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Procrastination Remedies: What to do when your system isn’t working

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This is the fifth post in a series on procrastination remedies.  In the previous post, I talked about what to do when you feel overwhelmed because you don’t know where to start

In this post, I’m going to talk about what to do when you feel overwhelmed because you just don’t know how to do something. This usually happens because you have a system that is broken.  What do I mean by a broken system? 

Well, imagine if you were going to mow the lawn, but instead of getting out a lawnmower, you got out a pair of scissors.  Sure, you might be able to cut the grass shorter, but it would take f-o-r-e-v-e-r

This is an example of a “broken” system.  It’s one that doesn’t do the job very well, so you spend way too much energy trying to get something done.

Procrastination remedies: my system is broken

Where’s the breakdown?

When you have a broken system, the first thing you need to do is figure out where the breakdown is.  Make a list of every single step you take when you do the task. 

Let’s take laundry for example.  The first thing that happens is somehow all the dirty clothes have to be collected in the laundry room.  Next, clothes get sorted into various piles. 

Then you put one pile into the washing machine with soap and whatever else needs to be in there and you start the load.  (I’m guessing you know how to run your machine and how best to choose cycles for whatever type of laundry you are doing.)

Washer and dryer

Now you need to know when the load is done so you can move it to the dryer (or hang it up) in a timely fashion (you know what I’m talking about here!).  Start the dryer. 

Next, you need to know when the load is done so you can get it out of the dryer in a timely fashion (hopefully avoiding too many wrinkles).  Hang things on hangers or sort and fold. 

Iron—okay, do people really do this?  I confess I don’t own things that require ironing, but if you do, then that step belongs here.  Finally, all clean clothes need to be returned to their respective owners and put away.

An example: Laundry breakdowns

Now, I know that you know how to do laundry—none of these steps requires too much in-depth knowledge.  So why do we never have clean clothes? 

And if they are clean, why are they on a mountain on the sofa?  Why do we forget to put the wet load in the dryer for 3 days?  And most importantly, why are there always missing socks?

Let’s think about how these breakdowns happen.  Consider the missing socks.  This still happens to me, even though I think I’ve got a pretty good laundry system. 

Inevitably, when socks go missing, I find them in one of several places.  The first place is wadded up somewhere under a couch or bed or in the bottom of a closet where a not-to-be-named child has tossed them. 

The second place is at the bottom of the hamper (whoops!).  The third place is inside the washing machine, or dryer, or occasionally on the floor of the laundry room. 

The fourth place is stuck inside some other piece of clothing.  And the fifth and final place is on the floor of the spot where I am folding laundry.

Missing sock

Insufficient instruction

So how do the socks end up in these places?  The first missing-sock location could happen for several reasons.  One could be that I simply have not taught my child sufficiently where dirty socks belong (along with monitoring and consequences and so forth). 

Another possibility is that there is not a clearly designated place for dirty socks.  Or if there is, perhaps it is located in an inconvenient place or is difficult to use. 

This is where you actually have to think through what happens with dirty socks.  Go to the bedrooms of the guilty and see what the situation is.  Ask them to demonstrate to you what they do with dirty socks and explain to you the source of any difficulties.

Location troubles

Perhaps your child explains to you that when he comes in the house, he takes off his shoes and socks right at the entry.  Because there is no conveniently located hamper on the spot, the dirty socks get left on the floor. Eventually, they get shuffled around and lost under the couch. 

What could you do?  Perhaps you need to put a small “sock basket” by the front entry.  Sounds strange, but if it works, it’s a win.  So, when you identify the reason for the breakdown, see if there is some way to simplify things.  The sock basket by the door is a simple solution that addresses a problem that occurs because of location.

Ease of use

Maybe said child claims that the hamper is difficult to use (really?!)  Well, okay.  I admit that I am more likely to toss something into the hamper if it doesn’t have a lid on it.  So maybe your child needs an open basket that doesn’t require any sorting–just a simple laundry basket.  This addresses a problem that occurs because of ease of use.

Laundry basket


Most of the other missing-sock locations tend to be the result of my own carelessness in checking the hamper thoroughly, or not checking the washer or dryer or floor for socks that get left behind. 

