I hate productivity porn. Whenever a “use this one trick to stop procrastinating” post does the rounds, I itch to respond with “maybe you shouldn’t want to stop procrastinating?” Fortunately the banner is held by many more qualified than me to explain why issues with procrastination are less about pushing yourself harder and more about emotional regulation and figuring out what you want to prioritize in life.

And so it is with surprise, and no small sense of hypocrisy, that I find myself wanting to share my own “one trick” to overcoming procrastination. But I have to concede my purist approach - reality is nuanced, and life is such that sometimes I find myself in an emotional rut with no immediate way out. There are still bills to pay and things that need to get done. In such cases I’ve found a particular approach works quite well - the exhaustive TODO list.

The idea is quite simple: split the task to tiny action items, each taking no more than 5-10 minutes to complete (including the context switch from whatever I was doing before). I use a simple text-based TODO list. This list then serves as the absolute guide for what to do when I want to make some progress; I update the list frequently to reflect changes in requirements or the way I see the task. If creating such an exhaustive, detailed list is an intimidating task on its own, I’ll create an outline TODO list with action items to expand each topic. If I don’t have all the info to make a complete TODO list, I’ll make action items to find out the relevant info and update the list accordingly.

The reason this works ties back to the emotional regulation aspect of procrastination: in the first place, the reason for procrastinating on something is not having enough emotional energy to commit to working on it. But procrastination has its own emotional cost, fostering feelings of guilt and draining mental energy. Having the list offers a third alternative: I don’t have to commit to working on the task for hours, but I also don’t have to guilty-scroll social media until I’m completely drained - I can simply tick off just one action item and be done with it. This means I’m always at most 10 minutes away from having done my part for the day. And sometimes the one thing I do gets me in the mood, and I cross off a whole bunch of items. There’s a small virtuous cycle there - getting things done, even if slowly, alleviates some of the guilt I associate with the task, which means working on it is less of an emotional drain.

Of course, this isn’t a magic solution to procrastination, and unsustainable for too many tasks or for too long. Again, if you’re wondering how to stop procrastinating, I’d recommend asking yourself if you’re missing something and there’s a deeper cause for either lack of emotional energy to do things you want, or unfulfilled (maybe unacknowledged) desires manifesting as the desire to be more productive (our society’s solution to all maladies /s).

And now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s this thing I’ve been procrastinating on…