Why You Keep Bumping That Task

Illustration: Abbey Lossing

For me, it’s watching Casablanca.

Every few years, I make a new List of 100 Dreams. This exercise, shared with me years ago by career coach Caroline Ceniza-Levine, is a completely unedited list of things I’d like to do in my life. It’s a bucket list but a vastly longer bucket list than most people get around to making, which is why I put watching Casablanca on there. It also includes more usual suspects like visiting wineries in Oregon and seeing Yellowstone in the fall.

Watching Casablanca would take exactly one hour and 42 minutes. Visiting those wineries and Yellowstone took days out of my schedule, not to mention thousands of dollars in travel costs, and yet I have done both of them.

So why have I still not watched Casablanca?

You probably have your own Casablanca — something that keeps getting bumped forward. Maybe it’s a bucket list item, or maybe it’s just something on your weekly or daily to-do lists. It’s easy to feel bad when you’re copying the item onto a new list yet again. But when you keep bumping something forward, the key is to pay attention. You just might learn something about yourself.

Here are three main reasons why we put things off and what they mean:

You aren’t sure what to do

Many to-do list items are tragically vague. Think “research new career options” or even “work on resume.” In these cases, it’s unclear what actions you’re supposed to take or how you will know when you are done, which makes it hard to get started.

It’s more motivating to see something specific and doable, such as “ask three friends what kind of work they think I’d be happiest doing” or “look up sales figures for the last five years to put on my resume.” Better yet, add a spot on the schedule and a time estimate. If you know you’re supposed to spend 30 minutes looking up those sales figures on Thursday at 2 p.m., it’s less likely to get bumped to the next week again.

You’re choosing the wrong time

My accountability partner, Katherine Lewis, and I have checked in with each other weekly for years. Early in our relationship, she set a goal to land a book deal. She carved out time on Friday afternoons to work on pitches for meaty magazine articles that might become the basis for a book. Then, week after week, she didn’t do it. As she explained to me, the problem with Friday afternoons was that all the incomplete tasks of the week, both professional and personal, piled up into those last few hours. So by the time her desk was clear, it was 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. on Friday, and it felt futile to rev back up.

So we decided she should move this speculative work to first thing Monday morning. This was her best, most high-energy time. The week’s emergencies had yet to arise. Her husband promised to take the kids to school so she could get to her desk early. She began researching pitches on Monday morning, and within the first few weeks, she’d written a pitch that became a widely read article that attracted several agents hoping to represent the resulting book proposal, which then became a book. To be clear: Lewis didn’t magically become a more motivated person. She was always motivated. It’s just that her old schedule didn’t support her goals. Her new schedule did.

You don’t really want to do it

If you keep bumping the goal, it’s clearly not actually a priority. Maybe I should admit to myself that I really don’t want to watch Casablanca.

That’s fine for movies, but it can be harder to accept this for a big work project or a personal project that you feel the world expects. That’s why you have to take a hard look at yourself as you really are, not (just) as you wish to be. Maybe you don’t actually want to talk with your boss about that next promotion; you’re happy with what you’ve got right now. Maybe you just don’t want to research what funds or stocks you should hold in your 401(k). I can tell you it’s painless and important, but if you keep bumping it forward, you probably don’t agree.

The upside of acknowledging that you aren’t going to do something is that then you can accommodate this truth. You just have HR put you in the default target-date fund, which is infinitely better than dithering and never investing. Throw yourself into your current responsibilities and the things you really are motivated to work on rather than burning brainpower worrying about ones you don’t want.

When we keep bumping something forward, it’s an opportunity to learn — and that is inherently productive, even if we’re not actually getting something done.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management books including Off the Clock and 168 Hours. She blogs at LauraVanderkam.com.

Sign up for The Forge Daily Tip

By Forge

A quick morning email to help you start each day on the right foot. Take a look.

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store