Many clocks - time ticking away on that project that is not completed because of procrastination

Reprograming Procrastination

One of the best kept secrets of the most productive and successful people is that we all have some task or area where we get stymied by procrastination. There are few things more horrible than the feeling of precious time slipping into the maw of procrastination.

If you’ve tried implementing one time or project management system after another and those productivity systems have become handy tools for avoiding actual work it may be time to address an underlying habit of procrastination.

Habits are not broken. They are replaced. When an unwanted habitual behavior comes up the trick is not to try to suppress it, but to treat it as a reminder to perform a new incompatible, preferred behavior.

In his book The Now Habit by Neil Fiore confronts the habit of procrastination itself.

Fiore spends a number of pages on being kind and gentle to yourself about your procrastination habit. If you need that reassurance get the book.

If you prefer to drill down to the strategy I’ve distilled that here and woven in some of the principles I’ve learned about human brains function and grow.

The Unschedule

Most of us live in parallel universes in our own minds, thinking we have more time than we really have. “Oh, I’ve got all week to work on that.” Imagining we have huge swaths of time. But there’s that pesky little thing called life – sleeping, eating, commuting, family obligations, errands, etc.

Fiore suggests filling in your calendar with what he calls your “Unschedule”. Fill in all those things you must do daily to keep your world revolving and rotating. It drives home the reality of how many hours in a day you actually have for focused uninterrupted work.

When I filled in my calendar this way it also triggered the “If you want something done give it to a busy person principle.” It’s a cliche because it’s true. We tend to get more done when we are busy. Seeing the reality of the size of my windows of opportunity for focused, interrupted work triggered that busyness/productivity principle.

Work for 30 Uninterrupted Minutes

Turn off phone, email etc. notifications and set the timer for 30 minutes. Only count blocks in which you worked for a full 30 minutes without interruption.

I find it is helpful to keep a piece of paper out to jot down potential interruptions. Our brains are similar to computers in that open items suck up processing RAM. If part of the brain is busy trying to remember to make that phone call when the 30 minutes is up that is attention drawn from the task at hand. Write it down. Close that tab. Redirect that attention back to the task at hand.

Keep Starting

Repeated thoughts and behaviors generate neural bundles. The more a thought or behavior is repeated, the bigger and stronger the bundle. And each time that pattern is interrupted and an incompatible behavior is inserted the neurons rewire. It takes a repetition or two to create new wiring.

Keep starting. If you take away only one thing from this, let it be that.

Just start the 30 minute timer the first time. Just start it again. Didn’t make it through a full 30 minute block? Fine. Just start again. Was yesterday a two steps back day when you went full on with all your tried and true procrastination techniques? Just start again today.


Complex tracking systems are excellent strategies for procrastination. Yet what gets tracked gets changed. In my first life I worked in special education. I became a master at identifying the key data to track to generate change and designing effective, minimal input tracking systems.

For rewiring procrastination into productivity, I use Google calendars. I set up one calendar titled “Unschedule” where, per Fiore’s instructions, I post my everyday tasks – working out, lunch, errands, etc. Since I’m into kitesurfing I include the forecast for good days of kiting.

I have another calendar titled “Actual”.  Throughout the day I track how I actually spent my time.

At the end of each of my 30 minute uninterrupted blocks I create an event for the task I worked on. Tracking successful completions is an important component of building a new habit.

When I have a backslide morning I create an entry recording that time as well. That drives home the time lost and makes starting that 30 minute timer easier the next time that old habit rears its ugly head.


Assessing the data closes the loop. No need for charts and graphs. A quick review of intended and actual calendars at the end of each day and each week is plenty. Note successes. Note areas for potential improvement. Note the times you interrupted a procrastination cycle with just starting.

The Basic Rules:

  • Do not work more than 20 hrs/week on the project
  • Do not work more than 5 hrs/day on the project
  • You must exercise, dance or play at least one hour/day
  • You must take at least one day/week off from any work
  • Aim for starting on thirty minutes of quality work (more on this to follow.

It may seem backwards that there are so many limitations on working on the project in order to complete the project. If you are in procrastination mode on a project,  you are probably not reaching 20 solid productive hours per week. Following the limit 20 hours will still result in a net gain of productive hours.

As counterintuitive as it seems, setting these limitations is an essential component of shifting to actual productive work. The chasing 30 minute productive work blocks can become addictive. You know what they say about too much of a good thing. Taking real breaks and going out to enjoy guilt free fun because you have documented proof you actually worked many productive hours is critical for preventing burn out.

With regular consistent implementation of these techniques you can rewire your procrastination habit. And this is where we deviate from computers. Our reprograming may not be forever. A different project may trigger those old delay tactics. Old habits may creep back in. Bookmark, Pocket or Pin this for when you need a refresher.

clock photo: flickr

Summary chart of Nick Fiore's Now Habit