Get Started Easier: Build Momentum by Leaving Something Undone

Do you ever sit down at your computer, intending to work on your project, but end up putting it off and wasting time instead? There's a simple trick to avoid this.

How to do it? It's easy, just leave a well-defined task undone from the previous day.

Here is how Todd Henry, the founder of Accidental Creative puts it:

“My biggest method is to end with the beginning in mind. Whenever I’m working on a long-arc project, I always end every work session knowing where I’ll pick up the next day. I don’t procrastinate because I want to avoid the work, I often do it because I’m uncertain of the right next step. This tactic keeps me from getting stuck.”

You don't need to figure out what to do to get going, if you've already done it yesterday. You can stop feeling bad about procrastinating, when you consciously take steps to make getting started easier on yourself.

Where programmer A who follows this approach would already be deep in the zone, another otherwise equally talented developer B would still be browsing Reddit. Here's why. Reading a well-defined task description told the programmer A exactly which file to open and what to start editing, enabling them to get going with minimal pain despite not being in the mood to take on the project right then.

Meanwhile developer B was also still in leisure mode, a bit tired and preoccupied with other thoughts, reluctant to do the mental effort to load the project into their head and figuring out the next step to undertake, putting it off until finally feeling bad about not starting grew strong enough that getting started was preferable to enduring that emotion any longer.

Once you do get started, you will perceive the task as much less aversive than you did while avoiding it. It's easier to keep going once you've overcome the initial hump of starting it in the first place, and leaving a well-defined task undone is an easy way to accomplish this.

Once you do get going, you are unlikely to stop until you've solved the little problem you set aside for yourself before. Thanks to the Ovsiankina effect, you are much less likely to stop once you've taken on the problem at hand. It's like getting started on a puzzle, once you've started you won't feel satisfied until you've solved it.

And once your little task is done, you now have your tools ready, the project loaded back into your mind, and the momentum to take on the next task. Leaving a little task undone and explained makes it easier to get started, and getting straight to work instead of procrastinating makes you feel better too.