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How to stop procrastinating

The five systems I used to stop procrastinating — including details on how they work and action steps. Bonus: I tell you when it’s okay to procrastinate.

Ramit Sethi

Do you ever have one of those days where it just seems like you can’t get ANYTHING done?

It typically starts out with a clear goal in mind like “I’m going to go for a run today” or “I’m going to finish that big client proposal,” only to end with you endlessly browsing Reddit or Netflix.

I bet you know this feeling well. Hell, you’re probably reading this because you’re procrastinating on doing something right this moment — and that’s actually fine. I’m not going to lecture you to finish your goals for the day and I definitely won’t act like I haven’t been there before.

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What I am going to do is show you the EXACT steps you can take to demolish procrastination.

A while back, I asked readers to share stories about their difficulties focusing — and the answers I got back were haunting.

  • “Everything tugs at you at every moment, and all day. It’s very hard to concentrate. And at the end of the day it feels like you’ve been at a stair machine all day.” – Rafa
  • “I started feeling ‘fuzz’ — not the brain fog fuzzy — just difficulty in bringing things I know I know to mind.” – Elise
  • “I have talked myself out of doing an MBA because, despite the fact that I loved studying back in university and worked as an analyst, I feel like I am either not smart enough or not focused enough to do an MBA.” – Jamie

Notice something about these quotes? Procrastinating on one task often compounds into not moving a single thing forward.

This is like sitting down to a humongous to-do list, getting overwhelmed, and then saying SCREW IT before binging eight straight hours of Netflix.

And when that happens, many repeat the same tired excuses like “I just don’t have enough time in the day,” or “I’m just feeling way too lazy today,” that we’ve all heard before ad nauseum!

When the fact is, if you want to truly stop procrastinating, you have to come to terms with two salient truths of productivity:

  • Truth #1: We all have the same amount of time in the day — so STOP BLAMING IT. It doesn’t matter if you’re Bill Gates or a mother of two. You just need to learn how to manage your time better (more on that later).
  • Truth #2: You don’t have to be an emotionless robot in order to stop procrastinating. Focus and time management are about mindsets and simple — yet powerful — shifts in how you approach your to-dos.  

Today, I want to give you five systems that you can use to stop procrastinating and feeling lazy…and start being more productive instead.

Procrastination ending system #1: Take an Honesty Bath

How many times have you said something like this to yourself?

  • “Ugh, I’m tired. I’ll go to the gym AFTER work.” (Said before heading to do work that completely saps you of the energy to do anything besides sit on the couch for the rest of the day.)
  • “Ok, for real. I’m not going to eat junk food tonight.” (Said while getting dressed to go out, knowing you’ll be drinking six vodka tonics and passing by your favorite pizza place on 6th Ave. And let’s be honest: You’re DEFINITELY eating a slice or twelve tonight.”)
  • “I’m going to wake up early tomorrow.” (Said while browsing Facebook at 9pm…only to be doing the same thing 5 hours later.)

Instead of lying to yourself, take an Honesty Bath.

IWT Post 17 6 9

As a bachelor living in Manhattan, there’s nothing more relaxing than sinking into a bubble bath, putting on some candles and Richard Marx, and melting the day’s stresses away.

Um…what I mean is, I get BRUTALLY HONEST about myself. This means I look back at the last month and say, “What did I claim I was going to do? What did I REALLY do?”

And then. In classic Getting Things Done style, I do these:

  • Delete
  • Defer
  • Do it

If I say that I’m going to wake up every day at 7am, but every morning, I just slap the snooze button until it’s 8am…I’M NOT GOING TO WAKE UP AT 7AM!

Delete!

If I claim I’m going to make my bed every morning, but I have a huge project at work and I haven’t worked on it in the last three weeks, I’M NOT GOING TO MAKE MY BED WHILE THIS CRAZY PROJECT IS HAPPENING.

Defer!

This takes a lot of fortitude and self-awareness since you have to be ruthlessly honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and look to your past behavior to predict your future behavior. If you find yourself using the word “just” as in “I’ll just start next week” or “I’ll just try harder this week” then you’ve already lost.

Action step: See what goals you set for yourself in the last month and write them all down. Go through the list and see which ones you actually accomplished and which ones you didn’t get to. Then refer to the three Ds to see which ones you’ll delete, defer, or keep doing.

