Overcoming Procrastination with the Action Blitz

The Procrastination Cycle

I have been in the middle of deploying a "Getting Things Done" system for several years now. It seems like my implementation will likely never be truly complete. My core system uses the ideas from a book called, Getting Things Done, by David Allen. The book has garnered a very large cult following on the Internet, and everyone seems to have created their own spin on how to implement the ideas in the book. Just Google "GTD" or "Getting Things Done" and you'll see what I mean.

At one point, I was struggling to implement the system, and as a result of my confusion, I fell off the wagon a few times. On one of those days I was feeling particularly lame after spending most of a day procrastinating and not getting anything important done. I did a Google search for "how to stop being lame" and I came across the following quote:

"When you procrastinate you lower your self esteem and send signals back to yourself that you are a, well, a kinda lame and indecisive person."

That pretty much sums it up.

You tell yourself you are inadequate, then you believe it, then you feebly try to tell yourself to accomplish something, then your motivation peters out and you don't obey yourself, and then you beat up on yourself again and tell yourself you are inadequate. Then the whole cycle starts all over again. That is how procrastination turns into a viscous cycle that uses your soul up until you have no spark, no electricity, no motivation to get anything done. You can end up sitting there, wallowing in your own mental vomit for days, weeks, months, years, or a whole lifetime, until forces outside yourself compel you to make a change. Or you die of lameness and mediocrity.

In a Nutshell: The Key to Breaking the Procrastination Cycle

The key to breaking the procrastination is to mentally reverse the cycle by talking positively to yourself, doing things, and then talking positively to yourself again. Build yourself up and tell yourself that you are very capable, awesome, smart, etc., and then do something. After you have done something that you told yourself to do, instantly reward yourself by telling yourself how awesome it is that you just proved you are capable, awesome, motivated, smart, and destined for success. The people who don't procrastinate can stop here. The rest of you, keep reading.

How to Define Success

I think that success is nothing more or less than telling yourself to do good things and then doing them. (AKA: free will or self-actualization). Making choices and doing what you choose is really the only thing you can control. The results of your actions are not under your control. Only your doing of them is. Deep down you know that. Deep down, that's why you beat yourself up so much when you procrastinate and don't obey yourself. You know that obeying yourself is really the only power you have full ownership over, and if you don't have that power, you really don't have anything that will last or mean anything.

Everything you think you own--physical possessions, family, friends, citizenship, reputation, love and respect from others, knowledge, memories, personality, and even your physical body--can all vanish under certain circumstances. What remains when all of those things are gone is your ability to choose truth and light over falseness and darkness.

Life is full of micro-choices.

Your Spirit is Like a Dung Beetle

Have you ever seen a dung beetle at work? He's a little guy, but check out this video and see how he can roll dung into a giant ball that is way bigger than he is. That's kind of how I imagine what we are made of. "Gross!", you say? Well, I could have used tiny magnets for my analogy, but dung is way more cool.

So here goes my analogy.

You and I seem to be made up of two things.

One of those things is a discerner of differences. It is a decider. It is a will. It is the thing that values things and makes choices. It is a gatherer of light and truth. It is the beetle.

Now imagine that instead of rolling up a ball of dung, the beetle is rolling up a ball of light. The other part of our spirits is the big pile of truth that we have acquired. When we find more truth and we obey it, we get to add more to our ball. When we ignore truth or disobey it, we lose some of the light.

I believe that truth is like light and that truth is independent. Nothing can tell the truth what to be--not even God. It gets to be itself. It just is. I think that our existence consists in its most basic form of a special kind of truth that values and gathers more truth to itself.

Light is sticky, like magnets are sticky. It sticks to itself, mostly, but it also sticks to us--if we let it.

The basic choice you are making is to either desire truth or not. Truth is light. Truth is what is, what was, or what will be. It is actuality. Your ability to choose how you think--what you believe (trust, or faith), what you desire (hope) for, and what emotions you feel (like love)--is your gift to yourself. It is what makes you. . . you.

While it is true that those things are also gifts from God, only you can choose to want them. Nobody can take that choice away from you. Nobody can give it to you. It is your free will. It is your agency.

From your agency comes your ability to act. Your external, physical ability to act can be curtailed by other people, the laws of nature and Heaven, and by your lack of knowledge. But barring some psychological or physical, mental health problem, the basic ability to act internally--to think, to hope or desire, to have faith, and to have emotions, cannot be abridged. When you die and shed your physical body one day, those are the things you will have left. They are what and who you are at the core. They are what make you a Person.

I believe that, deep down, we know that our free will is really all we really are. But we can be deceived into believing that we lack the ability to control ourselves. Often this deception happens when we make choices that go against the truth we know. When we make those choices, invariably the Enemy pipes up and says, "See, you cannot be as good as you imagine being. You are powerless." And since it looks like it is true, based on the fact that we just saw ourselves disobey the truth, we can start to believe that message. Therefore, the second deception is worse than the first.

