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Change Anything QA

Overcoming Procrastination

During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on June 29, 2011.

Q

Dear Crucial Skills,

I tend to procrastinate overwhelming work projects until the last minute and know this bad habit is keeping me from advancing in my career. I feel like I’ve tried everything, but nothing has helped. I don’t know how to change. Can you help me?

Habitual Procrastinator

Dear Procrastinator,

Funny you should ask. I’ve managed to put off writing my response to you for three weeks now! But I’m flying home from Chicago and our editor, Angela, is firmly but politely requesting I get off my rear—so here goes.

We recently found that procrastination is a pretty pervasive problem. In fact, it is one of the top three Career-Limiting Habits we identified in a recent study. For some, these habits have cost them pay or promotions. But even those who can’t count an absolute cost of the habit acknowledge they could have achieved significantly more in their career if it hadn’t been for this chronic weakness.

I fall into the category of people who can point to specific losses caused by procrastination. At age seventeen, a partner and I wrote one of the first accounting applications for the newly emerging microcomputer industry. It was an instant success with our immediate clients, and I knew that if I would invest time standardizing the software and creating high-quality documentation for it, we could make millions. I didn’t. And within a year, a competitor went to market in that uncontested space and cashed in. Live and learn, eh?

But the good news is I’ve discovered a few simple sources of influence that have a remarkable effect on my energy, focus, and productivity in these crucial moments. I also got an enormous number of responses on our Crucial Skills blog and on Facebook from clever readers who have found their own ways to kick this habit.

Without further delay, here are some ideas:

Make It Motivating

  • Make it a game. Even noxious tasks become engaging when we give them the characteristics of a game: focus, time limit, and a scoreboard. When I sit down to work, I make my scoreboard. I write down the number of things I want to get done before I relax. I limit my list to the number of things I can reasonably accomplish. It’s remarkable how motivating it is to check things off my list. Several readers actually use a timer. I think that’s a great idea to increase the “game” sense of focus, and to link the experience to a promise of reward.
  • Repeat motivating statements. A couple of readers keep motivating statements at hand that help them reframe the decision they’re making in their crucial moment. Suzy said, “My favorite procrastination advice is, ‘If you have to eat a frog today, do it first. If you have to eat three frogs today, eat the biggest one first.'” Donald added, “I put this note on my PC: ‘Production Before Perfection’ to remind myself to create something even if it is imperfect and then focus on perfection.”

Build Skills

  • Read a book. Lots of people have found useful tools in books that help them increase and focus their mental energy more effectively. Some favorites were The NOW Habit by Neil Fiore, The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel, and Getting Things Done by David Allen.
  • Treat productivity like a skill. Pick a small amount of time to focus your attention, then stop. Brett said, “Here’s a mantra I’ve found very effective at battling my own tendency to procrastinate. It’s four simple words: Make progress every day. Once I get started on something, even if it’s with the mental goal of saying ‘I’m only going to do this one thing for fifteen minutes’, it often leads to more. When it doesn’t, at least I have the satisfaction that I did indeed make some progress that day.”

Get Support

  • Find a friend. Barb shared an experience where she learned from a friend: “You can learn to overcome [procrastination] by pairing with someone who has a different style. My boss, the ultimate procrastinator, and I worked together for many years. We made a great team. Instead of being a thorn in one another’s side, we used one another as a means of support and a sense of balance in how we approached our work. He knew he could count on me to develop a quick plan and start executing. I learned there are advantages to letting some things percolate so you don’t have to retrace old ground as projects often get redirected midstream.”
  • Set boundaries with others. One reader recommended setting aside time to deal with problems: “A large part of managing yourself is managing who is allowed to interrupt you and when. One of the techniques I now employ is a ‘problem hour.’ As e-mails, phone calls, or other issues interrupt me, I push them to my problem hour. If the issues arise after my problem hour, it’s assigned to the next day’s problem hour.”

Reward Yourself

  • Plan fun. Cecelia uses rewards to motivate herself: “My two favorite ways to deal with procrastination balance short- and long-term rewards. Sometimes going to my home office to work feels like being sent to my room. To change that mindset, I focus on how much better life is going to be once the task I’d rather avoid is over.”
  • Pick a treat. Erin rewards herself by taking a break: “Dedicate an hour to a difficult task and then reward yourself by going to get a Starbucks coffee, or by having a chat with a coworker as a break.”

