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How to make an actually effective to-do list if you’re a procrastinator

You can actually use your procrastination tendencies to create a manageable list.

How to make an actually effective to-do list if you’re a procrastinator
[Photo: Deagreez/iStock]

There are many reasons why you procrastinate. You might find it difficult to face your fears of not doing a specific task well enough. You might be put off by the unpleasant feelings you associate with tackling a specific project. Or you might convince yourself that because you work better under pressure, you might as well wait until the deadline is closer.

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But while everyone procrastinates at some level, chronic procrastination can have serious consequences. Not being able to tick something off your to-do list doesn’t always mean it’s the end of the world, but if you consistently fail to meet deadlines, or ask your boss for an extension every single week, they’ll probably hear alarm bells and may even start thinking about disciplinary measures.

There are many ways to beat procrastination, but the easiest way to get things done is to make a to-do list that works with your natural tendencies. Don’t know where to start? Here are some ideas to consider.

1. Figure out what to eliminate or automate

If you’re the kind of procrastinator who can’t seem to complete your to-do list because there are simply too many items, you might want to figure out what you can eliminate. For those time-consuming tasks that are necessary (but don’t bring you a lot of returns), you might want to see if there are solutions and systems in place that will do it for you.

For starters, if you’ve been doing your budget manually, now might be the time to look at using software. You can also design systems for that particular activity to make it easier for yourself. As Zapier’s Justin Pot previously wrote, “There’s something strangely satisfying about setting up an automation to do tasks you’d otherwise be doing manually, which is why it’s become one of my go-to procrastination activities.”

2. Make sure that your tasks are broken down into specific parts

Sometimes it seems daunting to start a project because of its scale, which is why it’s important to break tasks down into small chunks. Sometimes, even that’s overwhelming. As a writer, this is a common dilemma I face when I’m writing an article. I know that once I write the introduction, the rest of the piece typically writes itself. But there are days when writing that introduction seems impossible.

There are instances when the answer is to take a break and come back to it. But when you have deadlines to meet and that’s not an option, you can try moving to another part of those tasks. Going back to the writing example, there is no rule that says you can’t write your ending before the beginning, or start in the middle, before adding an introduction and a conclusion. When you find yourself getting bored with one part of the task, give yourself an excuse to move on to another part.

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3. Start a project-specific, rather than day-specific, to-do list

Using a daily to-do list can be demoralizing. This is because what tends to happen is that you write a long to-do list, and when you inevitably don’t complete all of them, you carry it over to the next day, and your list gets longer and longer. This is demoralizing, writes Alice Boyes, psychologist and author of “7 Strategies for Conquering Procrastination and Avoidance.”

Boyes suggested that rather than having a daily to-do list, you can have project-specific to-do lists. “By writing all the actions you need to take for a particular project on a list just for that project, you can work through your tasks as you have time. Project-specific to-do lists also help you use scraps of time effectively. For example, if you have a spare five to 10 minutes, and there is a five-to-10-minute job on your list, you can quickly see that option.”

4. Commit to doing one item, and then clear out the rest of your day

Sometimes, the best way of tackling procrastination is to focus on one thing, and then give yourself the permission to do whatever you want for the rest of the day. Boyes advised that you should think about an important task you’ve been putting off for a long time, and only put that one thing in your calendar. Once you’ve completed that task, it’s up to you how you want to spend your time.

What you might find, Boyes said, is that you attend to the other tasks that aren’t on your list. However, you will probably enjoy them more because you won’t see it as an obligation, but an added bonus. You can also do them at a leisurely pace, easing the pressure of finishing something by a certain time.

5. Create a procrastination “low-energy” list

When all else fails, the best thing you can do is to ensure that your “procrastination’ activity is one that moves you forward. However, chances are, you won’t have the energy to tackle tasks that require a great deal of emotional bandwidth, so you need to have a “procrastination” list that contains a lot of tasks that are different enough from the items on your actual to-do lists, and are relatively quick and painless to do. Pot writes, “The idea is to find things that need to get done but aren’t overwhelming or exhausting to the extent that larger projects are. Try to think up similar tasks, then dive into them next time you don’t feel like getting started on a big project.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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