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Solving Procrastination Today (Not Tomorrow)

May 5, 2013

ProcrastinationI am distractible, impulsive, mildly lazy, and…..something else (I had it in my mind, but I thought about something I wanted to say later and then forgot it). Did I say distractible?

These qualities/handicaps are a perfect storm when it comes to procrastination. Not only do I secretly want to postpone everything until after I finish playing Scrabble online, I also can’t remember what it was I felt so passionate about five minutes before. In addition, in the middle of doing one thing, I get ideas about a half dozen  delicious activities while trying to avoid putting off something that is less delectable.

Do you see my problem? Do you relate to my problem? Of course you do. David Glenn, writing about surveys among post-graduate students (yes, those guys and gals who have actually proven they know how to work without watching re-runs of Lost as the hours tick closer to deadlines), says that 60% of these good students practice regular procrastination. In addition, the majority experience some level of self-loathing because of it.

This has got to stop. In my meanderings through 40 years of being in the work-force, I have actually learned to stay on task and complete necessary assignments. Years ago, I wallowed in self-loathing a lot, but now I rarely ever do it. I actually have learned how not to procrastinate – even with my personal proclivities in that direction.

Here’s how I do it. You may find better ways to handle yours, but at least you can start with mine. With procrastinators, a starting place is always a helpful place.

Six Ways to Avoid Procrastination

1. Do things as soon as you think about them. This one idea changed everything for me. I have so many things whiz through my mind like Space Invaders. I used to get annoyed at how whimsy my brain was – until I learned some of the ‘shooting star’ thoughts were actually things I had been avoiding. For instance: I was typing this article and realized (for the fiftieth time) that my screen is getting pretty gross with dust and fingerprints. I took that moment of personal disgust to propel myself out of the chair to find the cleaner and clean it off. Then, since I had the cleaner, I did the same thing to my tablet and smart phone. I had been putting off cleaning all three. This is what can happen if you leverage your distractedness and use it to approach a task you’ve been avoiding.

Yesterday in the grocery store, I saw some place-mats that looked perfect for the dining room table. In examining their price, I saw the word “Mat” and thought of a friend named Matt. I was supposed to call him and set up a lunch. So on the spot in the grocery store, I called. If I had left it until I was finished shopping, 3200 ideas would have already traveled through my mind, rubbing Matt off the face of this earth.

2. Understand why we don’t want to do certain things. Anything you have been consistently putting off is usually something you don’t want to do in the first place. The next time you put it off, ask yourself why you don’t want to do this. Then imagine what is the worst thing that could happen if you finish the task. Usually, it is our vague sense of impending problems that get in the way of doing work; and this procrastination actually cause more problems.

I normally don’t like talking on the phone. I like to see a person’s face and read their body language so I can catch the bigger picture. So I often procrastinate making phone calls. Recently, I asked myself what would be the worst thing that could happen if I did mis-read what they were saying. When that didn’t feel too onerous, I found it was easier to make the call.

3. Do things that have to be done a little at a time. At least half of the jobs I put off until later are huge. I get easily daunted by things that are going to take several hours to complete. This includes many household chores, some writing assignments and most errands that involve driving downtown.

But in particular, getting ready for major meetings often takes at least two hours. Unfortunately, setting aside strategy thinking causes me to miss some prime preparation thoughts; ideas that would have aided me if I had done them sooner. To prevent my lazy mind from taking over, I break the large tasks down into stages. Then I complete as much of the task as I can in a short period of time. The accomplishment of part of the goal makes it easier at a later point to come back to it.

This winter, I was building a retaining wall in the back yard for a new garden. It was so big in my mind that I literally put it off for a year. To overcome this, I considered the steps I would have to take to get it done. There were several dozen. But once I started to check off the completed items, I realized I was more than half done in so much less time than I feared.

4. Do unpleasant tasks at the same time every day. If there are items that have to be done regularly, get into a habit of doing them: a) early in the day b) at the same time every day. This is a type of behavioral conditioning and it works. Anything we do at the same time every day gets put into a mental place that brings a sense of satisfaction. There is even a payoff reward our brain gives us when we complete something that is done every day.

5. Do a bunch of tasks you’ve been putting off one right after another. The idea here is to get on a roll and when you get that sense of accomplishment, jump immediately into another one of your tasks that has lurked like a mocking sailor. For me, it has to do with phone calls again. Once I break the cell phone barrier and make the call, I ask myself what other calls need to be made. Since I always make lists of people I have to contact, one glance tells me who to call. When I have already called one person, the next person gets easier. At some point, our brain says “resistance is futile” and stops giving such a hard time.

6. Know how to keep lists. The best way to keep a list is to have it close to you at all times. I prefer an online list-maker called Wunderlist. It is free, available for every device and is the easiest program to use. And I look at it on average about a dozen times a day. It is always open on my computer, phone and tablet. And, when great ideas go through my head, I just pop it onto one of my lists and forget about it…until I read that list.

So what item is hanging over your head? Stop wallowing and put some of this into practice.

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