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Don’t put off till tomorrow

Some tasks are harder than others to begin, but there are ways to stop avoiding the inevitable.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Thirteen months ago in this space, I wrote about getting ahead through procrastination. This time I’d like to discuss a related concept — how to actually start tasks you’ve been avoiding.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with this chain of events: You have an important project you haven’t begun yet. The deadline might be fast approaching or it could be weeks or months away. Maybe it’s a big project and you’re dreading how involved it will be. It could also be something you’ve done a thousand times before so you’re confident in your ability to get it done, but you aren’t highly motivated to start because, again, you’ve already done this a thousand times.

Regardless, instead of biting the bullet and just beginning the project in earnest, you allow yourself to get sidetracked by checking email, or completing less important or urgent tasks, or perhaps enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon because you can always start tomorrow.

Eventually, yes, we’ve all managed to start and finish these tasks — if we didn’t we’d probably be looking for another job — but it’s always the starting that proves so difficult in these situations. Back in college, I used to put off things right up until the adrenaline kicked in from the realization that I literally had no more time to spare to get that paper written or project completed. I got things done, usually well enough to earn a good grade, but life would have been so much easier if I’d gotten a fast start.

There’s no magic formula for how this works. The task itself is rarely ever as difficult as actually starting the task, so it really comes down to following a few simple steps to ensure that starting becomes easier.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article by Peter Bregman, professionals in this position need to start with willpower, which works best in small moments as opposed to over longer periods of time. Then, commit to repetition by taking that first step and then repeating it each day until the project is complete. Finally, you can benefit from adaptability, as you discover that by plunging in and starting your task, instead of putting it off, you’ll feel less stressed and actually have more time to devote to other duties, or actually have a little fun.

In applying these ideas to that put-off project, Bregman recommends the following steps:

  1. Identify the project or task that you want to move forward on but are having a hard time getting started.
  2. Identify the transition point to working on it, such as picking up the phone and dialing (for a conversation), sitting down and writing the first word (for any kind of writing task), or asking a question and then actually listening to the response without interrupting.
  3. Make the decision to start at a specific time and place.
  4. Prepare yourself to feel uncomfortable and then move through that discomfort without stopping. It’s a difficult but learnable skill that will enable you to overcome many self-imposed obstacles.
  5. Follow through without second-guessing yourself.
  6. Repeat these steps every day.

How do you get started when it’s tempting to avoid things altogether? Let me know at jason@ibmadison.com.

Click here to sign up for the free IB ezine — your twice-weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. If you are not already a subscriber to In Business magazine, be sure to sign up for our monthly print edition here.

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