Structure for Success
Lots of readers used structural tricks to help make productivity easier. In fact, you’ll recognize lots of structural ideas even in the other sources of influence I listed above. Here are some favorites:

  • Break it down. Divide big things into manageable amounts, then decide what manageable part you will accomplish next. Jim shares this story: “My mother died eight years ago and I received forty boxes of stuff to sort through. Three months ago, I started filing or discarding one box a week.” Thinking about one box is motivating. Forty is overwhelming.
  • Leave some fun for next time. One trick I use with writing tasks is to never stop until I am on a roll. I make sure that, when I pause my writing, I know what I want to write next—so getting restarted will be easier. If, on the other hand, I finish a complete idea, I’ll have to start next time with the painful experience of figuring out what is next. Pause your work at a place that makes restarting feel motivating.
  • Make an appointment with yourself. Erin also recommends you “Schedule slots of time into your schedule similar to a meeting time. Then make sure that time is dedicated only to the task. Schedule the most unwanted tasks first thing. By the afternoon, you are out of energy and more likely to procrastinate.”
  • Build fences. Create an environment where you won’t be distracted. For example, turn off e-mail notifications, put your phone where you can’t see or hear it, close your door, and put in earphones. Some people even use software that shuts down internet access to help reduce wandering impulses.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything on this list at once—just pick an idea or two, experiment with it, and act like a scientist examining your own behavior as you see what makes you feel more motivated and productive.

It’s worked miracles for me. I never made millions on microcomputer software—but I finished this column!

Thank you to everyone who shared suggestions. If you have any other ideas you’d like to share, please post them on the blog.

Best wishes,
Joseph

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Joseph Grenny

Joseph Grenny is a New York Times bestselling author, keynote speaker, and leading social scientist for business performance. For thirty years, Joseph has delivered engaging keynotes at major conferences including the HSM World Business Forum at Radio City Music Hall. Joseph’s work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, is available in thirty-six countries, and has generated results for three hundred of the Fortune 500. read more

21 thoughts on “Overcoming Procrastination”

  1. This is related to “building fences” but I recommend looking for your “easy outs” and make them difficult if not impossible paths to go down. I was spending a lot of time on Facebook instead of studying for an exam so I gave my wife the password to my account so she could change it to a password I didn’t know. That way it was impossible for me to even log in until after my exam was over. Of course the sad thing (about me) is, I have another exam comming up soon and I’m procrastinating by reading this article and commenting on it instead of studying.

  2. I’m a procrastinator too. From what I can tell, I usually do this when I lack information or confidence in my ability to do the task at hand. All the advice given above is good, and I highly recommend David Allen and his Getting Things Done methods. His Weekly Review discipline is the key to success, and it’s not something that comes naturally to me or anyone else I know. Master that, and you are nearly all the way home!

  3. I have a tendency to procrastinate, mostly on tasks that I do not feel that comfortable or capable of doing. But, have to remind myself the person who assigned the task to me has the confidence I can complete the task. Therefore I set an earlier deadline then the original, so that I have time to review before sending. I use the small goals system where I break the task into parts and set a goal for when to complete each section. I even use this at home for cleaning my house, set a timer for 20minutes to focus on one area and you will be amazed how much you can accomplish ~ I have been using the system for years and it still amazes me! Good Luck!

  4. I employ many of the techniques already noted AND I book an appointment with myself – right in my electronic calendar – for 1/2 hr to 1 hr max. to focus on one or two deliverables.
    Bit like having a meeting with that not-so-favourate client. Know you have to, know you have to focus, but you limit the time.
    The result – I get something done in a very business like and focussed manner. Leftovers are then booked into another appointment time for completion.
    Reward afterward usually comes in a good cup of coffee!

  5. Related to Donald’s “Production before Perfection,” is a phrase my employees and I often use, “Done is better than perfect.” Seems to me that putting those phrases together could be a one-two punch to full achievement.

  6. It is not procrastination that is a problem, we cannot do everything right now. I feel we need to learn to procrastinate smartly.

    I found spending time to prioritize my items helped me finish the top priority item in time.

    This did two things to me, one it basically set my mind on the top item. Once in my mind I set the work item as top item, it helped to focus all my energy into completing it.

    I also found that every time I mis-prioritized I got poor results. It is not because I procrastinated, but because I finished a “not so needed” item first.

    I decided to put my list of items on paper and look at them at regular intervals (twice a day). And I shuflled the items as the conditions changed. This discipline really helped me

    Hope this helps you too…

    kind regards,

  7. I found the message below (I believe on THIS website), and I printed it out and taped it to my monitor. I relates to being “stuck” vs. procrastinating, but in my mind those two are joined at the hip.

    What is getting in the way:
    * You don’t know what to do
    * You don’t know how to do it
    * You don’t have the authority/resources to do it
    * You’re afraid

    Figure out what’s getting in the way and get over it (or work on a different problem).

  8. What a great way to procrastinate, read and respond to an article on procrastination! I find it is about energy and what I enjoy doing, but I also prefer “pressure prompted perception” in MBTI terms. When I learned that, it helped me understand the cause and choose remedies that work with my preferences not tools and solutions that competed with them. I suggest you figure out what “motivates your procrastination” and create solutions that work with your preferences to increase the likelihood that they will not only work for the short term, but last.

