Procrastination is a sneaky beast. One minute you are at your desk working hard and the next you find yourself daydreaming. Or you find yourself deep in LinkedIn or Facebook and an hour has passed. Or you get up to get coffee or tea and find yourself talking to your colleagues for an extended period of time. If you work at home, you might find yourself doing the laundry or any number of other chores or petting your cat or dog. It is very easy to get pulled in any direction other than the one you should be when you are facing work. Even though you know that you would be better served working and getting things accomplished, you procrastinate. And this is a common phenomenon for most people. I have to admit that I procrastinated while working on this week’s blog. What is one to do when your automatic avoidance technique kicks in? Knowing how to work smart and beat the procrastination beast at its game is essential.
One of the big reasons why people procrastinate is that they would rather avoid doing something for fear that the outcome won’t be perfect. This is a classic example of perfectionism (see also Perfectionism And Emotional Pain). If you feel lots of pressure to make something perfect right from the start, it can be very overwhelming. That sense of overwhelm can easily cause you to procrastinate. If you are particularly likely to procrastinate because of this issue, I strongly suggest the following method that is used by many writers.
The Shitty First Draft Technique
This method is a tried and true approach to writing something when you feel frozen because you want it to be perfect. The name gives you permission to just write with no regards to punctuation, consistency, flow or structure. A shitty first draft allows you to just start writing without concern for its quality. This is my favorite method for writing yet it is a technique that can be applied to almost any work project you are facing: presentations, papers, agendas, organizing, etc. Because you know that it is only the first draft and you will go over the work at least another time before anyone else sees it, you are more relaxed and able to start the work.
Another aspect of procrastination (particularly among perfectionists) is the tendency to overthink a project before beginning the work. Maybe you find yourself doing tons of background research or lots of planning but you avoid actually getting started. The antidote to this is to just do it. This method is a corollary to the shitty first draft approach. Just as you shouldn’t try to make your first dive into a project be perfect, you should also give yourself the flexibility to start anywhere in the project. Just dive in and start somewhere even if it ends up being in the middle of a project.
For instance, maybe you are excited to describe the reason for your work first, and then you can go back and explain what you did. Perhaps you want to outline first. Maybe you want to work backwards with the result first. Maybe even organizing your thoughts on paper first instead of the computer will help. Or try outlining a talk if you can’t seem to sit down and create the PowerPoint slides. Or first create the flow of the slides without actually figuring out what you are going to say. Then you can fill in the text and details. The idea is that you just do something; keep your mind focused on the project in any capacity rather than dealing with the tougher parts of the work. Or you could…
Tackle The Hard Stuff First
Although it is counter-intuitive, sometimes it is actually best to tackle the hard stuff first. It may take some effort, but if you push yourself to work on something that you have been putting off for some time because it feels hard, you will be pleasantly surprised how once you are deep in the work, it will flow and you will make progress. And then before you know it, the work becomes easier.
Tackle the Easy Stuff first
I know I just said to start with the hard stuff, but if you are struggling to engage with your work, why not try something to ease into it? Organize your desk. Review what you have done so far. Do anything that is related to your work to get yourself back into the game. I find that on Monday mornings, even though I am a morning person, because it is the start of the workweek, I need to ease into work. However, I am fairly conscious that I shouldn’t dilly-dally on easy stuff too long or else I really can’t call it easy stuff—it is procrastination disguised as easy stuff. A trick to help with the ease yourself in approach is to set a time limit for allowing yourself to do the easy stuff before you dive into the harder work.
Set A Goal
And speaking of setting time limits on procrastination, it is also helpful to set time periods as goals for working when you are struggling to get going. Sometimes the easiest way through a rough patch of working is to set a simple goal. For instance, agree that you will work for only one hour and set a timer. Or set a goal to produce three pages of your talk. Make a commitment to stick with it no matter what for that period of time or number of pages. And before you know it, you might be pleasantly surprised that you have worked longer than an hour or have written more than three pages. Often the trick with work is that you need to find your flow. Once you are engaged with it, it feels, well, easy!
Keep Going When You Are On A Roll
And by all means, if your work is flowing, don’t stop. When you are making progress and the work is moving along smoothly, you need to protect that time. If you have a door to your office, close it so that you are uninterrupted. Don’t check your email or other seemingly short-term actions. Even when you are on a roll, it is still easy to get pulled into something else and be derailed from your important work. But if you stick with it when you are having a flow of ideas and are deeply immersed in your work, you will get so much completed.
Shift Your Physicality
Although this method is stepping away from your work and might seem like procrastination, it is very different because it deliberately involves your body. It is a kind of time out—with body movement. The goal here is to change your physical situation in order to change your perception of your work. Stop and stretch or perhaps dance to a favorite song. Maybe even move your computer to a different location to see if that helps shift your work energy. A caveat to a time out is not to allow yourself to get sucked into something a lot more insidious like email or web searching—that’s just more procrastination. This time out is for physical movement only.
Set A Deadline
Think back to your college days. Did you write your reports or complete your assignments when they were assigned? Or did you wait until they were due and cram in the work towards the end? If you were like many students who wait until the end, you could probably benefit from setting a deadline for your work—if you don’t already have one. Self-employed folks who don’t have external deadlines can really benefit from this technique. You need to create a real and meaningful deadline. For instance, I always post my blog on Tuesdays in part because it forces me to have a hard deadline that gets me motivated to work.
If you have been reading my blogs for some time now, you will know that it goes without saying that you need to do what works for you. I always stress that you must know thyself and work smart…for you. If you are a morning person, then tackling the hard stuff first means that you want to jump right into work. When you sit down to begin, you better already know what you will work on so the day before you should plan it out. If you are most productive at a later point in the day, then make use of the earlier time to get what you need prepared before diving deeply into something (see also Tweaking The Everyday In Service Of Your Big Picture Life). The goal is to work with your own natural rhythm and use anti-procrastination tools that work for you. Knowing when to push may be one of the most important capabilities of successful people. You need to know yourself well enough to determine whether you really aren’t in a good mental space to accomplish something or if that crafty procrastination beast has fooled you into thinking you should put off your work. Only you can determine that.
The good news is that with some self-knowledge and a few tried and true techniques, you too can accomplish goals and tame the procrastination beast. In writing today’s blog I utilized several of these methods and as a result I now I have this piece to share with you. I wish you ease and productivity in your work and life.