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3 Quick Tips to Beat Procrastination

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When Hernán Cortés and 600 men arrived in Mexico in 1519, after a long and treacherous voyage across the Atlantic, he gave a rather interesting order.

Burn the boats.

The Spanish conquistador’s order was given prior to his stunning mission of battling, defeating and plundering the riches of the entire Aztec Empire.

Or so legend has it.

Historical lore also has Alexander the Great using the same strategy with his heavily outnumbered Greek army upon their arrival to Persia.

Burning the boats was also a major strategy in Sun Tzu’s ancient military treatise, “The Art of War”.

From the Greeks, to Asia, to Imperial Spain, the strategy of ‘burning the boats’ has been seen throughout history. Why?

How could intentionally destroying your own resources on the eve of battle serve as a strategy for victory?

And what does this bit of military trivia have to do with procrastination?

Commitment to strategy

Image from Jason Fried’s short, inspiring work manifesto, “Rework”

The “burn the boats” strategy – that is, making failure to achieve a desired outcome more painful –  is an effective way to ensure victory because it eliminates an important obstacle to accomplishing your goals.

That obstacle is a thought. The thought that if ‘things don’t work out’ you always have an escape plan to fall back on. Knowing you have an escape plan will prevent you from giving every ounce of effort needed for victory.

When you burn the boats you are also igniting a burning desire to succeed. You have no choice. You win or you perish.

So how can you use this strategy to overcome procrastination in your work and life?

Procrastination Tip 1: Burn The Boats

Burning the boats

Burning the boats in the modern world takes 3 steps.

1. Commit your procrastinated task or project to paper.

Be specific about what you want to accomplish. “Email 10 people about job openings” is a better commitment than “start looking for a job”.

2. Find someone to hold you accountable.

Find a single person or crew of accountability buddies (accountabilibuddies). It helps if your acountabilibuddies have similar aims in life, but this is not necessary.

I recently met a tight group of friends that have been helping each other succeed with their boat burning strategies since high school.

At the beginning of every week all of these friends set their goals and punishments for failing to reach their goals. On Friday, they come back together to see each other’s progress. They celebrate the wins and hold each other accountable for the losses.

3. Decide a punishment for failing to reach your goal.

Q: What does the above mentioned crew use in lieu of burning actual boats?
A: Things they really, really don’t want to happen.

Their punishments span from 4:30am runs to the pouring an entire bottle of expensive red wine onto a favorite shirt.

You may not want to take it as far as these guys, but do make the punishment painful enough to motivate you to action.

Procrastination Tip 2: The 2 Minute Rule

There are 2 versions of the 2 minute rule. And they both help with procrastination.

The first is, if it takes less than 2 minutes, just do it.

Doing all your 2 minute tasks as soon as they appear prevents small tasks from growing into larger ones. The 2 minute rule is particularly effective with email and small chores like washing your dishes or closing down all of the programs on your computer at the end of the day.

The second half of the 2 minute rule is a way to trick yourself into starting on a task you’ve been avoiding.

This is how it works:

Tell yourself to work for 2 minutes. Just 2. If you feel like you need a break after 2 minutes fine. You could even decide a fun reward for completing your 2 minutes of undesirable work… looking at cute pictures of kittens on the internet is alway a good one.
2 minute rule kitten

Then just start.

More often than not just getting started for 2 minutes will give you the momentum to finish or make major headway on a task.

The start for 2 minute rule works for 2 reasons.

First, once we get started on a task that we have been procrastinating on, we usually realize that the work is not as terrible as we imagined it to be (unless it’s doing your taxes… US taxes really are that bad).

Second, there is a weird psychological trait called the Zeigarnik effect, that states the human mind does not like incomplete tasks. So once we get started, we have a strong desire to finish the task so we don’t have a half done ‘open-loop’ that our brain tends to worry about until we finish the task.

Procrastination Tip 3: Book An Anti-Procrastination Appointment

Is your life at the point where it seems like you are too busy to get anything done?

Overcome unproductive busyness by carving out a specific time and place you are going to work on the task you’ve been avoiding. When the time comes, firewall all other distractions -phone, email, internet, co-workers- and do nothing but the pre-determined task for the allotted time.

You may just have to sit and stare at a blank powerpoint for 20 minutes before you make any progress. Eventually boredom, inspiration, frustration, etc will kick in and you will start on the tasks you had been avoiding.

Productivity is getting important things done consistently.

If your busy life is not allowing you to get the important things done, slow down by booking an appointment with your important task.

For this tip to work, it is important that you give your anti-procrastination appointment top priority. Keep the meeting as if it were a private conference with the CEO of your company and be sure to start and end on time.

What’s Next?

You’ve just learned 3 quick tips to beat procrastination:

  1. Burn the Boats
  2. The Two Minute Rule
  3. Anti-Procrastination Appointments

However, knowing is not enough! You must use these tips to take action. Getting yourself to take action is the only path to accomplishing your goals and shaping your life.

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Posted by Shawn  | January 16, 2017 at 8:41AM | Reply

Booking an anti-procrastination appointment also known as time-blocking, is it?

Posted by Francis  | July 31, 2014 at 2:08PM | Reply

Regarding James’ comment, I believe each person is different. Some are more motivated by “pain”, others by “pleasure” and others again by an even mix of both impulses.

Often, the punishment way has a much more accentuated effect on your inner motivation. An idea for a relatively painless punishment in modern social media times is this:

Give your accountabilibuddy (great idea!), who happens to be a close friend you can trust, access to your social media account (Facebook and the like) for a limited amount of time (1 hour for example).

Watch with horror how your mischevious friend embarrasses the heck out of your digital persona ;)

That should do the trick!

Posted by Zachary Sexton  | August 12, 2014 at 10:12AM

Haha. One hour of social media sabotage! Great idea. I’ll tell my friends that one.

Posted by James Frankton  | July 23, 2014 at 11:18PM | Reply

You’ve mentioned setting up a “punishment” in case you fail to achieve your goal. While I can certainly see the benefit in doing so, I think a better approach is to flip this notion on its head and make it something positive:

Reward yourself instead, for achieving a goal or completing a task.

In all aspects of life it is better to reward for good behaviour, as opposed to punish for bad behaviour (all other things being equal).

Cheers for a good article,


Posted by Zachary Sexton  | August 12, 2014 at 10:21AM

“It may be tempting to say that we are equal parts rational and emotional, balanced between left and right brain, but it’s not true. We are primarily emotional and our ruling emotion is fear.” – Jed McKenna

The fact is, humans respond to fear of loss more acutely than to desire for gain. So for short term procrastination busting, I’m gonna stick to my guns and say using fear is the best tool.

However, for the long term, you’re right. It is more sustainable (and enjoyable) to work towards positive goals and rewards.

Posted by Daniel  | July 17, 2014 at 3:54AM | Reply

Yup, that’s an interesting strategy — reminds me of the definition of a deadline (the actual one, not what is today more like a calendar):

“historical: a line drawn around a prison beyond which prisoners were liable to be shot”
(Apple Dictionary)

Now that’s motivation ;-). But while I agree that it’s a good military strategy (at least judging from works of fiction):

Always leave a way out, unless you really want to find out how hard a man can fight when he’s nothing to lose …”
Matrim Cauthon in “The Wheel of Time” by Robert Jordan

and sometimes the only working supervisor strategy:

“Works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap.”
Comment from a performance review

I think it should be reserved for very rare occasions and very special tasks. Work shouldn’t suck this much to have to use these strategies. And I suspect there are downsides. For example, a more focused thinking (yeah), but also more convergent thinking (not that good for a creative task).

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