Tired of Making Detailed Plans But Not Taking Action?

Do you ever make a great, detailed plan… which you then promptly ignore?
I’m queen of this! Some of my teenage clients will often cite this as their reason not to do any planning in the first place: “But if I don’t follow the plan, I’ll get mad at myself, so I’d rather not make plans in the first place.”

The subject of “to plan or not to plan” came up in a recent session with a client, and so I thought I’d share my reflections with you.

What’s your experience with following through with plans? Got any wisdom to share or need any advice? Please post them on the blog below

A Surprising New Way to Think About Procrastination

 So many teens come to me distraught about how much they procrastinate! They always reveal it quietly, shamefully, as if procrastination is a huge sin.

But what if procrastination isn’t all bad?! What if — in fact — there are some gifts to be found in putting tasks off?

Let’s look at one of my clients, Lyndsey. Every week in our sessions, she assigns herself several tasks on which she wants to follow through. Lately she has been trying to review her anatomy flashcards every day for just 5 minutes. Just five minutes; that shouldn’t be too hard, right?

Each week, however, Lyndsey reports that she has — yet again — “failed” to follow through; there’s a different “excuse” as to why it didn’t make sense to do her flashcards that week.

Trying not to sound too frustrated, I asked Lyndsey about whether seeing me weekly is helping her break her procrastination habit. She had a fascinating response: although she’s not yet following through on the behaviors I suggest, she is actually NOTICING when she procrastinates. Whereas last school year she was procrastinating unconsciously, this year she is procrastinating mindfully, becoming more and more conscious of the choices she’s making.

This observation about mindful procrastination corresponds with a quote by David Whyte that a friend recently shared on Facebook:

Procrastination is not what it seems. …what looks from the outside like our delay; our lack of commitment; even our laziness may have more to do with a slow, necessary ripening through time and the central struggle with the realities of any endeavor to which we have set our minds. To hate our procrastinating tendencies is in someway to hate our relationship with time itself, to be unequal to the phenomenology of revelation and the way it works its own way in its very own sweet, gifted time, only emerging when the very qualities it represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination.

..Procrastination does not stop a project from coming to fruition -what stops us is giving up on an original idea because we have not got to the heart of the reason we are delaying, nor let the true form of our reluctance instruct us in the way ahead…

From Readers’ Circle Essay, “Procrastination”

Too often I — and my clients, as well as their teachers and parents — interpret procrastination as delay and lack of commitment. It’s all too easy for both Lyndsey and me to conclude that she is not committed enough to her studies because she is not using her flashcards daily, as we’ve decided.

What if, though, Lyndsey’s lack of follow through on flashcards was actually, as Whyte says here, a “slow, necessary ripening through time”? What if, rather than judging her relationship to procrastination, she were to view it as a revelation in the making?

What if I, as Lyndsey’s academic coach, see myself as someone who can nurture this revelation? Rather than just giving up on the idea of flashcards, what if we take Whyte’s advice to “go to the heart of the reason” that she is delaying and “let the true form of her reluctance instruct us”?

If we look deeply enough, we see that the real need here is not to follow through with flashcards. Rather, Lyndsey needs to learn about anatomy effectively and efficiently, in a way that works for her. The flashcards are just *one* of many strategies towards that goal. When I actually looked at the anatomy worksheets that Lyndsey’s teacher provides daily, I realized that perhaps she needs a more foundational study skill: to re-imagining her notes (which have been organized by her teacher) into a structure that makes sense to Lyndsey’s brain.

We spent the rest of our time practicing rewriting the notes, finding new ways to present the same information. It only took 5 minutes to work through one day’s lecture, and Lyndsey realized how effective it might be to practice this “reorganization” strategy every day after class. She appreciated this new problem solving task, which was more engaging than the memorization task that flashcards provided.

Will this new habit be the one that sticks for Lyndsey? Only time will tell. However, thanks to David Whyte’s re-framing of procrastination as a ripening, I find myself honored to be a witness to this “ripening” of habits that emerge only “when the very qualities [the habit] represents have a firm correspondence in our struggling heart and imagination.”

