The Unprocrastination Q&A

Post written by Leo Babauta.

You’ve read through all the Unprocrastination course materials, watched all the videos … and you still have questions? No problem!

In this bonus Q&A, I’ve answered questions submitted by course members.


Q. I need help with mountains of paper documents. I have old files that need purging, and growing stacks of paper that need filing. I need a simple way of thinking to help me get motivated to deal with the mountain, to know what to keep and what to purge, how to organize it, and then how to keep up with the flow in the future once I’ve caught up.

Leo: This is very common. There are two real problems here:

  1. You dread doing this task because it’s overwhelming; and
  2. You don’t have an easy system to decide and file, so it’s confusing.

To solve the first problem, tell yourself that all you need to do is deal with 5 pieces of paper today. That’s all. It’s easy, and you can do it in a few minutes. Tomorrow, do 10, then 15, then 20. If you do 20 pieces of paper (or a minumum of 10 if you’re busy), you will start to make a big dent in the piles. Once you get rolling, you might even schedule a couple hours to try to wipe the rest of the piles out all at once.

As for the second problem, it’s not that difficult once you figure a few things out:

  1. Have your filing folders ready to go. Have them out, labeled, and ready for filing, so that when you’re ready to start, it’s easy.
  2. Know that you can actually get rid of most papers. Most things can be gotten online, or on your computer, or via an email request if you need it. So only file things that you either need immediately and often, and can’t get easily.
  3. Start with the top paper and make a quick decision on it: trash/recycle it, file it, put it in an “action” folder and on your to-do list, put it in a “pending” folder if it’s something needed on a certain date, like concert tickets (and also on your calendar for that date), or forward it on to the appropriate person. Those are the only four actions to take, and it takes only a few seconds to do any of them.

Work quickly, one paper at a time, not deferring decisions on any paper, and you’ll soon get into a groove and start powering down the pile.

I would recommend, as a continuing habit once you’ve cleared your piles, that you learn to make decisions on papers immediately, and take action/file immediately. As an alternative, do it once a day at the end of the day before you finish your work, or for your home papers, once a day when you get home from work.

Q. In the interests of balancing work and relaxation: if you are making an effort to stay on task, not procrastinate, not get distracted, and it’s a long or challenging task (possibly with many component parts) that is somewhat draining—any suggestions on how to decide how many breaks may be too much? Or not enough? Any guidelines to help decide?

Leo: Grow your focus muscle slowly. I would experiment with short focus periods, using a timer to make sure you don’t take breaks that are too long. So try 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off. If that seems too quick after doing it a few times, try 10 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Then slowly grow to larger focus periods: 12 minutes on, 3 off; 15 minutes on, 5 off; 20 minutes on, 5 off, etc.

There is no single right way to do things — you’ll get better at focusing and be able to stay with the task longer, but you will only know by feel. Find out what works for you through trial and error.

Q. Often my biggest obstacle is that my MIT is not able to be started right away. What do you suggest for ways to remind yourself to start and also not let it drop in importance when the day get crazy. Often it seems that my MIT is a late morning/afternoon task and by that time I have either forgotten it or gotten totally distracted.

Leo: Schedule a block of time for your afternoon MIT – and make it an unmissable appointment. When we have an appointment on our calendar to meet someone else, we make sure to be there. Do the same for an MIT — it’s even more important than meeting someone else, usually. Put it on your calendar, and send yourself a reminder. If necessary, hold yourself accountable to others for sticking to this appointment with yourself.


Q. Can you talk more in depth about motivation? I read the cheat sheet but wondered if could give more on that. On really makinga strong commitment to perform the task. Also, how to stay motivated when not doing the task – doing something else – is more fun? And what about competing MITs, I mean where they’re competing for your time, and you use one to procrastinate about the other?

Leo: Motivation is best from two sources: being excited about doing something, and being accountable to others (or helping others). We like doing things we’re excited about doing, and we like doing things that will make us look good in the eyes of others. It’s best when these two things line up in your MITs, but that’s not always possible.

So if you can, find something you’re excited about working on. One thing. Commit to doing that, to others. Maybe it’s something that will help others out? Even better.

Then repeat that with your next MIT.

If you’re not excited about it, and find doing other things more fun, then either find something else important that you are excited about, or re-examine your idea of exciting. What I mean is this: we might see a task as boring — but perhaps it’s not really boring. Maybe it’s only that we’re not fully paying attention, because we think it’s so routine and we take the details for granted. See if you can fully immerse yourself in the task, and treat it as a form of mindfulness meditation, and see what you can notice when you really pay attention. This can be fun.

Now look at the other things that are pulling your attention away — why are these more fun? Maybe they are just easier, or maybe there’s a Words with Friends game that you like because it makes you look good in the eyes of your friends. That’s fine, but do you really need those fun activities to fulfill that need? Can you look good in the eyes of others by doing your MIT instead? Can you make the MIT easier so you’re more likely to have fun doing it? Maybe you need an added challenge? Re-examine these ideas and see if you can tilt the game in favor of doing your MIT.

Lastly, doing some MITs at the expense of others — that’s fine, as long as you’re getting important work done. But eventually you’ll have to commit to doing the MITs you’ve been putting off — use the accountability trick to help that commitment, and the mindfulness meditation technique I just mentioned.

Q: I have done many MIT but for my actual job but I want to work for myself but I don’t really know what are my passion and in which field should I go. I know what I don’t like but I am procrastinating on my future : how to work on it ?

Leo: You’re procrastinating because it seems too confusing, too big a decision, and you don’t know how to tackle it. We do this with things that are big and unknown. Easy tasks are easy to knock off our task lists, but what about something that scares us?

The only way to beat this is to break this down into smaller MITs that are easier and that you know how to do. For example, if you want to explore what fields you’re passionate about, how about starting with making a list of things that you’re interested in, that you like doing on your own, that you like reading about? Add to this list everytime you find yourself reading something online that interests you — anything at all. This is a single task that isn’t that hard to do.

You can then do other simple tasks:

  1. pick three things from your first list;
  2. for each of those three things, make a list of people you might know (or know of) who have made a career doing what you want to do;
  3. find a contact for each one of those people;
  4. write a form email to each of them, asking for advice and how they got started;
  5. Google how to learn that field;
  6. pick one thing you can do to learn about the field, like reading a book or a blog, and then do it; and
  7. try actually doing something in that field, and see if you like it.

Those are just examples, of course, but you can see that none of those tasks is overwhelmingly hard, nor are they unknown.

Q: Could you give some tips on how to continue with the Unprocrastination habit on a longterm basis – so for the monthly challenges and beyond.

Leo: The Sea Change montly challenges are awesome tools for continuing the habits. In fact, forming any kind of community around your changes is really important — get a group of friends or co-workers to work on this together, form a Facebook group or something like that, do monthly challenges. Or just have a procrastination buddy, where you call/email each other once a day at the same time each day, for accountability check-in with how you did on your MITs and habits.