How to stop procrastinating in 3 simple steps

Updated to Habits, Productivity on May 5, 2023.

I have a superpower I want to share with you. No, it’s not Thor-like strength or the web-crawling agility of Spider-Man. But, this superpower will make you feel better, help avoid disastrous outcomes and undoubtedly make you money.

I’m talking about the ability to get stuff done. Here’s the deal…

We all find it hard to stop procrastinating. One study found that 88% of workers procrastinated on some work for at least one hour every workday. One hour a day!

Before I get to your superpower, let me ask:


If you knew a job was important, like phoning 10 clients for referrals. Heck, you even had it on your Flight Plan for this week.

BUT you also had lots of other distractions stinking up your plans. What’s the chance you’ll get it all done on Monday?

If you’re like most people, your great intentions slowly get pushed to Tuesday, then Wednesday, then Thursday, and then Friday, and then somehow, mysteriously “Call 10 clients for referrals” shows up on next week’s Flight Plan!

What we call being “productive”, according to Inc, is actually about 3 hours of real work in an 8-hour day. The rest is whittled away on news websites, social media, and non-work conversations.

If the above example didn’t make you squirm, how about this:

  • Just before getting on an important online call with a client you squeeze in a quick check of your email, arrive at the call late and distracted.
  • Instead of doing sales calls all morning (like you planned), you decide it’s a great day to clean out your desk.
  • For 2 months you debated buying a gym membership. You finally sign up. And now it’s been a month and you’ve gone twice.
  • You know you need to speak to a team member about their attitude, but every time you meet with them you end up complimenting them instead.
  • In a fit of desperation, you bought a book about how to stop procrastinating. That was 2 months ago and you’ve read 1 chapter.

Should I go on (I’ve done all of these)

So if putting things off, even when you know it was important, is so damaging, why do we do it? After all, we’re rational people – n’es pas?

The real reason we struggle to stop procrastinating comes down to good old pain and pleasure – we are scared silly of pain and suckers for pleasure. So we put off that task that, at the moment, feels difficult and unpleasant and move towards the one that feels better and is more inviting.

“Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem,” writes Dr. Tim Pychyl (Solving the Procrastination Puzzle) “not a time management problem.” As obvious as the planning-approach solution is (make a plan, take the first step, follow the plan), we rarely behave that way.

Sometimes the reasons are obvious:

  • You aren’t feeling confident.
  • Some new distractions look more appealing.
  • We doubt our abilities.
  • The task is harder than we expected.

The point is we DO put off work AND can cost us. And here’s the thing (you might not like hearing this)…

Getting a new app, or day timer, or wall calendar won’t help. It is a part of the solution, but it’s like filling your basement with gym equipment and thinking that suddenly you’re going to love working out.

“Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planning is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up” – Joseph Ferrari

Well, if that’s been your pattern already. Great! But, if you don’t enjoy working out now, it doesn’t matter what kind of stationary bike or yoga mat or weights you buy…you won’t stick with it. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner,” says procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari, “is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up

And as much as not getting something done is a problem, there’s a bigger, more sinister cost.


Sure, when you put off paying a bill you get a fine.

When you avoid dealing with a Tiger in your life you can feel resentment and your relationship can suffer.

When you resist marketing your business or writing that book or calling that client, your income can suffer (I’m writing from experience.) But, there’s something more permanent – more costly – that happens when you break a promise, forget, or simply put off what you know needs to get done.

It’s called a story.

This is the story you build about yourself that governs everything (and I mean everything) you are, do, and become. And that story is that you are a procrastinator. You know, the kind of person who breaks a promise, slips on deadlines, and rationalizes away stuff that should have gotten done, but didn’t.

What could have been dealt with in 5 minutes now occupies a corner of your brain “like an unwanted roommate” as Norman Doidge characterized unwanted neural pathways in The Brain that changes itself. The cycle of goal to procrastination to a new goal is a frustrating one.

The good news (and this is the central plot of The Brain that changes itself), you can rewire your brain and your thinking. This is the most exciting part of our design and the one most ignored—you can literally have a new and better reaction to what life throws at you. And you can start.

Here are 3 simple actions that can help you stop procrastinating and get more done.


If you’re stuck trying to finish that proposal or improve your sales funnel it could be the first step is too big.

Let’s look at an example:

You know your website is out of date. You’re not sure what needs to be changed (this article explains how to start by looking at visitor patterns), so you start looking at competitors’ sites – there are lots of them. Pretty soon you have a massive shopping list of changes you think are important. You’re not sure which ones are more important, or what the cost will be, or even what’s possible.

You’re also not sure how to get started.

  • Should I go on YouTube and try to learn how to design websites?
  • Maybe I should call 5 friends for advice?
  • Or should I bite the bullet and just outsource this to some kind of marketing agency?

This is where you get stuck…

The trick is to simplify the next step. And then the one after that, etc.

Go as far as you can see; when you get there, you’ll be able to see farther.” J.P. Morgan

Once you have your list of outcomes that you want, ask yourself:

What’s the first thing I need to do?

