Use the Swiss Cheese Method to defeat procrastination

Got an important task you're avoiding because it's too overwhelming? Take a 5 minute bite.

"... an excellent way to get moving is to turn such an Overwhelming A-1 into 'Swiss Cheese' by poking some holes in it. I call these holes "instant tasks."

This is what Alan Lakein, a productivity expert of a previous era, wrote in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Life in 1974.

What he called the Swiss Cheese Method remains a useful tool in the toolbox for overcoming procrastination.

It's a simple practice, but applied consistently it builds our ability to start on tasks we would otherwise put off indefinitely.


1. Make a list

Keeping all the things you need to do in your head is not a good idea. If we forget we wanted to do something, we won't do it. So first make a list.

2. Prioritize using ABC

Once you have a list, prioritize. Not all tasks are created equal, some matter much more.

Lakein suggests prioritizing by using an ABC system.

A = high value task.
B = medium value task
C = low value task.

If a task is too big, he further suggests using numbers to split it into more manageable chunks. So you might have important tasks marked A-1, A-2, A-3,...

This is all fairly basic. And yet, how many of us keep a well-prioritized list?

In any case, let's move on to the actual Swiss Cheese Method.

3. Drill holes in your big A-1 tasks

It's easy to put off tasks that feel important. We know it'll require work, we know it'll take effort, we know we might need to overcome some mental barriers in order to start. And so we procrastinate to not face that. This creates a cycle of avoidance.

But we don't want to avoid, we want to approach, in any way possible.

Now, imagine the big A-1 task is a piece of cheese too big to tackle in one sitting. Just thinking about it inspires resistance.

What to do?

Knock out a couple instant tasks.

Here's how Lakein defines an instant task:

Instant task
= action that requires 5 minutes or less to complete.

Instant tasks should be:

Instant tasks make starting on big projects easier by increasing familiarity and reducing uncertainty. They help you "get into it."

An instant task related to a thesis might be downloading a couple research papers.
An instant programming task might be refactoring 1 function.
An instant writing task might be re-reading what you've written so far.

By doing instant tasks you might also learn that the task isn't as bad as you thought or that it's not going to take as long as you thought.

So that's the essence of the Swiss Cheese Method: you find actions you can take in 5 minutes or less, and you do enough of them to diminish the difficulty of tackling the rest of the task.

The Swiss Cheese Method is broadly applicable in everyday life today, just as it was 47 years ago.

Got an important task you're avoiding because it's too overwhelming? Take a 5 minute bite today.

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