by Tal Ben-Shahar

A thousand-mile journey begins with a first step. —Lao Tzu

Procrastination—putting things off, dragging one’s feet, unnecessarily postponing what can and needs to be done today—is a pervasive phenomenon. Over 70 percent of college students, for example, identify themselves as procrastinators. The temptation to put things off is understandable, but the price we pay for procrastinating is high—studies show that procrastinators have higher levels of stress, a weaker immune system, poorer sleep, and, unsurprisingly, given all that, lower levels of happiness.

Fortunately, the research into procrastination has also identified practical ways that can help overcome the tendency to procrastinate. The single most important technique is called “the five-minute takeoff.” It consists, simply, of starting to do the thing you have been putting off, no matter how little you feel like doing it. Procrastinators often believe that to do something one has to truly want to do it—to be in the right mood, to feel inspired. This is not the case. Usually, to get the job done, it is enough merely to begin doing it—the initial action kick-starts the process and often brings about more action.

While researching procrastination, I told Tami, my wife, about the five-minute takeoff technique and how often I use it to jump-start my writing in the morning. She was surprised to learn that I needed to apply any technique at all to get to work: “You go straight for your computer and stay there for hours at a time. You are completely absorbed.”

She’s right, but that does not mean that the beginning is easy. I often find myself struggling to start my work, and sometimes the first five minutes are actually quite rough—I find myself distracted, not really into it, unmotivated to put in the mental energy that is required to be productive. But once I get into it, it is usually smooth sailing.

Overcoming my inclination to procrastinate when dealing with tasks that are not the most meaningful and enjoyable, such as grading papers or doing my taxes, is of course difficult. I sometimes need to repeat the five-minute takeoff two or three times, and push myself through those initial 10 or 15 minutes by committing to “just do it.”

So if you have difficulty getting yourself to exercise, just make the choice to put on your running shoes and start running; more often than not, the action will reinforce itself. If you have a project that needs to be done, don’t wait for that “right moment.” Choose to act, now!

This approach can serve you well on a larger scale: Commit to your vision, your dream, don’t procrastinate; find ways to start moving toward the life you want to be living right now.

This post is excerpted from “Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness”, by Tal Ben-Shahar, PhD. Copyright ©2012, The Experiment, LLC.

Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Co-founder of WholeBeing Institute, is an author and lecturer who taught the largest course at Harvard on “Positive Psychology” and the third largest on “The Psychology of Leadership”—with a total of over 1,400 students. Author of Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, he consults and lectures around the world to corporate executives, the general public, and at-risk populations on topics that include happiness, self-esteem, resilience, goal setting, mindfulness, and leadership. He holds a doctorate in organizational behavior and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology from Harvard.