If you believe that you are powerless, you will naturally feel unimportant and unworthy of good things. If you tell yourself enough that you are unimportant and unworthy, you will start to believe it and act like it. When your self image is negative, your thoughts and actions become destructive to your own happiness. If you are in that place, it can feel like you cannot get out.

This directly relates to procrastination. If you see yourself sitting day after day without doing the things you should do, you can fall into the trap of believing in your powerlessness. The evidency for your lack of power is overwhelming, so there you sit, unable to move. Unable to dream. Unable to desire. Unable to believe. You have believed the lie, and the Enemy has won.

The Solution: Implement The Anti-Procrastination Cycle

Fig. 1. The Anti-Procrastination Cycle
Fig. 1. The Anti-Procrastination Cycle

If you are stuck in that negative place, how do you start to reconstruct your self worth? Can you start by just doing good, meaningful things again?

No. You won't have enough spiritual energy to do it that way. You must start with valuing yourself more. (Please see Fig. 1). After you value and love yourself more, you will have the faith and desire (hope) required to believe that you can act on your desires. You have to stop believing the lie that you are powerless. Until then, you can't even start to decide to act, because your self-belief in your suckiness is too strong. Believing comes first. Action comes second.

The Action Blitz

The best way to quickly overcome procrastination is to use an "action blitz" to go through what I call the "Anti-Procrastination Cycle" as many times as possible in a short period of time. The action blitz process consists of three simple major steps:

  1. Planning the Action Blitz;
  2. Doing the Action Blitz; and
  3. Repeating the Action Blitz until it is a Habit.

I've broken each major step down into very simple, specific steps that you can follow. Unless you are in a vegetative coma, you really can do this, so read on!

Step 1: Planning the Action Blitz

You want to simplify the planning process as much as possible. You don't want to get hung up with complicated soul searching, goal setting, task prioritizing, or working out the perfect GTD system. The idea here is to get un-stuck, and part of your problem may very well be the overthinking of your own organizational system. Just follow the steps here to get un-stuck. After you are confident you have beaten the procrastination cycle, feel free to tweak your system a little at a time.

When you are done with the action blitz planning step, you'll either have a few pieces of paper on your desk or two electronic documents up on your computer screen. I'm going to assume that if you're reading this, you already have a computer, so that's the method I'm going to explain.

A Note About Actions Versus Projects

First, let's talk about the GTD concept of a project.

If an idea or task takes more than one physical step to perform, it is defined as a project in Getting Things Done (GTD) terms, and you should break the project down in to its specific, physical steps, called "actions" in GTD terms. According to David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done, the "next action" is merely "the next physical, visible activity that needs to be engaged in, in order to move the current reality toward completion."

Unfortunately, right after that definition, he gives a list of things that for some people should properly be called projects, like "Draft thoughts for the budget meeting agenda." It seems to me like drafting thoughts for a budget meeting agenda might involve a bunch of other mental steps, but listing steps out like "log into the computer," or "open Microsoft Word" could get you lost in time-wasting minutia. For me, they would be minutia, but for my four-year-old son, they would be unfamiliar and confusing. How do you draw the line between what constitutes an action versus a project? My rule of thumb for drawing a line between what defines a project and a single action is this: Within a few seconds, can I form a clear mental picture of what the steps for completion are? If I cannot, it means that the task is unfamiliar or complicated enough that I need to break it down into smaller steps. There is no need to get ridiculous about it. It either looks and feels fuzzy to me, or it doesn't. If it's something I've done hundreds of times, I don't need to define it in minute detail. If it is unfamiliar and complex, I do.

It seems to me that David's whole reason for making the distinction between single actions and projects is to avoid the kind of mental complexity that can create enough confusion about what your next action should be to stop you in your tracks. As long as there's no confusion, it's OK to generalize.

An example of an idea that is really a project would be: "create a mileage log to take in the car with me." I've never done that before and its been on my task list for 3 years, so its a pretty sure bet that I'm not clear about what I'm supposed to do first. Thinking through the details will help me to start the project.

Creating the mileage log involves several steps, like:

  • list the info types that I need to track,
  • put the info types (date, destination, starting mileage, ending mileage, total mileage, business purpose, etc.) into the columns of a spreadsheet,
  • format the spreadsheet to fit 2-up on a letter-sized landscape page,
  • print two-sided and staple the booklet, and
  • put the booklet in the glove box of the car with a pen.

1.1 Make Your Action List

The goal here is to quickly choose a simple project and break it down into a bunch of simple, physical actions. None of the actions should require a change in context (location and tools available), and making the list of actions shouldn't take you more than about 5 minutes. If it takes you longer than that, you are over-thinking this. Make sure that the project is meaningful, but don't stress about prioritising and choosing the most important thing to do. In fact, you may wish to choose a project that is low on the priority list but still has meaning. That will take the stress out of the situation and make sure that you don't bail before even getting your list put together. It doesn't have to be perfect!

