Having Trouble Getting Things Done? Try Out This Neat Little Trick

A woman in glasses lying down on her couch in a blanket

Photo: Adrian Swancar

The best parts of being a writer is having an excuse to craft the most outlandish metaphors. I could liken rock climbing to drawing, for instance, because it’s all about learning the little techniques that’ll make up the larger picture (heh) that is your art.

Or I could link running and writing, because you’ll never see your improvement in your day-to-day, but do it long enough and you’ll be able to see how far (heh heh) you’ve progressed.

Having said that, boy do I have the metaphor for today’s topic.

Procrastination nation

So you plan to write on your day off. It’s your passion, after all. Friday arrives and you rub your hands at the amount of writing that’s going to take place the next day.

Your schedule’s empty, you have no other responsibilities, and all you need to do is just get started. The next thing you know, it’s Sunday evening and you haven’t even written a sentence.

If that sounds familiar, then just know that it happens to the best of us.

You know what I think the main problem is? No, it’s not discipline. It’s not the lack of technical skills either. I think we’re just unsure of how to turn our vague goals into reality, and if you’re still nodding along to these symptoms, then rest assured that the aforementioned metaphor may help you tackle this problem.

But first, let’s explore why we sometimes find ourselves stuck between thinking and action.

I can always do it later

If you’re anything like me, you have no trouble seeing a task through to the end—as long as you know what to do.

So something like ‘do 100 burpees and 200 squats’ might seem doable despite the challenge, but ‘work out today’ becomes something skippable just because there’s not enough of a roadmap to get there.

I came to this conclusion because I’ve had no problem eating healthy lunches for years now, but the moment I need to leave the house—such as to go to the office—it suddenly becomes that much harder to stick to nutritious meals.

I’ve also seen a sharp increase in my workout days when I have a specific programme to follow. But on the days I tell myself to ‘get a workout in’, I end up doing anything but.

A woman with glasses looking bored in front of her Macbook

Why do today what you can do tomorrow? Photo: Magnet.me

It’s mental

That brings us to the problem at hand—if you have trouble following up with your plans, then you probably have ADHD or executive dysfunction, at least according to Google.

Then again, Google would also guess that the mole on your elbow is cancer, so…

I’d hazard that ADHD and ED probably isn’t that far off anyway, and I’d like to blame that on how much technology has changed the way we function.

Because think about it. How did you get to unfamiliar places place pre-pandemic? You drove with Waze on, or you ordered a Grab.

But if you’re old enough to remember the trips into the unknown, you’ll probably recall the executive functions you’d needed to employ like memorising your way, keeping an eye out for landmarks, printing maps, and—gasp—stop and ask for directions.

Nowadays, we’re spoon-fed in everything that we do. Hungry? Here are the restaurants with the best offers near you. Need a gardening tool but unsure what? Just hop on Amazon to find out. What’s that? You feel like you need to meet new people? That can be arranged with just a couple of swipes.

Look, I’m not a luddite. I love how easy life is now, and I enjoy not having to drive out to get my groceries, but I don’t remember feeling this helpless when it comes to doing simple things.

It’s almost as if I’ve lost the ability to interpret abstract ideas and turn them into results.

Divide and conquer

If you’ve Googled this problem before, you’ll probably know about the divide and conquer approach. This method works well enough on its own, and it’s a great way to approach your writing too, as something as vague as ‘finish my blog post’ can be translated to:

  • Choose a topic
  • Outline
  • Research (this step will probably need another round of dividing and conquering)
  • Write
  • Pat yourself on the back for being productive

Sounds effective, doesn’t it? The thing is, it does take a certain amount of effort to determine the smaller components that make up your goal without having an added visualisation aid, and that’s where our long-awaited metaphor comes in.

Help me help you

This thought came to me when playing Keep Talking An No One Explodes sometime back. It’s a game where you describe bomb to your teammates so that they can determine which one it is, and the steps you need to take to defuse it.

In a similar vein, that’s what this metaphor is. It’s about yelling out your goals to someone in the next room and telling them exactly what they need to do to complete it. And because you can’t see what they’re doing, you’re going to need to tell them what to look out for so that they can report back to you.