The best part? Once you make the decision, you can live GUILT-FREE and use your energy to commit to things you’ll actually do — which brings us to…

Procrastination ending system #2: Letting go of guilt

It’s interesting how people fall into the paradox of guilt — and don’t even realize it’s happening.

After all, how often have you talked to a friend about working out, saving money, or studying for school and heard them say something like, “Yeah, I know I really should be doing that but…” followed by some lame excuse as to why they’re procrastinating on something important?

“I know I really should be doing that” is just code for “I’m not going to do that at all.”

It’s the same with people in credit card debt — many don’t even know how much debt they have! They’d rather avoid their statements and bury their head in the sand than face the reality of how much they owe.

Which is why if you truly want to stop procrastinating and become a productivity machine, you need to be honest with yourself and hold yourself accountable.

Action steps: When you DO feel guilty, don’t run away from it. Instead, follow these four steps to overcome it.

Step 1: Acknowledge the guilt.

When you realize that you feel guilty about something you’re putting off — like not hitting the gym or saving up for retirement — I want you to just take a moment and acknowledge the feeling. Recognize your guilt and ask yourself what is making you feel guilty. That leads us to…

Step 2: Use the “five whys” technique.

This technique comes from a Japanese industrialist named Sakichi Toyoda. He developed the method in order to find solutions at the root of recurring issues related to his manufacturing plant and helped blow up his company into a household name — you might have heard of it: Toyota Motors.

At the heart of the technique is the question “why?” The idea is that most all problems can be solved by asking “why” five times — sometimes even less — and getting to the root issue.

Say you feel guilty because you’ve been meaning to open an investment account but haven’t. You can utilize the technique like this:

Why do I feel guilty?

Because I haven’t opened an investment account.

Why haven’t I opened an investment account?

Because I don’t even know where to start.

Why is that?

Because I bought an investment book years ago and haven’t read it yet.

Why haven’t I read it?

Because it’s in a box in my basement underneath the Christmas decorations.

See what happened? In less than 5 whys, we figured out how to begin solving this HUGE issue with just one step: taking the time to find a book. Now this person knows the first step to getting started with his investments.

Step 3: Write it all down.

Take everything from steps 1 and 2 and write it all down — your guilt, each of the whys you asked, and how you can solve everything. This will help you get a clear understanding of how your mind works when it comes to guilt and problem solving.

It will also give you a good place to go back to when you decide to finally solve the problem — which brings us to…

Step 4: Take action…tomorrow.

That’s right — this is Ramit-approved procrastination. Once you write everything down, I want you to step back and give it some space.

Because we’re HUMANS — and as humans we are naturally cognitive misers and have limited willpower. Just doing the five whys and investigating your guilt takes a lot — so just pick it up later when you’re fresh and ready to take action. I suggest setting aside some time in a day or two so you don’t keep pushing it off.

I want to show you an exclusive video from my premium course, Success Triggers. It’s about defeating guilt and enjoying the things that make YOU happy.

After all, we’re constantly told what we should do. It’s important to reward ourselves when we work hard and earn something.

 

The next time you find yourself saying something like “I’ll get to it later,” stop and evaluate why.

Maybe it’s not a priority for you right now. Maybe you just don’t want to do it. Both of these thoughts are perfectly fine. You’ll save everyone a lot of time and effort by recognizing and acting on what’s really going on.

Procrastination ending system #3: Learn how to say no

A few years ago, I went to my cousin’s wedding in India and saw one of my friends order his food in fluent Hindi. I was impressed, so I thought, “Hmm I should take Hindi lessons. That way, I can become fluent and impress people too!”

So when I got back to NYC I put it on my to-do list

…where it stayed for MONTHS. Every time I saw it, I would skip over it and put it off.

I always told myself that I’d get to it the next week…then the week after that…and then the week after that.

After a few months of deferring, I had a realization: I really didn’t care enough to try and learn Hindi. It just wasn’t important enough to me. I was procrastinating because I really didn’t want to do the task in the first place.

When I acknowledged I wasn’t going to learn Hindi and crossed it off my list, it was like a small burden lifted from my shoulders. It freed me up to focus on doing the things that I really wanted to do.  