After you have chosen a project and have made your action list, estimate how much time each action will take, and choose enough actions to fill one hour. Make sure that each next action takes no longer than two to ten minutes to do. These should be discrete, physical actions. A few good examples would be "vacuum floor in office" or "e-mail business card file to printer."

If you don't have a fully functional organizational system (and chances are that if you did, you wouldn't be procrastinating to begin with), I would suggest using a word processor like Microsoft Word or OpenOffice.org Writer to make a bullet-point outlined list. Feel free to use the attached worksheet to create your Action Blitz. Write out the list as the thoughts come to you, and drag and drop to put them into the logical action sequence for the blitz.

At the top of the list, create the title "Action Blitz!" at the top. Under the title, write "Start Time __________," "Planned Stop Time ___________," and "Actual Stop Time _____________." Your first blitz will last about an hour. When you are ready to start the blitz, you'll enter both the start time and the planned stop time, so don't do it now.

On your action list, if you haven't done it already, number each task with its sequence number (e.g., 1-5). If you're doing this on a piece of paper, just hand-write the numbers in the left margin. The goal is to get all of the organization done before you start your action blitz so there is no delay-causing confusion.

If you've already got a Getting Things Done system partially in place with a list of next actions you've been putting off, feel free to just print the list, write the title and time info at the top, put an asterisk next to the next actions you are going to use for this blitz, and then add the sequence numbers next to the asterisks.

However you want to do it, just make sure you have a nice list with a sequence that is easy to follow.

1.2. Plan Your Positive Self-Talk

Finally, on a separate piece of paper (or a new document on your computer screen), make a list of positive self-talk sentences you will use before you do an action, and write down some positive phrases for after you have done an action. You'll want to make the pre-action messages about how awesome you are, how good you will feel when the next action is done, how quick and easy the next action will be, and any other messages that will help to build your confidence while minimizing performance anxiety. There are some sample phrases listed on the second sheet of the attached spreadsheet.

Step 2: Doing the Action Blitz

The proper action blitz has a sequence to ensure optimum results. Don't be a rule breaker. Just follow the list.

  1. To start with, write down the start and stop times.
  2. Next, say, "Next Action," and read the first action out loud. You'll keep saying "Next Action" before you do each item.
  3. Read your pre-action positive self-talk messages, and repeat them as many times until you believe them and are psyched up to do the first action.
  4. Decide to do the action. It might help to say, "OK. I'm going to do this!" or say, "OK. I'm going to (fill in the blank with the description of the next action)."
  5. Obey yourself by doing the action as quickly as possible. You may feel some discomfort while starting, but you need to push through it. You can repeat your positive self-talk messages if you need to.
  6. Celebrate your accomplishment by rewarding yourself with your post-action positive self talk. Feel free to throw in a few, "Yes! I rock!" exclamations.
  7. Repeat steps 2-6 until your task list is done.
  8. Note the time you finished your task list in the Actual Stop Time blank.
  9. Congratulate yourself, and talk to yourself about how good it felt to do the action blitz. Tell yourself that you are looking forward to the next blitz.
  10. Take a 5-minute break and do whatever the heck you want.

Step 3: Repeat the Blitz Until It is a Habit

After your 5-minute break, here's what you do.

  1. Give yourself some positive self talk, repeating Step 9. Pump yourself up to do the next blitz.
  2. Start at the top and plan your next blitz.
  3. Keep doing blitzes for the rest of the day. In fact, you will need to keep blitzing every day for the next month to totally establish your new productivity habits. It takes about 22 days to establish a strong habit. You definitely do not want to relapse during this time. If you do though, just use positive self talk to psych yourself up for another action blitz and remember to always reward yourself with positive post-action self-talk.

Some Tips and Observations on Sustaining a Daily Action Blitz Habit

Ideally, having a good Getting Things Done system that fits with your life is a very important part of the planning stage of the Action Blitz. You have to be able to break down your life from large abstract concepts like life mission statements, goals, responsibilities and roles, and projects to simple, discrete, physical next actions that can actually be done.

But you can do the Action Blitz without all of that. Just do something. You'll feel better. Get the rest of your life organized after you are unstuck.

I'd like to suggest a great tool for organizing your Getting Things Done system. It is a Java program calling Thinking Rock. I have it installed on all of my Linux and Windows machines. I use it all the time for small projects and for organizing my basic To Do lists. Reading the book, Getting Things Done will help you to get the most out of Thinking Rock. Sometime soon I think I'll create a bit of a tutorial on how to use this excellent tool.

For bigger projects, mainly for my business, I use Project.net installed on one of my Linux servers at home. It is more complicated, but it can do a lot to help manage projects, especially where you have to share the project with lots of people, including clients.

Good luck! You can do it.

I have attached a worksheet to use for planning your Action Blitz. Feel free to use it or send it to a friend.

action_blitz_template.xls8.5 KB