What tasks do you procrastinate on? What do you notice when you reframe them as a “ripening” instead? Please comment below; I’d love to hear.

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A Sure-Fire Formula for Getting Things Done


There are a few REALLY IMPORTANT tasks that I’ve been procrastinating doing.

I’m thinking about them right now because I’m looking at my “To Do” list. And I’m noticing that INSTEAD of actually choosing to order MuseCubes supplies,  I’m actually choosing to WRITE ABOUT ordering them.

For whatever reason, writing about the-thing-I-should-do is WAY EASIER than actually doing the thing-I-should-do.

OK. Fine. So I’ll let myself write. Why? Because it’s fun. And because I also know that I learn while I write. So I’m hoping that as I reflect in this spontaneous way, I’ll actually figure out how to make myself actually DO the thing-I-should-do.

But the truth is: I already know how. All I need to do to follow through is (drum roll please!) answer the question:

“What the next smallest thing I can reasonably do?”

In regards to ordering the MuseCubes supplies, the next smallest thing I can reasonably do is to LOOK UP THE NAME of the place where I bought the packaging in the first place. (I’m sure I would have ordered the packaging weeks ago if I’d remembered the name of the online store where I originally bought them; kinda funny, the odd little barriers we create for ourselves).

Alright. So I give myself permission NOT to order the supplies. My first order of business is to simply  LOCATE THE NAME OF THE PLACE. Fine. Good. In fact, I’ll do that RIGHT NOW before I even type another word.

***Time passes. 11:55am – 12:18pm***

Phew! I did it. My little trick worked. Not only did I LOCATE the name of the company (I order my MuseCubes packaging at PaperMart), I ALSO:

  1. Ordered 500 boxes of the old variety of packaging
  2. Ordered 50 boxes of a new variety of packaging (for a new MuseCubes product I’m working on)
  3. Changed my shipping and billing addresses, which were outdated
  4. Organized my bookmarks so that I can easily find the PaperMart link again when I need it. No more excuses!!!

Ahhhhh. That feels good. Perhaps the secret to following through is to break down the task into smaller, easy incremental steps. There really is power behind the question: “Whats the next smallest thing I can reasonably do?”(See additional thoughts about incrementality here).

But to be totally honest, there’s another reason why I followed through just now. I wouldn’t have ordered the supplies if I hadn’t been writing about it (which is fun) and imagining my readers being impressed with me (which is about accountability).

Aha! I think I’ve just created a winning formula. Check this out:

incrementality + accountability + fun = getting things done!

Case in point: my 2010 New Years Resolution. I want to meditate more in 2010. But judging by my past experience, I just CAN’T seem to sit myself down and do it. So this year I asked myself the question “whats the smallest amount of time I’m willing to meditate every day?” The honest-to-god-answer: 5 minutes!!!

Gretchen’s Inner Critic Voice: Really, Gretchen?! That’s it? Five minutes is all you can muster? Wimp. (Ouch!)

Gretchen’s I’m-My-Own-Best-Friend Voice: Yup. 5 minutes. If that’s what you’ll reasonably do, then you go girl. Thanks for being so honest. 365 days of 5-minute meditations. I love it. And I love you! And I trust you to decide what’s right for you.  (Awwwwww!)

Cool. So far we’ve got the incrementality piece of the equation. But what about accountability and fun?


Accountability: First of all, I bought a calendar that I love, attached a pencil to it, and hung it next to my kitchen window.


Fun: I like to draw, and spirals are pretty. So instead of writing “meditation” on the days I do it, I draw a spiral instead. Funny how much pleasure comes from such a small act!

Yet again:

incrementality + accountability + fun = getting things done!

I’m pretty sure that I’m setting myself up for great success with my goal to meditate for 5 minutes a day for 365 days. I’ll keep you updated on the blog (and if anyone else wants to join me in this task, the more the merrier).

In the meantime, what do you think about this formula? Do you think it might work for you the way it seems to be working for me?