There is perhaps no greater day-killer than the dreaded scourge of procrastination. Once it sets in, that's it: You're trapped in a fog of avoidance and anxiety, and "just one more" YouTube video. Then, one more. Then, another. Then, the day is gone.
For a step-by-step breakdown on crushing this life-ruining habit once and for all, check out this excerpt from Julie Morgenstern's latest book, Time Management from the Inside Out. Julie is a productivity master, and procrastination is the beast she battles every day. Here's how it's done.
There are many causes for procrastination. Fortunately, many of them are simple to fix. First, ask yourself whether you procrastinate on only some tasks or on practically everything. If you procrastinate on only some tasks, the cause is probably technical. There is something about the way you are approaching those tasks that has you at a standstill. You may need to learn to break the task down into smaller components or think of that one type of task differently. If you procrastinate about everything, it’s likely that your motives are psychologically based. In either case, the tips below may help you get unstuck.
• Trust your instincts. In many ways, procrastination is simply about putting off decisions. Making swift decisions is essential to completing projects and staying on schedule. So, how do you make good decisions quickly? By trusting your instincts.
• Focus on your goal. When you keep your eye on the benefits of the task, rather than on the dreaded task itself, it can make any process more tolerable. Recognize that each task is only one aspect of a larger plan, and that no one decision is going to make or break your success. It’s a very liberating realization, and it makes it easier to move quickly through the decisions you have to make. If you make a decision quickly, you will then have time to do a reality check on how that decision feels.
• Do a different step. Sometimes, you procrastinate because you really aren’t ready to move ahead. You may not have all the information you need to make a decision yet, or you may not be prepared for the outcome the project will produce. For example, you may be procrastinating about hiring a new employee because you aren’t really ready to commit to another salary right now. You may be procrastinating on purchasing a new camera because you feel you are lacking certain skills to master how to use it.
If you aren’t ready to tackle a particular task, what you can do is focus your efforts on steps that will get you ready. If you are putting off hiring an assistant because you aren’t ready for the additional expense, your next step could be to reanalyze your profit margin or add another revenue stream. If you are postponing that proposal because of a skill you lack, try taking a course or reading up on that skill as your next step.
• Break down overwhelming tasks into manageable parts. Instead of facing one huge, amorphous task, divide it into three (or six, or 10) achievable steps. Each step could be one hour or one day in duration. Then, concentrate on only the first step.
• Combine a miserable task with something you enjoy. What if it’s a task you can’t delegate, such as exercising or going to the dentist? Try combining it with something you absolutely love to do. If you hate to exercise, read while walking on a treadmill, go to the gym with a friend whose company you love, or go inline skating with your kids. Or, bribe yourself: Schedule a manicure immediately following every dentist appointment. Read a junk magazine (the kind you are embarrassed to enjoy) whenever you go to the dentist — and only when you go to the dentist.
• Give yourself a time limit. You can always give your task a very short time limit. Just get started. Knowing the torture won’t go on forever will help you to stop procrastinating. You may even be encouraged to continue the job past your time limit. Once you are in motion, everything changes. You are engaged and connected. You feel the wind in your face, and you feel better about yourself. You’ll be surprised how your energy and momentum build. Before you know it, you will be enjoying the journey.
• Impose your own deadline. Many people really do work better under pressure. When they’re working with a deadline hanging over them, they are freed from a certain level of perfectionism, which permits them to lighten up, stop worrying, and just do it.
If leaving everything to the last minute truly helps you perform better, the first step is to accept this about yourself. Then, establish self-imposed deadlines in advance of the actual deadline. If you have a proposal due on Friday, make your deadline three days earlier. Then, book other urgent matters in the days following the proposal. This keeps you under pressure, but builds in a three-day cushion in case anything really goes wrong. You’ll be safe.
In my experience, most people who adopt this “false deadline” technique eventually outgrow the need to do things at the last minute. After a while, they discover how liberating it is to have things done a few days in advance, and then they begin to enjoy getting things done ahead of time.
• Adopt a catchphrase. Sometimes, adopting a phrase or ditty to motivate yourself to just get started may be all you need: “Just do it.” “Do it, now!” “If not now, when?” I think of a Mr. Rogers song, “You’ve got to do it, just do it.” I heard it one day while watching the show with my daughter when she was little. It’s very simple and is just what I need to get me past any moments of hesitation.
Time Management from the Inside Out, by Julie Morgenstern, $12.13, available on Amazon.com.