Procrastination ending system #4: If it’s not on your calendar, don’t do it

I even take saying “no” a step further, and actually SCHEDULE it into my calendar. These designated “no times” are areas of the day that are reserved purely for strategy and research. That means:

  • No meetings
  • No calls
  • No emails

At first, I just carved out a few hours on Wednesday to do this. Then it expanded to a half-day. Now, whenever I have ANY task I make sure to put it on my calendar and use that time just to focus on that one task.

If it’s not on my calendar, it doesn’t exist. 

calendar

Look at this one item:

to do

This is a random to-do that I would normally put in the back of my head… and it would never get done. Instead, I added it to my calendar so it always gets done.

Action step: Stop putting things on your “to-do” list that just lead to more procrastination. Instead, schedule actual time for them. Here’s a few real items from my calendar:

  • Call cable company
  • Clean stupid box of papers
  • Mail letter to friend

Advanced tip: You can set up weekly, monthly, and quarterly “to-dos” for things like reviewing your systems, planning an annual negotiation, or even checking in on your relationship.

Procrastination ending system #5: Set SMART goals

The SMART goal is the be-all, end-all solution to our goal setting issues and can help you escape the prison of procrastination once and for all.

After all, how often have you set a New Year’s Resolution — and have it completely fail by the end of the year?

That’s because the problem with typical goal setting is that the goals set are too broad — and you have no idea where to start.

That’s why I’m a big proponent of SMART objectives.

SMART stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-oriented. And with each element in SMART objectives, you’re going to want to ask yourself a set of questions that’ll help you develop a winning goal.

  • Specific. What will my goal achieve? What is the precise outcome I’m looking for?
  • Measurable. How will I know when I’ve accomplished the goal? What does success look like?
  • Attainable. Are there resources I need to achieve the goal? What are those resources? (eg gym membership, bank account, new clothes, etc)
  • Relevant. Why am I doing this? Do I really WANT to do this? Is it a priority in my life right now?
  • Time-oriented. What is the deadline? Will I know in a few weeks if I’m on the right track?

Here’s a good example of how a SMART goal is better than just regular goal setting:

A few years ago, when I was feeling overwhelmed. I was in the middle of writing my book, building my business, and was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

One of my friends asked me, “What’s your number one goal?”

The question made me nervous so I didn’t want to answer. I was afraid if I said my single most important goal, I’d be closing doors to all of my other goals — which were many.

So I told him, “I want to be a bestseller, but I also want to generate $X million in revenue and I want to do this publicity and blah blah blah —” He cut me off and said, “Cut the BS. What’s your number one goal?”

Again, I hedged. But he pushed me and forced me to get crisp. I said, “I want this book to be a New York Times bestseller.”

There it was. We hate giving ourselves constraints because it feels limiting. It feels like we’re giving something up, and that’s exactly what it felt like in that moment.

However, it’s also freeing at the same time. Once I actually said out loud that I wanted to become a New York Times bestselling author, it became crystal clear what I needed to do in order to achieve my goal. I focused all of my attention on those things.

If you want to become successful — in any area of your life — you have to have that kind of focus.

The person who told me to get specific was my good friend Noah Kagan. Noah’s a master at helping people (and himself) get laser-focused on their goals. Pay special attention at 3:53 where he talks about the strategy that he learned from Mark Zuckerberg that has brought him success.

Bonus: If you want to stop making excuses and break yourself out of a rut, download my Ultimate Guide to Habits.

Advanced systems: Create habits you can stick to

As you may have noticed, our struggles with time management and productivity are really struggles with creating habits — which is why I put together the very best material on setting goals, creating habits that stick, riding motivational waves, and getting back on track if you ever fall off.

If you’re ready to stop making excuses, break out of that rut, and make a major change in your life, this free guide is for you.

ultimate guide habits

Take a look at what’s inside:

  • How to wake up productive and get more done by noon than most people do all day (covered in Part 2)
  • “If I wasn’t so lazy, I’d ____.” I’ll teach you how to keep accomplishing goals even when you “don’t feel like it” (covered in Part 3)
  • Ever spent a busy day filled with distractions — answering emails and putting out fires — and walked away feeling like you finished nothing? I’ll show you how to stay laser-focused on tasks and eliminate distractions (covered in Part 6)

This guide includes HD videos, downloadable worksheets, lessons from the world’s leading experts on behavioral change, and much, much more.

So check it out. Try out the techniques. And enjoy the results you get for the rest of your life.

Remember — building even one new habit around your fitness, your business, or your relationships could change everything. This guide shows you how to build those habits and much more.

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