Some Thoughts on Procrastination

During the year or so before I reached my ultimate financial bottom, I had this faint sense in the back of my head that I needed to make some financial changes in my life. I knew that I needed to start doing things differently or else I would never build the life that I wanted.

But, that voice was a quiet one.

I kept telling myself that I could do it tomorrow or next year. Right now, I wanted to do other things instead. I put it off until later, taking on things that felt more urgent at the time.

Eventually, I learned how big of a mistake all of that procrastination was. I reached a point where I couldn’t keep my bills paid and I entered into a very painful era of transforming everything about my financial life.

I came out clean on the other side, thankfully, and I’m headed down that road toward financial independence.

However, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t regret my procrastination during those years.

My life has taught me several lessons about procrastination.

Procrastination Works Okay for Small Things, Particularly Those With Deadlines

When I was a student, particularly prior to college, I learned that procrastination was a very useful tool. I could often complete assignments the day before – or sometimes even the period before – they were due and still get a good grade on them. Not only that, I often found that if I waited until the last minute, that deadline pressure was a great motivator for getting me to step up to the plate and do good work.

Even today, procrastination can be a good tool for little things. I’ll procrastinate for a day or two when I need to go to the grocery store, meaning that I just get creative with Thursday night’s dinner or something like that. I’ll sometimes procrastinate on finishing posts and instead brainstorm and research new post ideas (which is the part I get the most personal enjoyment out of).

Procrastination can be good for small things, especially when a deadline is involved. It forces you to focus on that relatively small task and to rise to the occasion in a burst of energy and ideas. It can be great in those limited situations.

The problem for many people is that our early lives are devoted to tasks that thrive under procrastination, so we begin to believe that procrastination is some kind of ultimate solution to all problems.

It’s not.

Procrastination Is Disastrous for Big Things, or Things Without Deadlines

If your project is sufficiently big enough that you can’t complete it in one session of hard work, procrastination is usually disastrous. I found pretty early on in my professional work that procrastination just didn’t cut the mustard when it came to large projects. If I procrastinated much at all, I usually found myself pressed up against the deadline with far, far too much to complete. I missed some deadlines right at the start of my career simply because I procrastinated too much.

Thankfully, I learned my lesson there. If you have a big project with a due date, you’re better off working on it now. If you’re going to procrastinate, procrastinate when there’s just a little bit left to do, though I’m usually so excited to be on the home stretch that I just finish it out anyway. Procrastination is a big failure when it comes to big projects.

Perhaps even more importantly than that, if your task doesn’t have a clear due date, procrastination is usually disastrous because you will just keep delaying and keep delaying and never do it.

This perfectly describes things like taking control of your financial life. It’s something that’s actually important, but it doesn’t really have a due date of any kind. You can get away with putting it off until tomorrow or next week. And then, when tomorrow or next week arrives, you can get away with delaying it again. And again. And again. Until one day you wake up and realize years have passed and you’re in an even worse financial pickle than before.

Almost every major change that people try in their lives falls into this category: weight loss, exercise, career changes, and so on. They’re challenging, so it’s easier to procrastinate and just do it tomorrow because there’s no firm deadline. That’s why procrastination is so pernicious.

Importance, Urgency, and Procrastination

I generally split tasks in life into four different groups based on two traits. All tasks are either important or not important, and either urgent or not urgent.

Tasks that are both not important and not urgent are either pure leisure tasks or are irrelevant, so we won’t pay any attention to them.

Tasks that are urgent but not important are perfect for procrastination, as you can push them right up against the deadline and still do fine. Lots of household busywork falls into this category.

Tasks that are urgent and important are also pretty good for procrastination, assuming that they’re fairly small tasks. Things like small work projects fall into this category.

Where procrastination utterly fails is in that class of tasks that are important but not urgent. Without that requisite urgency, there’s no reason to take on the task at hand. Why not push it off until tomorrow or the day after?

That’s why so many of our big life goals end up never getting achieved. It is so easy to procrastinate when it comes to huge things that don’t have a firm due date.

My Recipe for Defeating Procrastination on “Important But Not Urgent” Things

So, how does one defeat procrastination? I’ve only found one real recipe that ever works for me.

First of all, I keep a long list of the important things going on in my life. I call it my life pyramid, and I strongly encourage you to read my detailed walkthrough about the life pyramid idea. It’s something I re-do every three months or so. Essentially, it’s an organized method of inventorying all of the “important but not urgent” things going on in my life and breaking all of them down into relatively short projects and tasks.

After doing this, I wind up with a big handful of projects I want to work on over the next three to six months. That list becomes my focus for the following three months. For each item on that list, I try to identify something I can do every day to move forward on it and that forms a to-do list of sorts. I try really hard to find activities that can simultaneously check off two or more things on the list, (which usually involves incorporating my kids).

That list is composed of the key “important but not urgent” things going on in my life. None of those things have a due date per se, but they’re all incredibly important to me.

Each and every day, I pledge to spend just two minutes on everything on that list. Seriously. Just two minutes. I can fit two or three of them into a work break during the day if I so choose. It’s easy to fit several in during the evening after the kids are in bed.

What really makes this work for me is that I always end up devoting more time than that. I don’t have to – it’s not required in any way – but I want to.

For example, I might have exercise as an item on that list, which means that I’m just pledging to exercise for two minutes. But after two minutes of jumping jacks or push-ups, I’ll feel like doing more. Maybe I’ll do a resistance yoga routine or maybe I’ll go for a two mile jog.

What about financial things? Maybe you pledge to spend two minutes preparing a meal for yourself at home – but a ten minute prep meal is much tastier and more interesting, so you choose the longer task. Maybe you pledge to spend two minutes improving the energy efficiency of your home, but you instead choose to spend fifteen minutes today putting in a weather strip. You get the idea.

Here’s the key: once you’ve mentally flipped that switch to devote two minutes to something and you’re already doing it, it is so easy to do it a little more, to fill in whatever free time gap that you have.

Here’s an example of how this works in my life. I’ll take a break from my work and decide to do one or two of those two minute tasks. Maybe one of them is to thoroughly reorganize my office, so I’ll find a small task and sit down and complete it, eating up the two minutes. But since I’m already there and cleaning, I’ll just take care of this little piece and this little piece, too, and before you know it, fifteen minutes have passed and I’m ready to go back to work.

Some days, I really do have to limit myself to two minutes. I even set a timer for myself. That’s okay. All I have to do is give two minutes to whatever that big task is to consider it “done” for the day.

I actually maintain a little daily checklist for this in my pocket notebook, where each day I have a series of checkboxes and quick abbreviations for what I want to work on for a minimum of two minutes. I consider it a pretty big failure if I can’t check all boxes by the end of the day.

The best part? When you start making a little step every day, that change starts to slowly become a normal part of your life. You start introducing elements of that change into other areas, like making better meal choices or choosing to spend less money, because your mind is becoming accustomed to thinking about these issues in the present and doing it every single day.

Final Thoughts

Procrastination is the enemy of every big dream and goal you have in your life. Don’t let that happen. Think about your big dreams, break them down into smaller and smaller pieces, then ask yourself what you can actually do today. This doesn’t need to be overwhelming. It just takes two minutes, because two minutes is all it takes to move in the right direction, and if you move in the right direction every single day, great things will happen.

Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.