The last two places are just the inevitable mechanics of folding clothes.  Sometimes socks just get stuck inside something else or dropped on the floor while I’m folding.  Honestly, I’ve almost always been able to find the missing sock in one of these places. 

In these cases, the system isn’t really broken, it just needs tweaking.  I need to be more careful and thorough when I’m doing laundry, and that should be part of my laundry routine: check those spots for left-behind laundry items.

Folded clothes


Let’s continue on with our examination of broken systems. Sometimes a system is too rigid. Back to the laundry example: suppose you are a person who thinks clothes should be ironed (nothing wrong with that—this is just an example!).

When a load comes out of the dryer, it still has another processing step. Unless you have older kids or a spouse who loves to iron, it’s all going to be left to you. It’s the rare person who has time to iron each load as it comes out of the dryer.

Usually what happens is a great mountain of clean laundry piles up, which no one has time to do. So it sits in a pile, and each morning, a few items are plucked out of it and hastily ironed before wearing.


Now, I’m not saying don’t iron your clothes. But maybe they don’t all have to be ironed. Maybe just the dress shirts and pants. Maybe just a few items that get really wrinkled.

If you get too rigid about your system, it may cease to function. Ultimately the point of doing laundry is to return the clean clothes to the point of use in a timely fashion so everyone has something to put on in the morning.

If you can iron everything and get it back to the rooms on the same day, then you are a laundry ninja, and you require no further help with laundry! But if you can’t get it done, and the clean and dirty clothes start overlapping into each other because you can’t push things along, then you might need a simpler, less rigid system.

Obstacles: other people

Okay, on to another potential pitfall in your system: obstacles. Sometimes systems don’t work so well because there are too many obstacles to overcome.

With laundry, these obstacles are often the people in your home. If your kids don’t know how to sort laundry, or how to run the washing machine, they can’t help you. This can be an obstacle to getting laundry done.

If they are big enough to reach the controls and toss the laundry into the machine, by all means, teach them how to run it! This gives you more people who can run the laundry system (or at least part of it).

Now if you get sick, laundry won’t come to a complete stop. “Johnny, go push a load of laundry through,” you can say from your sickbed, and it will be done.

Obstacles: yourself

Maybe the obstacle is you! Sometimes we are our own worst enemies, like when we forget a load in the washing machine. Hey, it’s easy to do. The washing machine just sits there when it’s done. It doesn’t cry, tug on your leg, or say “mommy, mommy, mommy….” a bazillion times. It’s easy to overlook.

Somehow you have to build reminders into your system. My laundry is located in the basement, so there’s no way I’m going to hear any “end of cycle” beeps.

So, I could set a timer. Or attach it to part of another routine. For example, maybe I could start a load when I first get up. Then right after breakfast, I would know to move it to the dryer.


Outside Help

When your system is broken, you can break it down into steps to figure out where the problems are. You can work at simplifying your system. You can work on overcoming obstacles. But sometimes you just can’t figure out what to do to solve the problems.

This is when you need to ask for outside help. Seek out a friend to mentor you. Ask Google. See what other people do, because there is bound to be someone who has solved this problem.

Experiment with ideas that you collect to see what works. Remember, you don’t have to slavishly follow someone else’s “rules.” Feel free to borrow, tweak, and adapt to fit your situation. Over time you will gradually improve your system so that it works.

Computer research

What to focus on first

The final thing to note about broken systems is that they do take time to fix. A few tweaks might bring dramatic improvement, but if it takes longer, that’s okay.

Do remember that the 80/20 rule applies here. 80% of the problem is likely caused by a few things. So focus on the things that will give you the most improvement.

If the biggest problem is that you simply have too many clothes, then work on weeding them down. If the problem is forgetting to push the load all the way through, then work on ways to remind yourself. Work on the biggest bottlenecks so that your system can function.


Let’s recap the possible places that a system might break down:

  • people (especially kids) lack the training to use the system
  • things are located in the wrong place
  • you have the wrong tools for the job (too complicated/difficult)
  • you don’t have reminders and routines
  • other people lack motivation or buy-in
  • you need outside help because you’re missing something

These are the places you should start when you are evaluating any system that just doesn’t seem to be working.

Next procrastination remedy, What to do if you suck at something.

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