So something like ‘write a blog post today’ will probably look similar to the action plan listed about, but now that you have to describe it to someone else, you’ll naturally find more concrete steps and measurable outcomes.

Try it out and see how it goes. I know I still have tons of yelling to do, because after I’m done with this post, I still have so many other vague goals I need to make actionable, such as ‘figure out how to monetise my passions’, ‘determine my ikigai‘, and ‘don’t cave in to self doubt’.


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66 thoughts on “Having Trouble Getting Things Done? Try Out This Neat Little Trick

  1. This is a smart way to look at it – it’s so much easier to address something with actionable steps rather then vague ideas. So I have stages that I’ve already listed the steps for creating novel idea, and after these sections are complete and I have a solid outline then I can write.

    When I’m writing I break it down even further, because I love checking things off. So, my word goal is 3,000 words for today (which I’ve done – I’m not procrastinating on your blog!), and I made a table of just over 300 squares in it. Then I’ll plant my tail at 9am and write until I start to get fidgety. At that point I check my word count, and scribble in a square for each 10 words.

    I can check off each scene as done, and then, when I get home, I go to my Kanban board and check off my word totals for the day.

    Lots of structure and checking things off, but it works. If I just sit and want to write, wish it really hard… I’ll end up cleaning the bathroom instead or some other form of procrastination. My house is ridiculously clean when I’m supposed to be writing but didn’t set up for it. ;)

    • Whoa, those really are sizeable tasks indeed. And 3,000 words per day? You’re killing it that’s for sure. I myself can barely maintain 250 lol. Thanks so much for sharing your tips! I’m sure it’ll be useful for lots of people.

  2. I think i would make a good king for the procrastination nation (loved that one). And yes, there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time. Thank you for your inspiring post.

    • We tend not to see the progress because the elephant is so big, but yes, every bite counts and we don’t know it. We need to have faith and keep biting away though. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  3. Definitely a resident of the procrastination nation! I like what you’ve said here, it’s simple, but it’s so true! If I have an actual plan to follow I’ll do it like a pro, if I say to myself I’m going to write or work out today, there’s a lot of time spent staring at screens and getting distracted by every little thing.

    • Oh yeah, and it’s those little things that eat up all your time in the long run, and you really have to spell things out for yourself. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  4. Thank you for this concise, to-the-point story, Stu! I’ve heard it before, how you should set clear goals (or SMART goals or whatever) and I’ve started to make my goals more specific. Thanks for the amazing reminder!

    • Yeah I actually don’t really subscribe to SMART because I’m too lazy for that. But doing bite-sized tasks? I could totally do that. Thanks so much for stopping by again!

      • Exactly!
        P.S. By the way I’m the person who DMed you on Insta to quote you in a post a couple days back … lol I can’t get my online identities straight. Love your writing tho and super proud of how fast you’re growing! 2k to 3k followers don’t sound as impossible as it used to tbh. Thanks! 💕💕

  5. I am definitely guilty of the vague “do X today” thing which results in nothing at all getting done. I really like your last bit of advice–define the steps you need to take in the same way you’d explain it to someone else.

    • Aw yis, I’ve always benefitted from analogies, like my coach telling me to pop my butt like I’m twerking when executing a particular judo throw. Things like that really do help me learn, and it’s great if I could return the favour with offhand analogies of my own. Glad you like that part, and always glad to have you around, Hetty!

  6. You’re a very very smart writer. It’s interesting to note that we all live in the nation of procrastination 😅 Loved all the puns! This was on the whole a highly insightful and fun read. So, thank you! 😉😀

  7. Excellent post! As an Administrative Professional, I know that I have to set specific goals/plans or those that I support will suffer. I need to apply that way of thinking to my beginning writing as well!

