How many times have you let your to-do list get out of control?
You know what I mean.
You’ve let tasks accumulate over time either by adding to your list each day without checking off much of anything.
Of, if you use an online task manager like Asana, you just keep changing the due dates on a task but never getting it done.
Let’s face it. You’re procrastinating. But why?
You’re an action-taking person in so many areas of your life…
So, why do you let some tasks just languish on the list for days or weeks while others get knocked off right away?
The short answer is that your brain is looking for easy wins.
When you look at a list of things to do, your brain wants to find something it can check off quickly so it gets a nice, soothing shot of dopamine.
Dopamine is the ‘satisfaction chemical’ and your brain craves it.
So, instead of tackling the most important items on your list, your brain hunts down the easy wins first.
Once it runs out of easy things to check off, it scans the rest of the list looking for anything else that will give it a win.
If it can’t find one, it goes looking outside your list for some satisfaction.
Hello, Facebook browsing.
Knowing this, how can you structure your to-do list so that your brain wants to get the rest of your tasks checked off?
The answer lies in how your brain perceives the tasks as written.
There are four reasons your brain will balk at doing a task
The task is unclear
If your brain can’t glance at a task and instantly understand how to take the first step towards accomplishing it, then it will move on to another task in search of a win. Ideally, your brain needs a mental picture to get it going.
For example, if the task is “Research for a new blog post” your brain tries to picture you doing research. When it doesn’t immediately get a clear picture, it moves on to another task.
But if you wrote the task as “Google ‘brain chemistry and procrastination’ for a new blog post”, your brain can see you at the computer, it can see Google on the screen and it can imagine you typing the words ‘brain chemistry and procrastination” in the search bar.
In a matter of milliseconds, your brain understands what to do and how to do it. And your brain knows that doing the task results in a shot of dopamine.
That task is getting done.
The task will take too long
When your brain looks at a task, it immediately does a little mental math and estimates how long the task might take to complete.
If the estimate is more than about 30 minutes, your brain will skip that task and move on to something that provides a shot of dopamine in a shorter time frame.
Brains are desperate junkies – they do not like to wait for their yummy chemicals.
As an example, suppose you have a task on your list that is “Create the sales presentation deck for ABC client”.
When your brain sees that task, it checks its past experience and realizes that creating a sales presentation deck is at least a few hours of work. Wait a few hours for some dopamine? No way! So your brain tells you that you don’t have time to the task (even if your calendar is wide open) and it goes in search of something faster to do.
However, if you broke that bigger task into smaller ones like, ‘write the outline for the sales presentation’, ‘choose slide theme for the sales presentation’, ‘create first three slides for sales presentation’, etc, your brain would jump on each of the tasks and knock it out. It looks at the list of smaller tasks and sees a veritable dopamine flood.
Those tasks are going to get done.
The task is not important
Your brain may be a dopamine addict but it is also looking out for your best interests.
As it glances through your to-do list, it ranks the importance of each task in reaching your big goals. Your subconscious brain evaluates if a task is really going to help in the long run or if it’s just a ‘nice-to-do’ that you thought up one day.
For example, suppose you have a task that is “Read chapter 1 of the leadership book”. It’s clear and short but it still may not get done.
If your subconscious doesn’t immediately understand and feel the deep impact of reading a book and how it will help you achieve your goals, it will pass on the task.
The task just isn’t important enough to get your brain’s attention, especially if there is some dopamine to be gotten from another task. Remember, it is an addict and your brain will forgo a lot of things to get its fix.
If you find a task on your list seems unimportant to you have two options.
The first option is to just take it off the list. Acknowledge that is a ‘nice-to-do’ if you had nothing else to do, and get rid of it.
The second option is to see if you can make it more significant. In the example of reading a book, you could change the task to “Read the chapter on running better meetings before my sales meeting on Wednesday”. Now your brain has something that feels useful in the short-term and that will have an impact on your results.
The task is uninteresting
The next reason your junkie brain will skip over a task is that it sees the task as uninteresting.
Your brain loves novelty. Novelty creates a shot of dopamine and we have beaten to death how much your brain loves dopamine.
When your brain sees a task that looks boring or that looks even uninteresting it will jump to the next task on the list to see if it can find a chemical hit there.
For example, suppose you have a task to “Update this week’s transactions in Quickbooks” on your to-do list. The task is clear enough, short enough and, important for the long-run health of your business.
But it also looks boring unless you are an accountant or bookkeeper.
Tasks that are boring should be delegated or outsourced. One of the perks of being an entrepreneur is that you can hand off or hire out boring work to someone else.
One little caveat here. Sometimes your brain tells you that it will take longer to explain to someone how to do a task than it would to do it yourself. In that case, the task doesn’t get handed off. But you still don’t do the task because it looks boring.
This is a moment where you have to use a bit of willpower and tell your lazy brain to suck it up and do what is necessary to hand off the task. The good news is that many of the hand-off tasks are repetitive. That means you only have to train someone once but you get to take a repeating task off your list forever.
As you can see, procrastination is a bad habit you can conquer if you know what is causing it.
If your to-do list is a nightmare, download a free copy of The Procrastination Cure Matrix. Within just a few minutes you will know exactly how to update your to-list so that every item gets done, eliminated or outsourced.
After using The Procrastination Cure Matrix just once, you will have started taming your procrastination monster for good.