is onerous, chipping away at it one minute at a time generates more results than never getting started.

Don’t Do Anything Else

Another idea that has worked well for me in the past is the simple rule: “Don’t Do Anything Else.” For example, when I’ve scheduled work on a task from 10 to 11 AM, then during that hour I won’t let myself work on anything else.

What usually happens is that doing nothing is so boring, and sometimes so upsetting, that I begin to feel it’s easier and better to start doing some work on the scheduled task or project.

The result of all these techniques is to get you moving forward on tasks or projects that are integral and important to your productivity and success, but have been lingering too long on your “to do” list.

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