This Spreadsheet Can Help You Focus on What’s Important

Written by Dave Bailey

Filed under coaching management psychology


Are you a productive procrastinator?

Maybe your friends see you as fiercely productive, but you’re secretly avoiding the one thing that actually matters — that difficult conversation with an underperforming employee or addressing a key threat in your business.

To the outside world, I’m one of the most fiercely productive people around. But on the inside, I know there are a few things I’ve been putting off — important things that need my attention.

Even if you’re a relentlessly productive person, there’s probably something important you’re avoiding, often on a subconscious level. Perhaps it’s having that difficult conversation with an underperforming employee. Or addressing a key threat in your business.

Three forces drive us to procrastinate. The first is having a long, aimless to-do list. Sure, to-do lists can be helpful, but not if the most important items aren’t on them. Too often, we only add tasks that are urgent or deadline-driven, forgetting about the actions that actually bring us closer to our goals.

The second force is having a disabling narrative. This is that little voice in your head that gives you all the reasons you need for not acting. Maybe it says something like, “What if it all goes wrong?” or “It will take too long” or “You’re not good enough to do that.” This voice goes by many names: resistance, your inner saboteur, the gremlin. Whatever you call it, it prevents you from doing what’s important.

The third force is inertia. It’s hard to start moving something that isn’t already in motion. And when you have something big and important to get rolling, the perceived effort required can be paralyzing.

Any one of these forces might lead you to procrastinate. But when all three are present simultaneously, procrastination is inevitable. 

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So when I know I’ve been putting off things that need my attention, I spend about 15 to 30 minutes on the following exercise — a five-step process that addresses the underlying issues holding me back from doing the work I need to do. It boils down to simply completing a table with the following columns:

Anti-procrastination table

Click here to access a Google Docs template.

1. Make a list of all the important things you could be doing

The idea is to just get them out of your head. If you’re not sure what to write, ask yourself questions such as:

  • What are you trying to achieve?
  • What are you not doing that you should be doing?
  • What’s important but not urgent?

I encourage you to list out all the things that might be important. If you feel you might have forgotten something, don’t worry about it and just keep going. When you finally remember (and you will), you can add it to the list.

2. Prioritize the items

Rate each item in terms of how much effort it will take and how much impact it will have. You want to work on high-impact, low-effort tasks first since those will give you the greatest return.

Return = Impact / Effort

Applying a formula to define return can be a useful way to sort your list. When you’ve clarified your top three items, you might immediately notice the relief that comes from having a sense of your priorities.

3. Write out your disabling narratives

Fear, insecurity, and shame lie at the root of inaction. And the only way to conquer your fears is to face them. So in the “disabling narrative” column of the spreadsheet, write out all possible reasons why you can’t or shouldn’t do a task. Here are some prompts to spur you on:

  • What’s really holding you back?
  • What is the worst-case scenario?
  • What are you most afraid of happening?

4. Write out your enabling narratives

Now, in the “enabling narrative” column, imagine you’re a wise third party who wants nothing but the best for you. Write out a more balanced and realistic response to each one of your fears. For example, next to “I’m not good enough,” you might write, “You are good enough, and it doesn’t need to be perfect — just done.”

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5. Write the “zombie next steps”

The last thing to do is address the inertia problem. The trick here is to define your first step so simply and clearly that even a zombie with no brain could follow it. If you can make starting an important task easier, continuing it often takes care of itself.

For example, let’s say you need to complete a board presentation that you’ve been avoiding. You might have listed it as “create presentation,” but your zombie first step needs to be something far more concrete. It might be: “Open PowerPoint on your laptop, and on the first page, list out three things you want your audience to take away from the presentation.”

What about the rest of the plan? Well, you’ll deal with it… once you’ve actually begun. Creating the energy required to start is the key to finally eliminating your procrastination and getting to work.

Originally published May 8, 2021, last updated Aug 3, 2023.

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