Article by Derek Doepker
Even high achievers can end up procrastinating on important tasks when they feel overwhelmed and stressed. Although simply urging yourself to take action may sound like a good solution, it’s a little like telling a sad person to “just cheer up.” What you need instead is a specific process that works with your psychology instead of against it.
When you use this ultimate anti-procrastination hack, you’ll bypass internal resistance and get yourself to take action almost effortlessly. Plus, it only takes about 10 seconds to implement and is virtually guaranteed to succeed when done properly.
The Anti-Procrastination Hack Formula
The formula for taking action is simple: Ask yourself, “Can I just [insert micro-commitment here]?” A “micro-commitment” is something so small and simple that you’ll readily say yes to doing it, even if you have very little willpower.
For instance, let’s say someone has been procrastinating cleaning his house. He can ask, “Can I just take two minutes to clean my desk?” On the surface, it may seem like that won’t accomplish much. However, he will probably notice an internal shift when he steps into action.
Have you ever not wanted to do something, like exercise, but once you started, you found yourself more motivated to continue? This happens because momentum generates motivation. The trick is not waiting to get motivated. Take a small step that generates motivation, and then continue to ask yourself, “Can I just do a little more?”
After following through on a small commitment to clean the desk, our hypothetical person may find himself thinking, “I’ve already started, so I may as well keep going for a little longer.” Next thing you know, the entire room is clean.
Let’s look at how this formula can be used to conquer the four drivers of procrastination: fear, overwhelm, uncertainty, and perfectionism.
One way to overcome fear is through exposure therapy, which consists of gradually exposing yourself to things you fear in a safe environment.
Imagine someone who is fearful of public speaking. They may ask, “Can I just speak in my living room to a couple close friends about a topic I love?” Since this is safe, this person can probably get herself to do it. Then, she can gradually ramp up the stakes as she gets more comfortable: “Can I just invite one stranger to join my private group? Can I just introduce myself for 30 seconds at a local networking event? Can I just speak to a small group for five minutes to raise awareness for a cause I’m passionate about?”
The key isn’t to break out of your comfort zone — it’s to stretch your comfort zone. Start with something you can do that’s only mildly uncomfortable, build from there, and you’ll gain greater and greater confidence.
Feeling overwhelmed happens when you only concentrate on the big picture. While it’s important to dream big and find inspiration, accomplishing anything can seem daunting if that’s all you focus on. This is why many experts recommend breaking down larger goals into smaller action steps.
If a person wants to improve her health and she’s feeling overwhelmed by how many things she has to change, she may ask, “Can I just focus this week on eating a healthier breakfast?”
By focusing on just one or two priorities at a time, you’re more likely to make each new behavior a habit. Once something is habitual, you can add new habits without feeling overwhelmed.
One thing that can fuel procrastination is not being able to focus on the next best step. But you can drive for hundreds of miles at night while only seeing what’s right in front of you. Sometimes, the only way to get clarity is to take some type of action, and then use the resulting feedback for course correction.
An individual who is uncertain about what career he wants to go into could ask, “Can I just try one new activity this week and see what I enjoy and don’t enjoy?” For instance: “Can I just volunteer to mentor for an afternoon? Can I just take a cooking class? Can I just write an article on a topic I enjoy?”
Even though none of these may become a career, he can gain insight — whether he enjoys working alone or with others, whether he enjoys working with his hands or prefers mental challenges, and so on. The key here is the micro-commitment isn’t about making the “right” long-term choice. Rather, each micro-commitment is a steppingstone to greater self-awareness and clarity.
Doing things well is important, but it’s also necessary to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Like a baby learning to walk, you’re not going to nail it right off the bat, and that’s okay.
Tim Ferriss adopted this approach when he gave himself a quota to write “two crappy pages” a day. This micro-commitment included both the quantity of pages (just two) and an allowance to be less than perfect.
You can do the same. Ask, “Can I just spend five minutes doing crappy work?”
Paradoxically, when you remove the pressure to be perfect, you find that, over time, you end up generating your best work. The key is to create space for creative expression that has no quality filter. Then, come back later to what you have produced with a mindset of improvement.
When you apply the ultimate anti-procrastination hack, you may notice an immediate transformation, or momentum could build over several weeks or months. Either way, the key is to get started today by committing to something you’re guaranteed to say yes to. All you have to do is recall the three magic words: “Can I just?”
Now, pick one thing you’ve been procrastinating, implement a micro-commitment that will give you momentum, and watch the magic happen as your seemingly small successes generate your biggest breakthroughs.
A version of this article originally appeared on SUCCESS.com.