Writing things down on a to-do list is what many of us do, myself included. Not only do lists help me remember what tasks or projects I need to tackle, but they also keep me accountable. Having a way to keep track of things helps me to prioritize and stay organized and productive. But you know that one thing on your list that sits for days without getting done? It’s the one thing that moves from one day’s list to the next day’s and the next day… If you experience this too, you’re not alone. A couple of years back, Anthony came up with a procrastination hack called the Habit Rule of Half. This simple rule has helped us to overcome procrastination and get those hanging tasks done.
Why We Can’t Finish Our To-Do Lists
Some tasks are straightforward and easy. We simply complete the task and move on.
Others aren’t like that. Resistance is what we feel when we encounter certain tasks on the to-do list. Perhaps we’re not entirely sure how to go about the task, and the lack of clarity adds to the resistance. Maybe it’s the fear of failure, of judgment, or of making a mistake. We end up procrastinating and avoiding those things we can’t bring ourselves to get started on.
If there’s any aspirational clutter in the mix, the combination makes it even worse. We feel torn between all the things we want to do and all the things that we need to get done. When we feel the resulting internal tension, there’s an impact on our ability to focus and get started.
It’s common to experience angst when the tasks remain uncompleted and no progress is made—which increases the pressure we feel. The greater the pressure, the greater resistance we often feel. This increased resistance leaves us feeling worse, and gets in the way of completing the task, finishing the project, or reaching the goal.
Applying the Habit Rule of Half
Anthony was determined to find a solution, a procrastination hack, that could help. At the time, we were working hard to build new habits and make progress on the things that were important to us.
He created a simple rule called the Habit Rule of Half, that’s worked well for us over the years.
Here’s how it works. If a task is left uncompleted at the end of the day, cut it in half and add it to the next day’s list. If it doesn’t get done by the end of that day, cut it in half again and add it to the next day’s list. Keep doing this until the task becomes small enough to tackle.
You can apply the Habit Rule of Half to whatever it is you keep on postponing or pushing off. Household projects, work assignments, taxes, budgeting, or researching something. Writing a blog post or making a YouTube video. Even things like walking, exercising, jogging, or bicycling.
For example, you have a goal to jog four miles, but you haven’t managed to break out your sneakers. In this case, you’d cut this in half and write, “jog two miles” on the next day’s to-do list. If you still don’t do it, write down “jog one mile” for the following day. Keep cutting the distance (or the time or the amount) until you make it out the door. Keep on cutting it in half until it gets to a small, bite-sized chunk that seems easy to do.
A More Compassionate Approach
While the Habit Rule of Half is a simple concept, it’s often much harder in practice. The concept goes against what our inner critic usually thinks would be the best way forward. We think, “Well, I’m now behind, so I need to do more to make it up.” So we put more pressure on or add more to the task in an effort to catch up. This may work for some people—but from my experience, this leads to less motivation and greater stress and resistance over time.
Adding more pressure was how I “motivated” myself for two decades—and it worked at best, okay—until it no longer did. Eventually, I burned out. We can also end up getting more overwhelmed or find ways to avoid or make excuses for the things we need to do altogether.
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There are usually reasons why we don’t do the things we want or need to do. As humans, our natural state is to want to do things, to make progress, and to contribute. So if we’re struggling with something, it’s not that we’re lazy or that we’re not good enough. There are usually underlying reasons of fear, insecurity, or self-sabotage happening under the surface. At least that’s what Anthony and I have found.
The Habit Rule of Half can be a more compassionate approach to making progress on the things we feel resistant towards. If a to-do item isn’t getting done day after day, it doesn’t matter how many times you put it on the list. Any small amount of progress is better than the to-do item dragging on unaddressed. In a way, you’re practicing compassion for your tomorrow self by cutting the to-do item in half and seeing how it goes the next day.
The Hardest Part
It can be tempting to think you’re simply lazy if you’re not getting something done—that if you go easier on yourself, you will just continue putting it off. Therefore, as the distance, time, or amount of your task halves, it might not seem like this will help you make any progress at all. And so you continue to put the pressure on. However, this becomes a catch-22, a sort of convoluted avoidance tactic our brains use to keep us “safe” from dealing with what’s under the resistance.
The hardest part is often getting started. Once you are out there walking, you are more likely to actually tackle the original distance or time you wanted to do. This is why the Habit Rule of Half is effective. If we cut what might feel like an overwhelming task in half, starting then seems more manageable. While it’s no magic bullet, it can help in reducing the resistance and making progress. And once we get the ball rolling, it’s much easier to continue the momentum and get into the flow.
So the next time you notice a task moving from one day to the next, try a more compassionate approach with the Habit Rule of Half and see what happens.