How to Avoid Procrastination by Refining Tasks

We all do it. We put things off and struggle to learn how to avoid procrastination.

It has been a long time since there were parts of my job that I really disliked doing. My most powerful tactic for removing tasks that I don’t want to do has always been delegation, and I’ve managed to offload most of what I don’t want to work on to others that can do the job more efficiently than I can. These days, some parts of my work will feel routine and a little numbing but others seriously ignite me. You would think that minimizing the number of annoying tasks would mean that I manage to avoid procrastinating at all. Even still, sometimes I put things off.

Avoiding procrastination requires an honest reflection

Most procrastinators would say that they are avoiding things that they would rather not do, and this is probably correct most of the time. In my particular case, this explanation really doesn’t fit. Since I’ve eliminated or outsourced so many of the things that don’t fit my strengths, I thought that I would be in the clear. Unfortunately, that wasn’t really true either.

Since there is still some procrastination in my life, I’ve collected and analyzed the kinds of tasks that I might tend to put off to find out the underlying problem. If I’m doing (or not doing) something over and over again there has to be a reason. This analysis has revealed to me a lot about what a task really is and how I should prioritize them as I go about my work. Once I got everything defined and sorted, I was able to teach myself ways to avoid putting things off and place them into the right part of my daily or weekly workflow.

Here’s what I found…

Context is critical when comparing tasks

If you put a task on a traditional to-do list, you’re going to see it over and over again as you complete other tasks. Inevitably, you’re going to run into items that just never seem to get checked off your list. Just because you keep seeing it and it seems like you should be marking it off doesn’t mean that you should be expected to deal with it if it’s in a context that you can’t do anything about. An example of this could be putting an item like ‘pick up mom from the airport’ on your to-do list on Monday when you aren’t going to be picking her up until Friday. Even though you can’t complete the task early in the week, it can still cause a nagging sense of stagnation and the idea that ‘I just can’t seem to get it done.”

This sort of scenario is the primary challenge of the typical to-do list. You only have the one list, and everything is important on it to some degree, but it crosses multiple contexts and levels of urgency in such a way that can cause frustration and confusion. Every time you look at the list, you end up having to consider which tasks are the most important and what is even feasible to complete at that moment.

In my system, The Attention Compass that I’ve created allows for easy management of multiple lists that take different contexts and levels of urgency into account. Once everything is in place, we can create a clear agenda that suits the current context of our work while removing everything that is unnecessary or unfeasible. If you want to learn more about my system and its use of The Attention Compass, check out our Do Busy right course that will show you how to implement everything step-by-step with no previous experience needed.

Sometimes a “task” is not really a task

Unless an item has a clearly defined next action, it is not really a task.

This idea is easy to work through and understand, but our brains can act a little funny about this depending on the situation. If we see a vague task on our to-do list and we either instinctively or unconsciously recognize that it will be thoughtful and challenging work to clarify it, then our brains will shut down. This is especially true if we are under stress or low on energy. On the other hand, a clearly defined ‘next action’ for a task is quite easy to accomplish and our mind will be much more eager to tackle it.

So, clearly defining next steps is critical for every task – even if that next step if to refine the item to an actionable next step. With this in mind, you might even want to create a ‘refine’ list on the back of your to-do list and work through those when you know you have the time to focus and perform the thoughtful work it will require.

We see a vague task and instinctively or unconsciously recognize that clarification can be laborious, thoughtful work. Our brains literally run away from these kinds of tasks, particularly when we are under stress or low on energy. On the other hand, a clearly defined next action is quite easy to accomplish. So, a clear definition of the next steps is critical – even if that next step is to refine the item to an actionable next step. You may want to create a “refine” list and schedule time when you know you’ll have the focus to do thoughtful work.

Here is an example of what I mean:

  • A vague task – Do my taxes
  • A clearly defined next action – Contact my CPA to schedule an appointment
  • The next action – Print a copy of my W-2
  • The next action – Collect receipts for donations during the year

Do you see the difference? Staring at something like ‘do my taxes’ can create instant loathing and avoidance. By taking that horrible, vague task and breaking it into manageable chunks, you have tasks that your brain can tackle easily because it sees the light at the end of the tunnel.

Unstructured tasks are complex tasks

If a task has a component that stretches us, our brains assume that the whole task will be that difficult. I find that this is rarely the case. Again, this is an argument for more clarity on the next action. If the next action is actually a stretch, try breaking it down further until it becomes something you can do with relative ease and enjoyment.

My guess is that you’ve gotten hung up because of this issue in your own life. While the tax example from before was certainly a vague task, it also had a pretty straightforward set of actions that will get you from point A to point B. A lot of unstructured tasks are creative problems or require a solution when there might be multiple answers to the question.

Here’s an example:

  • An unstructured task – Find a new career and quit my job
  • The first scary-looking component – Decide what I want to do in my next job

Many people get stuck with this exact problem and never make it past the first scary-looking task. At first glance, it can seem overwhelming. Let’s see what next actions we could take to actually break this down further:

  • Clearly defined next action – Speak to friends and family about my options
  • A next action – Have coffee with a connection at a company you’re interested in
  • A next action – Read trade journals in a new field

And so on and so forth. By breaking a big, scary task into something you can do NOW without much thought or stress, you’ll be able to move the needle on the whole goal. Sometimes, of course, you just have to buckle down and wrestle with something difficult.

What my reality looks like day-to-day

I get a kick out of successively checking things off the list.

Since I’ve built my Attention Compass, I have a list of things I’ve decided I need to tend to in the near term. I can usually grind on that list for 30 minutes and see it change, see my task count go down. By separating tasks off of this list that don’t have a place in the context of now, I also avoid that feeling of stagnation and false procrastination. I’ve come to associate this visual with the feeling of being productive. I’m doing things in my world that will make a (perhaps small, but) positive difference. This is more of a rush than you might think. I’ll set myself small targets: There are 14 things in the list, can I get it to 10 in the 45 minutes before my next meeting? Even this slight gamification can help jumpstart the brain into action.

If you’ll check the three ideas above and build habits around refining your items (context, actionable, small and structured), you’ll find that your sense of “being a procrastinator” will fade. It is a great feeling to get rid of.