Think about a project you know you need to do, but for whatever reason you’ve been putting off. Or one you’ve been meaning to get around to, but always seem to lack the motivation to get started. Does anything come to mind?

Now, it’s one thing to put a project on the back burner because there are other things you’ve deliberately decided are more important to spend your time on. It’s another to know the importance of what you’re putting off but still lack the motivation to get started.

So why does this happen?

Sometimes it’s because you know that moving forward will be uncomfortable—possibly even painful—and you just don’t want to go there. And so you put it off. Other times, though, procrastination is a sign of something else. It’s a signal that you need a better plan.

A better plan

There have been countless times where I’ve told myself I needed to do something, but never defined the details of what I needed to do. Say I told myself I needed to “organize the garage,” but I never identified exactly what that project would entail, or what my next actionable steps should be. Rather, this “project” was an amorphous collection of thoughts bouncing around my head about things I wanted to do in the garage. There were ideas about shelves I’d need to buy and painting I’d need to do. There were thoughts about items that would need to be cleaned or disposed of. And each of these thoughts would spark other ideas about other things that needed to be done. But a plan wasn’t in place, and so, inevitably, I would keep pushing it off till later.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. You know there’s a project you need to tackle. But you never clarify exactly what you need to do, and what your very next step should be. Instead, the project remains a fuzzy collection of thoughts bouncing around your head. And as such, they can make the project feel more overwhelming than it needs to. Although you know you “should” do something, unconsciously you also know that you don’t have a plan in place—or at least not a good one—and so you just naturally pivot your attention to something else that’s easier to finish, something you know you can do.

But I’ve found that as soon as I take a moment to identify exactly what I need to do, as well as the very next thing I can act on, it immediately feels a bit more manageable. Instead of feeling overwhelmed because of the lack of clarity about what I’m supposed to do, there’s suddenly a clear path forward. I have concrete, doable actions I can take. There’s a plan in place that I believe will help me accomplish want I’m aiming for.

What’s the next action?

Being intentional about identifying the next actionable step is one of the key principles of David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. Instead of leaving the project as a nebulous collection of thoughts floating around your head, you make sure you have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish AND an actionable next step you can take to move things forward.

Identifying that next step can help with procrastination. It can make things feel less overwhelming in the moment since you’re focusing on one individual action, not on all the things that still need to be done. It also helps because it separates planning from doing. When it’s time to act, you don’t have to stop and think about what you need to do. You’ve already done that ahead of time. All you have to do is execute what you’ve already decided.

A better plan won’t fix every case of procrastination. Sometimes you may put things off because you know exactly what they’ll cost, and you don’t want to pay the price. Or you know exactly what the outcome will be, and you aren’t interested in participating. But other times, the solution really is putting together a better plan. By clarifying the details of what you’re trying to accomplish and identifying some concrete actions you can do right now, you can weaken the internal resistance to getting started. You’ll have a better grasp of what you’re getting into, and you’ll have a clearly defined next step to take whenever you’re ready to start.