    • I didn’t know specificity would help me so much, and this one little tweak did change my to-do list game. Wishing you the best with setting goals for your writing! Thanks so much for stopping by too :)

  8. At 46 I can remember executive functioning. I think that might be the reason I’ve had such a struggle with adopting novel technology. I’m more of a utility person regarding tech and not someone who takes on new and shiny things just because….new and shiny. My brain was much more engaged and entuned years ago on the present moment and benefited from more episodes of positive random learning.

    Things to ponder…

    • That’s a strength to not jump on new technology, though yeah, I feel you on being more engaged years ago. That’s something I need to look into too. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Brad!

  9. As someone who lives off to-do lists, I agree with so much of what you’ve said.

    Believe it or not, even “Make Bed” goes on my list because I’m more likely to do it when I just wake up if I have it on my list. I don’t know what that says about me. Lol.

    I’ve found that it’s easier to get things done when I’ve actually planned for them. I also procrastinate less when I write to-do lists because I’m a sucker for crossing things off my list. 😂

    Also, divide and conquer is a very major and helpful thing!

    I enjoyed reading this Stuart.

    • Oh yeah. For me, the power of to-do lists is the reminder it gives me. For some people, it’s checking the item off. That’s never worked for me lol. But it really does keep me on track throughout the day, and prevents me from doing too many things out of alignment. Anyway, great to see you again, Wonani!

  10. For me, I try to keep my writing going with 3 “buckets”. The first is just to dump ideas; 2nd to expand on a few of those ideas; 3rd bucket to complete full posts from the 2nd one. Then rinse and repeat. I’ve found a little work per bucket regularly goes a long way! Altho of late the 2nd bucket seems to be suffering some neglect as I leapfrog from 1st to 3rd!! Go figure!!! Haha…anyway thanks again. Alw a joy to read of your writing journey. Keep showing up with the goods Stu!!

    • Ooo, thanks for adding your techniques to the mix! Am pretty sure someone will benefit from it. Haha maybe you’re evolving and don’t need to expand ideas as much anymore. Always great to have you here, Kelvin!

  11. The way I get around doing it later with blogging is that I start working on a new post as soon as I am done with my weekly blog. That way I don’t forget and rush it out at 9 pm when I should be in bed. Also the ideas would still be fresh and I would have seven days to tamper with it rather than two hours.
    On another note, my attention span is absolute garbage, so when I write I literally hop around doing other stuff with no direction or goal other than to do stuff, like a frog on crack-cocaine.

    • Lol I get that ‘do other stuff with no direction’ feeling too.

      And yeah, I try to get started on my weekly posts earlier on in the week, but sometimes life gets in the way. It’s always a great feeling to have drafted something and still have five days to work it. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Procrastination is natural unless you’ve formed a habit of discipline. Discipline, when habitual, is a powerful tool to harness so that we get our shit done and done right and done fast. But it has to be habit. We humans are creatures of habit, and when we tap into that side of ourselves, we are setting ourselves up for success.

  13. I am such a procrastinator so this post was very relatable as well as helpful. Ever since I found out about the divide and conquer method I’ve been using it and it’s actually quite helpful. It stops me from getting too overwhelmed at once. Great post!

    • ANYTHING becomes easier to do once you break them down into small tasks. That’s what I’ve realised, and now whenever I feel unsure, I just take the smallest step to move the needle forward.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this Pooja. And great to have you here!

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  16. Great post Stuart! Procrastinator is such a huge issue when we have to do something for us, like exercising or writing that book we want to or our next blog post.
    These days I read for secord time “The war of Art” by
    Steven Pressfield
    which in a way talks about that. This procrastination he names it as “The resistance” to do something we love and want to do.
    However, I think Pooja is right. The hardest of all is just to get started and starting every time.
    Thank you for sharing!

    • Oh yeah, The War Of Art is an amazing book that addresses the issue as well. In a similar vein, I love his message of showing up (being professional). Thanks for your amazing comment!

  17. In my scenario it’s weird because sometimes I can be an extreme worker and other times I goes nothing done. Regardless, the steps you mentioned will probably support my working side.

