Overcoming Procrastination: 7 Strategies to Get the Job Done, Today

Photo credit: Mait Jüriado / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

“Bing-bing-bing!” What was that? That’s the sound your brain makes when the “finishing things” circuits light up with excitement because you really, actually, finally completed something. It’s like an internal hooray. Well, newsflash, that part of your brain just left you a note — it says it’s been feeling a little neglected lately.

When I was in graduate school a friend told me there is no greater urgency to clean your house than when you have a dissertation to write. Why analyze data when you can scrub baseboards instead? Whether it’s a big project like a dissertation, or a smaller one like opening up your bills, or even just replying to an email, when the items on our to-do list make us feel dwarfed, powerless and like we need to run away (preferably toward a television and yummy snacks), nothing rescues us with big, greedy, open arms like procrastination.

We feel guilty, we feel lame and we feel completely lacking in self control, but apparently what we should feel is like a normal human being in the 21st century.

The number of people who admitted to procrastinating quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. 2002? Wait, but that was before Facebook, Farmland and Pinterest, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. We don’t need researchers to tell us that we are replete with electronic and other distractions to keep us as far, far away from our work as we’d like. Or, to make us miserable. Or both. We can’t decide. Heck, we’ll figure that one out tomorrow.

Avoiding tasks has become so fundamental to our experience that it has been recently dubbed a human instinct. Human instinct? Really? For what? Given how tame our lives have become, what with the marked absence of tigers, wooly mammoths and poisonous snakes these days that once upon a time were the target of our survival system, perhaps procrastination is the newer instinct to create high drama and high blood pressure when our dalliances with Angry Birds have led us right up to the edge of a cliff to meet a deadline.

What is procrastination really about? It’s about starting something. It’s making a transition. And we don’t like transitions. We don’t like to wait to adjust. We want to be in a constant state of comfort. We anticipate that starting something new will be too hard, or uncomfortably boring, or will turn out imperfectly, and so rather than approach, we avoid. But just like we’ve learned that the first few minutes in a swimming pool feel icy until we warm up, we need to think of starting projects as jumping (or inching) into the pool — it feels uncomfortable at first, and then we get used to it. And it feels good! So, don’t let your fear of being trapped with a hard, boring or imperfect project deprive you of that good feeling of satisfaction (because none of those fears turn out to be the case) that waits just beyond those icy initial moments. Trust that you’ll adjust. The sooner you get in, the sooner you’ll see the water is fine.

Here are some ideas for how to overcome procrastination. And a hint. Read through these now and then get back to playing Words With Friends. See? That wasn’t so hard, you’re already on your way.

Don’t be shy. Look at what you actually have to do.

I’m so overwhelmed by my (fill in the blank here) bills, taxes, mail, cluttered car, great American novel that I’m writing, that I can’t do anything about it but run the other way. Not so fast. We think something is too hard or will take too long, but how does the story always end? We get it done — often well enough — and sometimes it’s even great. What if you take a look to see what’s there? Do a needs assessment of the actual project in your real life, not the imagined nightmare version courtesy of your anxious imagination. You’re not committing yourself to anything but looking. If you open that email you’ve been avoiding, chances are it’s not so bad, and you can start thinking about how to tackle it. Set a time limit on this investigating — 10 minutes — if it helps you to know that you can get out. Usually once you’re willing to take a look, what you initially thought was insurmountable turns out to be surprisingly simple and manageable.

Break it down into small steps.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and good thing the Romans didn’t have that as a goal. Who knows where we’d be today. Often what keeps us away from our work is feeling daunted by a big goal, when really we need X-ray vision to see the lines dividing that one super goal into five or six sub-goals. Be a good project manager: Break down the goal, name the steps and rather than feel like you need to juggle everything at once, get your eagle eye focused on one thing at a time. Smaller goals mean the “bing-bing-bing” of the satisfaction center goes off more often, and that creates momentum that propels us forward.

