The really happy people are those who have broken the chains of procrastination, those who find satisfaction in doing the job at hand. They’re full of eagerness, zest, productivity. You can be, too. ~ Norman Vincent Peale

Have you ever noticed how much easier it is to clean someone else’s home instead of your own? There’s no emotional investment: no sick feeling when you look at the mess, no worries about whether or not you’ll get it all done and no concern about whether or not it will stay clean.

Back at home, though, your own dishes are piled up, your work deadline is looming and your bills are late. Every day you put these on your to-do list, but they end up getting passed on to the next day. Why is it so hard to just buckle down and do it?

Most often, it is not physical strength or even time that we lack, it’s mental energy. When we perceive big projects as one giant lump of abstract effort, we form enormous mental resistance. Those dishes aren’t just little plates that you must physically lift and set in the dishwasher, they are a mental hurdle competing with all the other hurdles for your energy.

We are motivated to take action when we sense a feeling of reward at the end. If you look at your messy house in its entirety and feel like you won’t get that “reward” feeling unless the entire house is clean, then you will feel overwhelmed fairly quickly and end up doing nothing. Why waste all that time just cleaning the bathroom, you may think, when you’ll still have to look at the rest of the house?

The same mental process applies to getting healthy or any other goal. If you know that it’s going to take two months of working out to see real results, then the alternative — taking it easy with a bag of chips on the couch — starts to look pretty tempting, especially since the reward is felt so immediately.

If you’re already prone to anxiety, depression and self-consciousness there is even more mental resistance to taking action. In a recent study entitled “Neuroticism and Attitudes Toward Action in 19 Countries,” published in the Journal of Personality, researchers found that people with neurotic tendencies tend to “look less favorably” on action and more favorably on inaction compared to more emotionally stable people. Those who tend to prioritize social harmony and avoidance of conflict had the strongest aversion to action.

But everyone, even those of us with neurotic tendencies, can begin to accomplish big goals with far less anxiety if we simply tweak our mindset a little bit. Instead of seeing the whole forest and getting overwhelmed, just focus on one tree, or even one branch, at a time.

For example, if your whole house is a wreck, give yourself 20 minutes to clean one corner or even one drawer. (If you really hate cleaning, drop the limit to just five minutes.) If you have a looming work or school deadline, give yourself one hour per night to work on it, depending, of course, on when it is due and how long it will take. Setting a time limit for yourself is extremely helpful because it essentially turns the time itself into the goal instead of the project. This relieves the pressure of feeling like you have to complete the entire project to feel good.

Once you have completed your goal of working for one hour (or five minutes), you will get a nice little feeling of accomplishment which may even encourage you to keep going. As you continue to split big projects into small attainable goals, you will lower your mental resistance and anxiety that leads to the procrastination in the first place.

Woman cleaning photo available from Shutterstock