I spent some time yesterday cruising the book shelves over at Barnes and Noble, doing a bit of market research. My take-away is that a huge chunk of the productivity literature concerns itself with procrastination. Wikipedia defines this practice as “the avoidance of doing a task which needs to be accomplished. It is the practice of doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, or carrying out less urgent tasks instead of more urgent ones, thus putting off impending tasks to a later time.”
I know it is a common woe. I hear from people all the time that procrastination is their major time management challenge. What tends to happen is that someone will postpone something she needs to do right up until the point when it absolutely cannot be postponed any more. This panicked state produces focus, and the work gets done, though probably not as well as it could have been. In general, people don’t like this cycle of avoidance and dread, and would like to break it.
There are whole books written on this topic. My guess is many people read these books while avoiding doing the work they are supposed to do!
This blog post describes my thinking on procrastination. On the downside, reading it will take less time than a whole book, so that limits the postponement factor. On the upside, maybe there will be something helpful in here?
Here are ways to deal with procrastination. First and foremost:
Ask yourself why you are procrastinating. I honestly don’t procrastinate that much, but it is not because I am somehow more virtuous than anyone else. It is because I aim to rid my life of things that I do not want to do. I work for myself, partly for this reason. Over the years I have altered my client and project mix to be more stuff I enjoy and less that I don’t. Procrastination is about seeking pleasure instead of pain, but I think it is worth asking why the pain is in your life in the first place. Sometimes procrastination is a message that you really do not want to be doing the thing you are putting off. And the reason you do not want to do it is that it is not the right thing for you to be doing with your precious, limited time on earth. If this is the case, honor this message. Figure out if there is a way, over time, that you can alter your life to accommodate this. Maybe it is hopeless. But maybe it isn’t. Knowing that this is the last time you may ever have to do the thing you are putting off can help you get to it reasonably quickly!
Of course, it is possible that, deep down, you do want to do the things you’re putting off. Maybe the task itself is unpleasant, but it is necessary for something pleasurable (e.g. you’ve been offered your dream job contingent on finishing your master’s degree, which just requires finishing your thesis, which you’ve been avoiding). Or the task is not inherently unpleasant, it’s just less pleasant than, you know, watching Game of Thrones. If that’s the case, here are some more ideas.
Plot out the steps. We have a tendency to procrastinate things that are vague. “Set up retirement account,” for instance, or “write a book proposal.” Most people do not know all the steps for these things in the way they might know the way to bake chocolate chip cookies. But someone knows the recipe for just about anything. Tell yourself you do not have to do the thing you are avoiding, but you do need to figure out the next steps and list them. Carve out time for this research. Often, seeing specific steps makes things feel more doable.
Create mini-deadlines. Big projects are incredibly easy to procrastinate because the deadlines are so far away that it feels like a different person will be dealing with them. Once you have plotted out the steps of a multi-step project, give each a deadline. For some of us, that is all that is necessary. Deadlines are honored, full-stop. Of course, if you know you will ignore these mini-deadlines because you know you created them, turn them into real deadlines. Convince your professor, or boss, or an accountability partner, to make your life unpleasant if a deadline is missed. I have always loved the StickK concept of a forced donation to an anti-charity. Miss that deadline and $100 goes from your account straight over to the NRA, or NARAL, or whatever group you’d be appalled to support.
Do the easiest part first. In cases where I am avoiding writing an article, there is usually at least one quote or fact that I know I will include. I write this down. Then I think of a sentence or two to go after it. Then I think of something that should come before it. Next thing I know, the article is mostly written. Momentum is motivating. Use a writer’s trick and write “TK” (it means “to come” but “k” subs for “c”) for anything you don’t know without looking up — just don’t look it up! You can do that later. That’s why you’re writing that it’s “to come.” This keeps you from jumping over to the internet in the guise of research.
Limit the time frame. On this blog a few years ago, I wrote about a young man who needed to finish his thesis. He spent hours playing video games and feeling bad about not working. So then he decided that since he lacked the will to turn off the games and work (not uncommon, by the way), he needed to flip the order. He could work for an hour, and then play as much as he wanted, guilt-free! This was a much better situation. He played for only a little bit less time, but felt much better about himself. And he finished his thesis, so there’s that.
Assign a time tomorrow. If I really don’t feel like doing something today, it is entirely possible that my energy is low. I can honor this while assigning a time tomorrow — ideally, first thing. I make an appointment for this higher energy time, put it on the to-do list, and then plan to give myself a reward afterward. Sometimes “I’ll do it tomorrow” really is true! If you are not sure you will keep a promise to yourself, as with the mini-deadline option above, make a promise to someone else whose good opinion you care about. I am a big fan of accountability partners and groups as a way to do things we will not get to on our own. Have your friend or colleague call you at 10 A.M. to make sure that the thing you were supposed to do at 9 A.M. happened.
Embrace “structured procrastination.” This is the idea that you will put only one big thing off at a time. So choose the things you do instead well, and you will still get a lot done. Avoiding writing that book proposal? While you’re not doing that you can write two articles, send out marketing materials for your speeches to half a dozen contacts, go for a run, and book that dermatologist appointment. Most people would call that a productive day! Perhaps you can even trick yourself by inventing something you have no intention of doing at all, labeling it your Very Important Task, and getting everything else done in the mean time.
Tell yourself you don’t have to do it. Per Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies, I am primarily an “upholder.” But there is a bit of a rebel in all of us. Try telling yourself you don’t actually have to do the thing you are putting off. That is the truth. Earth will not crash into the sun whatever you do. It is just a question of whether you are willing to deal with the consequences. Sometimes when I tell myself I can just ignore whatever it is I am putting off, I wind up doing it. Without the resistance it is no big deal.
How do you deal with procrastination?
In other news: I am writing an article on when people with heavy meeting schedules do their deep thinking work. If your work life is 75% meetings, when do you carve out time for deep work? As always, you can email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com. Thank you!