Fire the perfectionist: Good enough is great (and it’s done).

Imagine for a second what would happen if you muted the, “this is your one chance, your whole life depends on this, it’s the most important thing you’ve ever done and it has to be perfect” message that is on auto-repeat throughout your day whether you’re doing your hair, cleaning your kitchen, writing a report, or trying to figure out how to ask someone out on a date. The perfect is the enemy of the good. While you’re waiting, self-inflicting the torture of what could be, life’s opportunities are passing you by. Dare to be good enough (because that’s usually pretty great). Strive to do excellent work, not perfect work. It’s not about lowering your standards, it’s about lowering the very unrealistic stakes that you’ve constructed in your mind of what it means to fall short of the non-existent construct of perfection. This is not the be-all and end-all of your self-worth, it’s just one data point. Notice how much more easily you breathe when you’re not poised for disaster.

Set up your launching pad, then walk away.

So your briefcase is miles and miles away in the next room, and you can’t move. Or, the stamps are downstairs, and you can’t possibly write your bills without stamps. Inertia is your enemy, and it’s procrastination’s BFF. You can outsmart it by expecting it and planning for its attacks. Don’t get cozy on the couch until you’ve done your setup first. Open up your briefcase or backpack, arrange your work station with all the necessary supplies, open the books to the right page, find and open computer files whatever you need and then… leave. Leave? Yes, for a short period of time, and then when you come back, voila! Everything’s there waiting for your arrival. A temporary absence in this case has made the heart grow fonder, or something like that. It’s as if someone who isn’t on the payroll started your task for you. How nice.

Start in the middle. Or, skip the hard parts.

Some projects have to be done in a certain order, but most times there are no rules. Getting started is the hardest part. Rather than sit in a staring contest with the proverbial blank page, waiting for inspiration to hit, skip it. Instead, go right for the meat, or tofu if you prefer, and work on the gist, the substance, or what is the most exciting part to you. Having a handle on the most important or gratifying part, not only will you be hooked in to your project, you’ll be willing, or even eager, to go back to the beginning or other sticking points with a bang.

Be willing to end just short of finishing something.

Yes, this sounds counterintuitive — shouldn’t you want to finish things, and isn’t stopping just short of finishing things procrastinating, the thing we’re trying to not do? No. Remember, our fear of transitions are what keep us from starting things, so, especially with larger, complex projects, rather than being daunted by the cold confrontation with the blank page each time, end work sessions with one identified piece of the job left undone. X marks the spot. That will provide a quick and easy transition or on-ramp when you return to the project later. Immediately knowing where you were headed and what you need to do short-circuits fear and doubt. Once you finish that mental bait, you’ll be ready to switch to something new. You will be nicely warmed up and ready to tackle the next chunk of work.

Follow Grandma’s rule — or, dinner first, then dessert.

We aren’t kids anymore; we don’t have to ask anybody if we are allowed to watch television, or buy songs on iTunes, or eat ice cream. And man, ain’t that grand? But, come to think of it, wasn’t it sort of helpful when we knew that we couldn’t have treats until we finished our dinner, or our homework? Invoke your inner grandmother (aka your self-control) and just as you are ready to switch over to Facebook, or to flip on the television when you are in the middle of your work, pause and think — first things first. Do a good chunk of work and then reward yourself with that break. We enjoy breaks more when they’re earned, not sneaked. Go into your project knowing your exit strategy. Designate a schedule: work for 45, break for 15. If that sounds like too little time for work, remember, without a strategy in place, it will likely be, break for 60, and be “gone fishing” for the rest of the afternoon. Try it. You’ll like it. Walk by the computer or the kitchen the way you walk by those nice folks trying to snag you for a survey at the mall.

“Bing, bing, bing!” Well done! You finished reading this article, and not only will you be able to head back to work with a few more ideas about how to not be afraid of it, but you may now have dessert. Your Grandma approves.


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