If the answer takes more than 5 minutes, ask the next question: “What is the first thing I need to do to be able to do that?”

It can sound like this:

“What’s the first thing I need to do?” Get advice on how to update my website.
“What can I do after that? Find an expert I can trust.
“What can I do after that?” Post a job on Upwork.
“What can I do after that?” Learn how to post a job on Upwork.
“What can I do after that?” Draft the job listing (5 minutes).

Until you reach a step that can be comfortably completed in 5 minutes you are tempting procrastination. With a little forethought, you can move from stuck to some kind of action and the beginnings of momentum.


Everything we do has a reward, from sex (a bit obvious) to sales to making a salad. Dialing up the reward can be as simple as focussing on how great you’ll feel to get this job off your list. I do this when I’m putting in extra time to get my blog ready to be published or when my next keynote still needs a bit more work—I remind myself how great it will feel to have the work done.

We are pain and pleasure-seeking Neanderthals

Deep down, we are pain and pleasure-seeking Neanderthals – we might as well use that ancient wiring to our advantage. Here’s how to use rewards to stop procrastinating:

1. Write down the job you are putting off. This is important – you need to spell out the exact task you are avoiding.

For example, don’t write down “update my website.” That’s a Boulder (big project), the task is something like: “Post a job for a freelance web designer.”

2. Describe a reward that’s meaningful to you – it could be: how you will feel, the money you will earn, the new work you will attract or how accomplishing this job will take you closer to a goal.

I love crossing tasks off my list. There is something super satisfying with seeing a list of work being conquered.

I know some clients reward themselves with a break like a short walk in their neighborhood, or by reading, making a cup of tea, or stretching.

What’s important is that this reward works for you. Next, we need to make it a routine.


By now you probably know I’m a card-carrying fan of habits. I started by quitting coffee, then no alcohol, and then I graduated to cold showers and making my bed in the morning with a host of others that have joined the list.

When you simplify your next action and dial up the reward you’ve moved through one stuck situation. When you construct a routine, or habit, you create a fix for all future jobs. This is my investment in rewiring the neural pathways in my brain and reprogramming me for success.

Soon after I picked up my latest iphone I spent a few minutes learning how to set up the sleep function – I love it. At 9:30 the tone goes off reminding me it’s time to start winding down, turning any electronics off and grabbing a book for a short read before going to sleep. It’s a simple routine, using my phone as the cue, that gives me one small reward every day.

Here are 4 questions to help you create a new routine:

1. What routine doesn’t work?

Don’t skip this step – you need to really get aware of your current habit. For example, I have a bad habit of not taking action right away after a meeting. Sure, I recorded what I committed to, but I didn’t take the 5 minutes to move my scribbled commitment to my calendar or Flight Plan – or, if possible, do it immediately. This comes back to bite me more often than I care to admit. That’s the routine I need to redesign.

2. What reward are you getting?

Yup, there’s always a reward—when I fail to take action right after a meeting, my reward is I avoid the effort to plan my next steps. I also get to move on (rabbit!) to some new bright, shiny distraction. Write this down: what is the reward you are getting from your unwanted routine?

3. Design your new routine (habit)

The trick with this step, according to habit expert B.J. Fogg, is to stack your new habit on another habit or separate action. In other words, the new habit is ‘Right after _____________ I always will _____________”

For example: ‘Right after flossing I will brush my teeth’, or, in my case, ‘Right after any meeting ends, I will move all my commitments to my Flight Plan.’

4. Reward the new routine

Just as you had a reward for the old, unwanted routine, you need to reward the new routine. The reward could be a good feeling, relief, avoiding conflict, avoiding disappointment, or a lovely mug of London Fog at your favorite café.

It’s not about money, it’s about dangling a desirable dendrite in front of your crazy-brain neurons to create momentum.

When I was training for Ironman competitions there were many days I did not want to head out for hill repeats or a 2-hour run. My reward was – get this: a pat on the back. It sounds trivial now, but as I turned into my driveway after a long run or ride, or stepped into the change room at the pool I would reach over and pat myself on the back. As silly as it might sound it was exactly the habit-reinforcement I needed to head out again the next day. In this post I explain how I used Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t break the chain” motivation system to train for the Ironman competitions.

The best part of creating a new routine is that you strengthen your discipline and willpower. It’s like working a muscle. The more you exercise that muscle, the stronger it becomes. And the stronger it becomes the more energy it has for working hard.

When you build a new routine you become a stronger person.

And you can do it, one routine at a time.

If you enjoyed this post, here are more about procrastination, habits, and cold showers:

Why I joined the Morning Club and why you should as well.
How drinking tea can make you rich and build willpower.
You already have what you need (money, time, health and sex)
Three very sneaky ways to get done what you procrastinate about (starting right now)

Photo of worker at desk by Kiefer Likens on Unsplash
Photo of man working by ConvertKit on Unsplash
Cover Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash