by Laura Stack
Well, I guess we’ve put it off long enough! Time to talk about a tough issue. A newsletter subscriber wrote me, asking, “Laura, I work hard all day, I’m organized, and I control time wasters. So why can’t I seem to get on top of things?” Hmmm…could it be that you’re busy working hard on the wrong things? Do you have a little nagging voice in your head saying, “I’ve got to get started on this…”? A possible explanation for less-than-stellar productivity could be a lack of discipline in doing what you know you should be doing.
Quick quiz: Let’s say you have a to-do list with only 10 items on it for the entire day. You get a bit of time and have an option to check something off. What do you do first? If you were like the majority of folks, you’d pick something easy. Something fun. Something trivial. Something you can check off. It feels good to check things off! It gives you a real sense of satisfaction. Another block of time, another item checked off! Wow, look at that. You’re already 1/5 of the way through the list.
It’s now the end of the day. Let’s say you have nine out of ten items checked off…what’s the one that’s left? The most important item! The hardest. The yuckiest. The most valuable. The one you’ve been putting off for a week.
Isn’t it easy to put off the things that you know you should be doing? Procrastination is actually quite understandable. Human nature is to avoid pain. When you put off a task, it rewards you twice: once when you get to do something else that is more fun, and second when you don’t have to do the undesirable chore. When the task comes back to haunt you, it only punishes you once. So it’s easy to see why procrastination wins out!
Unfortunately, in the end, the cost of putting things off outweighs the reward. The pain is ultimately worse than the pleasure you derived from procrastinating. You end up operating in perpetual crisis mode, acting out a consistent state of drama, and becoming a big nasty stress-monster.
“But look how productive I was!” you argue. “Nine out of ten things checked off my list!” News flash…productivity does NOT equal check marks. You must detach your sense of accomplishment from the quantity of items completed on your list, and instead, use the quality of the items completed as your gauge. If you only have four items of ten completed, but one was the most important of all, that was a far more productive day than completing nine low priority items. Your value as an employee will consistently outpace your co-workers if you spend your time focusing on the critical few tasks that lead to the highest performance, value, and output as an employee.
Convinced? So how do you stop procrastinating? Here are a few tricks. Is the task:
Overwhelming? Perhaps the task is too large. Instead of viewing it as one huge project, break it down into manageable chunks you can schedule over a period of a week or two. Twenty-hour project? No! Look at it as ten two-hour tasks. Getting it down on paper can help you see how to best approach the project. The key is to do something to move toward completion. If you must write a long, detailed report on some research findings, don’t sit in front of your computer and stare at a blank screen. Writing a few sentences or the section headings may give you some momentum.
Unappealing? Perhaps the task is boring or tedious. Post written reminders to yourself where you will be sure to see them: your bathroom mirror, car dashboard, or refrigerator. The rule is: if the sticky note falls off, you’re still procrastinating. Or you can schedule a five-minute appointment with yourself to begin the chore. When the designated time arrives, start working on the task. If you feel like stopping at the end of five minutes, you can stop. The only rule is you must schedule an additional five minutes for tomorrow. When you begin to see some progress, five minutes soon becomes ten, fifteen, twenty . . .
Unpleasant? Perhaps the task is making you anxious, such as returning a complaint call from a customer. Select a simple, low effort part of the task to get you started. For example, you could pull the customer’s file. Then perform another leading task, such as reviewing the file. Then pull the phone closer. In other words, complete everything up to the part of the activity you dread. Then the ONLY thing left to do is pick up that phone. It might help to write down your thoughts before you call to help discharge some negative emotion and figure out what you’re going to say. Complete these unpleasant tasks first thing in the morning so they aren’t hanging over your head all day.
Trivial? If you are you rewriting an item on your to-do list for the third day in a row—STOP! Before you transfer that task, ask yourself why you haven’t completed it. Perhaps other tasks with higher priorities have justifiably pushed it forward. If the task seems unimportant, quickly do an analysis to determine if you can justify your procrastination. Draw two columns and list your reasons for procrastinating on one side and your reasons for getting started on the other. If your reasons to start are longer and more convincing, perhaps it will persuade you to get going. On the other hand, perhaps the reasons for procrastinating outweigh the reasons to start. This objective analysis may prove the task is indeed trivial and deserving of your procrastination. If so, completely remove it from your daily to-do list and add it to your master to-do list. Review your master to-do list each month to see which items have changed priority. If you don’t have to look at the item every day, you will stop feeling guilty and stressing out over not getting it done.
No Accountability? To solve procrastination for good, find yourself a “ruthless friend” (a person who likes you, but not too much). This could be a colleague, friend, coach, or your mother. Tell them what you’re going to do, by when. Ask that person to remind you at set intervals and bug you about your progress. Sometimes going public creates self-imposed pressure to perform.
Action Item. Right now, grab a piece of paper. Draw four columns and label them “Item,” “Cause,” “Action,” and “Due.” Jot down at least three things you’ve been procrastinating on, why you’ve been putting it off, one idea about how you can get started, and by when you will have the task completed. Writing an action plan may be just what you needed (or a good kick in the pants)! Ask me if you need the latter.