Making a start is the hardest part…

I’ve had a job to do for weeks. A report to write. I need to have it done for a meeting tomorrow. And I’ve kept putting it off! Why!? Once I got down to it I actually enjoyed writing it and it took me about an hour an a half… that was all… and now it’s done and I feel great!

Caroline Webb in her great, highly recommended book, How to Have a Good Day, says that most of the jobs we avoid are ones that have a long term benefit. This report I had to write had no short term benefit in doing it a few weeks back but now, given the meeting is tomorrow (!) it does have a short term benefit. This, Webb tells us, is an evolutionary mechanism that sees the trade off between short term and long term benefits lead to procrastination. She says “it’s easier for our brains to assess the known present than to consider the unknown future” (pg. 104) so we tend to give more priority to the here and now than to the future.

The problem with this is that it means things get left until the last minute. What if something had happened this morning that meant I couldn’t write the report. I’d have either had to stay up late (never the time to do your best work) or look unprofessional tomorrow. I say to my adult children that there are 3 things that get you to where you need to be – the first two you will recognise – inspiration and perspiration. But there’s a third – reputation – particularly in professional work where people expect you to ‘show up’ ready to go. Don’t let yourself down by not leaving enough time to get the job done so you are prepared.

Picturing the benefits, Webb goes on to say, is the way to beat procrastination. For me, in this example, the benefit would have been a job done, ticked off my list, and not waking up every day for the last week or so thinking I must do that report. What we know is having ‘open loops’, as David Allen (The Getting Things Done Methodology) calls them erodes your psychological capital. An open loop is a thing that goes round and round in your brain that gets in the way of focussing on the task in hand. So by not doing the report I have a constant nagging ‘you need to do that report’ going around in my head when I should be applying my psychological capacity to other things! This is downside of inaction.

What is useful for some larger tasks is to break them down into smaller tasks. So with regard to the report I needed to write. I needed to find the document on line and appraise what I needed to do. I needed to read some evidence that I needed to be aware of to write the report, and then I needed to write the report. A concept called “The Power of Small Wins” tells me that if I’d broken it down into steps a few things happen. The first step suddenly seems more manageable than the whole task and then when each step is completed you get a psychological buzz of satisfaction. If you leave it as one big task you only get the buzz when the task is finished. Psychological boosts at the end of each step motivate you to move onto the next step.


  • So, break the task down into small steps and diary them all.
  • By putting them all in your diary you remove them from your brain – so they are no longer an ‘open loop’. You will get to the step in your dairy and be reminded of what to do – you don’t need to remember what to do when.
  • Plan a ‘pay-off’. If it’s something you really are struggling to get on with plan a treat when it’s done, or a little treat when each step gets done. Treats are good!
  • Consider the downside of not taking action – this may well motivate you.
  • Remember – we often overestimate how long something is going to take. I set aside 3 hours to write the report (it had turned into a monster in my head) and it actually only took an hour and a half! I suddenly had some free time… so I wrote this blog!

Two things done when I thought I’d only get one done!
Now that’s productivity!

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