The one-sentence solution to almost all procrastination (no, really)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m a huge fan — to a problematic degree, some might argue — of productivity tips and tricks like the Pomodoro Technique, Mark Forster’s Autofocus system, and the geeky godfather of them all, David Allen’s Getting Things Done. I enjoy few things so much as spending a Sunday afternoon restructuring my to-do lists, because I am tragic like that. And I’m generally as distrustful as anyone of “quick fixes”. All that said, I ought to admit that one single-sentence piece of fridge-magnet advice has helped vastly more, when it comes to getting over roadblocks in work (and not just in work), than everything else combined:

Don’t wait until you feel like doing something.

This is one of those instructions that can sound frustratingly glib and obvious until you pause to think about it, whereupon it has the potential to become, suddenly, pretty damn profound. The vast majority of advice on beating procrastination — whether it comes from self-help books, or motivational seminars, or magazine articles — isn’t really about how to get things done. It’s about how to feel in the mood for getting things done. Likewise, when someone who’s mired deep in procrastination finds themselves unable to get on with work, they usually mean they’re unable to feel like working. Even in the depths of serious depression, as the author Julie Fast notes, being “unable to get out of bed” in the morning really means, to get technical about it, being unable to feel like getting out of bed.

That certainly isn’t meant to imply that procrastinators, or depressed people, should just get over themselves and get on with it — a useless admonition as well as a heartless one, since if they felt able to do that, they’d already be doing it. (Not that there aren’t quite a few people apparently making a living from dispensing such advice.) But it does point to an alternative solution: perhaps the real problem here is the underlying belief that you need to feel like doing something before you do it. From this perspective, the need to “feel motivated” is an extra hurdle placed in the path of action, while tips on how to get motivated — along with most motivational workshops and the like — aren’t part of the solution, but part of the problem, since they implicitly reinforce the idea that getting psyched up is a vital precursor to action.

Why make things harder for yourself by demanding not only that you do some unappetising task, but also that you feel great about it as a prelude to beginning it? Not that I don’t forget this and need reminding on an almost daily basis, but the second of those is just additional pressure; it adds nothing substantive. Plus, of course, in the words of another fridge-magnet observation, “motivation follows action” — a better mood will tend to follow along once you’ve started.

On the topic of not obsessing on eliminating negative emotions, it’s never a bad idea to quote the extraordinarily brilliant words of the late Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita, so excuse me while I do so again:

“Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.”


• My book on the problems with positive thinking and the upsides of negativity, The Antidote, is published in the UK on June 21. You can pre-order it now.

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Oliver Burkeman I'm a writer for The Guardian based in Brooklyn, New York. My new book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking explores the upsides of negativity, uncertainty, failure and imperfection. Each week in This Column Will Change Your Life I write about social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness, and make unprovoked attacks on The Secret.

I also blog about things for Guardian US and write a monthly column for Psychologies magazine. Hello.

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