  18. Omg you’ve just described my predicament every week Tuesday!! It’s become a terrible pattern! Tuesdays I work from home so I figure I have lots of home to write my Wednesday post.. I go all day procrastinating until recently I finished my post at 1am (7 hrs until publishing time!!) that week was the worst but the other weeks following didn’t fare any better! Then after I finally publish it I feel so relieved that I made the deadline I put on myself (post every Wednesday at 8am EST) I relax a bit bc I have all week to write my next one! Then somehow something always comes up at the weekend and my writing gets put off and then I’m back to my Tuesday late-into-the-night writing predicament 😭🤦‍♀️why do I hurt myself??

    • Hahahaha ‘I relax a bit bc I have all week to write my next one’. That is such a lie we tell ourselves.

      I’ve been caught by that danged lie more often than not, and I really regret it when I have to draft my post on the eleventh hour.

      When we feel like we don’t have to do something is EXACTLY when we need to do it. Ditto things like chores and managing our finances.

      Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

    • I update my blog 3x a week, but I don’t write it right at the deadline. I write them all on Sunday – midnight Sunday is my deadline. Then I schedule them out for the week. So I’m stressed on Sunday because that’s my chores/cleaning/cooking/laundry/blog/everything I don’t like doing day, but I’m not right on the wire. Maybe that would help? The nice part is all that crap I hate doing is done on ONE day, and the rest of my week is relaxed.

      • Yea that was my schedule too lol… I used to be 5 weeks ahead and would write at the end of the week and schedule it to publish the following Wednesday…. But then life got in the way and then I started to procrastinate harder and harder lol… 😳

      • Ugh, and that’s the worst. And then I’m procrastinating because I’m stressed, not necessarily because I don’t have ideas or time. :( I’ve had a handful of posts that went ‘Gone fishin’ for the week’ and took time to step back and regroup. I don’t like making them, but I REALLY hate my gut knotting up and getting made at myself for something self imposed. Hoping you get ahead of it again! <3

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  20. Great post! We really are spoon-fed everything we need now, and I’ve never considered how it could lead to a break down of our problem-solving skills.

    I can’t deny that I’m more likely to finish something when the goal is clear and quantitative. It’s definitely something I’ll have to keep in mind when I’m struggling (or procrastinating) 😋

    • Yup. I’ve been reading a couple of books on procrastinating lately, and it’s true that clear and specific goals really do help us move the needle forward. You’re definitely on the right track. Thanks so much for your perspective, Alyssa!

  21. Ummm…..not pride or arrogance. No! Not Ego; but I am a go-getter. Procrastination is a negative energy and a lower consciousness; hence I do not really vibrate in that frequency. I have this GET-UP-AND-GO mindset, energy and consciousness. That is not to say that I do not do it but it is very rare. My procrastinating rate is at least 2/10

    All the same, nice post that is beautifully written! Namaste!

    • Whoa, you’ll have to teach some of us how to handle it then, because even though I’m aware that it’s a super low vibration, I still can’t help but fall into its grip sometimes. Always great to read your comments!

  22. HAHA!! Stuart, how are you sure I will be able to teach it? I am feeling flattered (LOLS). But I still think that people can decide on how to navigate and ride out of that lower vibration of procrastination! It is a work in progress anyway. Namaste!

  23. Specific goals are really helpful in getting from “To-Do List” to “Done List.” I’ve actually started blocking out estimated times for my tasks too. I probably need to fine-tune that part a bit more because when I underestimate the time needed for a task, I often lose steam or feel like I’ve failed when I have to stop and take care of something else, like eating or sleeping.

    • Oh yeah. For me, the to-do list is a great way to align my day, so that if I have some free time, I know what to do next instead of lolling around. I don’t really feel that accomplishment from checking items off the list though.

      Anyway, great point with the blocking out of time! It always sucks when you don’t end up doing what you feel you could’ve done. I myself prefer to always tackle things when I DON’T need to do them.

      e.g. if I always wash my dog’s bowl after dinner, I’ll wash it earlier if I have the time instead. That allows me to enjoy the task a bit more, because I’m not under a ‘tight deadline’, so to speak.

      Anyway thanks for your comment! Always good to have you here.

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