Updated: Nov 7, 2019
Today I’m going to show you how I finally beat procrastination. I stopped putting off those important tasks, the ones I delayed even when I knew bad things would happen if I didn’t do them. Before, I shied away from the most important tasks. To be honest, I was a bit of a ditherer.
How did I do it? The Staircase Technique. And in this case study I’m going to show exactly how I did it, step by step.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
How the Staircase Technique Kick-Started My Career
I was a programme manager in an international company. One of their key software developments was in deep trouble. All the releases were hopelessly late, and reliability was appalling. Things came to a head, and I was asked to take over.
Everyone I spoke to had their own opinions about what I should do. I could see what needed to be done, but it was overwhelming. So I shut myself away for 24 hours and figured it out. I set a course that rescued the development and turned it from a basket case to a winner of international awards.
Since then I’ve used the Staircase Technique over and over again. Beating procrastination. Tackling other big projects, like rescuing a customer service project that affected 22 million customers. And at the other end of the scale, doing nasty little chores like my tax returns.
You can use the Staircase Technique too. Maybe you are in trouble revising for an exam. Or maybe you keep putting off redecorating the living room, and it’s getting more and more embarrassing. Perhaps you can’t get started with painting that masterpiece you’ve dreamed about.
Leonardo Da Vinci – procrastination genius
One of the greatest procrastination sufferers in history was Leonardo Da Vinci. Possibly the most brilliant painter of all time, he lived to the ripe old age of 67 and only ever finished 15 paintings.
One of them was the Mona Lisa, now the star exhibit in the Louvre Art Gallery in Paris. Pope Leo X ordered it in March 1515, as a small welcoming gift for Isabella d’Este, who would be visiting seven months later.
So Leonardo had plenty of notice. When the exasperated Pope Leo was told it would not be completed in time for Isabella’s visit, he exclaimed “This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning!”
Leonardo finished the Mona Lisa 15 years later.
So we are not alone. Procrastination is nothing to be ashamed of. But it does cause us a lot of grief, and it limits our progress. The good news is that we can fix it.
Now it’s time to show you the Staircase Technique, step by step.
#1 Write down your big task
You are suffering from procrastination if you are putting off a big task. What is it? See if you can write it down in one sentence. What must you do? When must you do it? Think about why it’s important. Who cares if you do it, and if you don’t?
Of course you have lots of tasks. Choose the one that you are most worried about.
When I took over that software development, I decided quality was the biggest problem. And my big task was “From worst to best”. I had no idea how long it was going to take, and I didn’t have a plan, but I knew everyone would pull together to achieve it.
You’ve probably been worrying about your big task for a while. It’s taunting you, shimmering in the distance, at the top of a mountain of pain, unreachable. It’s time to build your staircase to the mountain top.
#2 Prepare the ground
You need a bit of space to build your staircase. Remove the things that distract you from starting. Is the TV on all the time? Do you keep looking at your emails? Are you obsessed with social media? If family, friends, or colleagues are constantly interrupting you, go somewhere else. If you’re studying in your bedroom, leave your phone downstairs.
Are you surrounded by clutter? Clear any papers – or other stray objects like sweet wrappers and old coffee cups – off your desk and put them somewhere else.
Gather together everything you will need to start your task. But don’t make a meal of it, or it will become just another reason for a delay. If you’re supposed to be painting a picture, building an artists’s studio is not preparing the ground, it’s a diversion.
Can you do it on your own, or do you need help? Sometimes it’s enough to get a supporter – someone you can talk to about your task, and who can support you to keep to your commitment when the going gets tough. But not someone who is going to push you and criticise you and add to your pain. Just a friend to help you through when procrastination beckons.
#3 Build your first step
Don’t try to make a complicated plan to achieve your task. Just think about the things you need to do, to get started. They are going to be the first steps in your staircase.
Perhaps you are already obsessing about one of the steps you are going to have to take. Maybe that’s the reason you kept putting the whole thing off. Now it’s time to grasp that nettle. Make it your first step.
If it’s daunting or complicated, break it down into smaller steps, until each one looks like it will take no more than an hour to complete. Now you’re ready to get started.
For my software rescue, my predecessor’s strategy had been “pretend things aren’t as bad as everyone is saying”. I knew that wouldn’t work, and we had to admit the truth. This was going to cause a lot of upset. I might be fired. I needed to warn my team and my customers about it, and get them on side. So my first step was “Send invitations for initial discussions”.
#4 Take the first step
Get to work. You can do it! The first step is going to take you less than an hour. You have everything you need. There are no distractions, no excuses. Now it’s time. Just jump to it, and do it. You’ll feel much better when you have finished.
There’s someone else traveling with you on your climb up the mountain. We call it your Inner Child. It wants to have fun. It wants a drink. It wants your attention. It doesn’t think you can make it to the top of the mountain, and it doesn’t want to go there anyway. If you’re a procrastinator you have a particular noisy inner child. Try to keep it quiet for an hour - there’s a reward coming.
#5 Give yourself a reward
Take a break. You deserve it. Have a coffee or a snack. Go for a walk, read a chapter of a book, watch a video, play a game. Reward your inner child. But avoid alcohol, because you are going to get back to work soon.
And beware – it’s just a short break. You aren’t packing up for the day! This is a dangerous time – procrastination is just a heartbeat away. Don’t let your inner child get the upper hand, or you’ll be away with the fairies again. Tell it another reward will be coming along soon, and get back in control.
#6 Take the next step
When you’re ready to start work again, have another look up the mountain towards your goal. What will your next step be? Maybe you’ve learned something from doing the previous step, that inspires you and propels you forward. Or perhaps you have your next step already worked out, and you just need to get on with it.
For my software project, I’d just sent out invitations for my initial discussions, so my next step was “Get my story straight”.
Again, break down your next step into smaller ones that will take no more than an hour each. Then jump up to the first of them and do it. Time for another reward! Maybe this procrastination thing can be beaten after all.
So keep climbing, step by step. Reward by reward. Now you’re starting to gain some height.
You are starting to achieve something at last. Every now and then, stop and enjoy the view. Look at what you have achieved so far. Isn’t it good? Don’t you feel better about yourself?
And your inner child likes that feeling too. As a result, it will start to calm down, and have more faith in you. It will even start to give you a helping hand up the mountain if it knows the good feelings are going to get stronger.
Each step only takes an hour at most, so you can climb between 4 and 8 steps every day. Every one takes you closer to your objective. Keep going until you reach the top of the mountain, and your task is done.
You’ve done it!
That’s how to use the Staircase Technique to overcome procrastination.
You didn’t have to ‘pull yourself together’, or draw up a plan. And you didn’t have to set deadlines and miss them. Furthermore, nobody tried to make you feel guilty.
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Here's a question for you: what makes a good project manager? Have a look at this article: How To Break A Project