    For me, since I am at my best when under pressure, I try to keep lots of things on my plate and when I have an important task or deadline I make a comprehshesive list and prioritize it all until I create that pit in my stomach that gets the creative juices flowing. Sometimes I have to create new work or go run some errands to get the list big enough and time frame tight enough to “feel” the pressure. When I look back on my life when I was in “flow” it’s always when I had too much to do with tight timelines. And no, false deadlines don’t work for me. I haven’t figured out how to fake the emotion.

  9. The one time management technique that has worked best for me is to make a list each morning of ‘Imperative’ and ‘Important’. The Imperative items have to be completed by the end of the day, so make sure there are only 1 or 2 there depending on the amount of time required. Then get to whatever you can on the ‘Important’ list. Each morning I transition the items from the day before that were left undone from the ‘Important’ list. It has really helped me with procrastination and prioritization!

  10. I ask someone who is more left brained than I to edit my work. Knowing he will have to wait on me if I miss an interval deadline provides incentive. That gentle nudge is what it takes to make me catch up and stay on task.

  11. I found it amusing that the newsletter on putting of procrastination arrived in my inbox 8 hours later than the newsletters usually do (maybe it was just me)!

    I’m a ‘start right away’ kind of guy. I had huge problems completing assignments on time until I started working on the assignment the same day I received it. That way I started thinking about what was required to complete the project, and I had plenty of time for delays. Inevitably, every project that I do has at least one or two steps that require feedback or work from someone else, and the sooner I can let them know I need something from them, the sooner I can get to the nagging stage to make sure they get it done so I’m still on schedule (because most of them also like to procrastinate!).

    The start right away method also helps because, like Joseph said with his writing, when I come back to the project I’ve left off somewhere meaningful and it’s easier to get going again rather than trying to start something new.

  12. As Laura (& maybe Joyce) mentioned, the cause of most of my troublesome procrastination is fear. It took me many long and painful years to recognize and defeat anxiety, and I’m still left with a mild phobia of making business phone calls.

    Practice has helped a great deal. The most helpful thing has been finally coming to believe that making a phone call will make me feel *better* not worse. Doing the thing I fear makes the horribly unpleasant sensation of fear go away.

    Still, I have to use lots of tricks, so I’d like to share them in case someone can use one:
    – email the business contact first and request a specific time/date to call. This makes the call mandatory, and eliminates many things I might otherwise fear (that they’ll be annoyed that my call interrupted them, that they won’t want to talk to me, that they won’t know what I’m talking about, etc.)
    – walk over to a colleague’s desk (I’m much relieved to now be in a big office where I can do that, rather than the remote office I’d been in before).
    – create a time limit for being afraid (e.g., I can only be afraid for one more hour, then it’s over).
    – rewards, of course (cup of tea, cookie, chocolate)

  13. When I am at home and procrastinating, I often make a rule that I will work during commercials and it works wonders! During commercials I can load the washing machine, fold clothes, load or unload the dishwasher, clean the kitty box – a whole host of things in little spurts.

  14. @Nick
    Nick. Thank you! You are the first person I’ve ever found to address this problem which has plagued me for the last 30 years. You really get how I feel about it so I love (LOVE!) your advice.

  15. Great food for the day. I especially like the “Problem hour” concept, that way the whole day is not about putting out fires. I get the “treat yourself” and have my own little party when I finish each difficult challenge. One of my daily mantra’s when pushing ahead is simply, “Take the Next Step.” Once I do, the next one’s usually follow. Another tad of wisdom from one of my special mentor’s Fred Smith: “Wait to Worry. Put it on tomorrow’s list.” Worry can hinder, so we don’t have to let it.

  16. One of my favorite tricks is to put those pesky things I don’t want to do on top of an item that must be done today. In order to get to the item I have to complete, I must finish all the things on top of it. It keeps me motivated because I don’t want to drop the ball on important time sensitive tasks, but the other things need to get done as well.

    I learned this trick in college, and it helped me keep a step ahead on all my assignments for classes.

  17. Hi,

    I was the queen of procratination. But, I came to found out that a repetitive work push me to this condition.
    I am also a tuttor, as my part time job, and it is more fulfilling activity for me because I tend to create a new lesson for each student. There is not a procrastination in this case.

    Alessandra Brazilian

  18. A contrarian view from this past Wednesday’s Globe and Mail;

    No hurry, take your time

    The key to success is waiting for the last possible moment to make a decision, argues University of San Diego professor Frank Partnoy in his new book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. He tells Smithsonian magazine: “Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to. The idea that procrastination is bad really started in the Puritanical era with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon against procrastination and then the American embrace of ‘a stitch in time saves nine’ … But if you look at recent studies, managing delay is an important tool for human beings. People are more successful and happier when they manage delay. Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans.”

  19. Hi,
    Thank you for the article it was informative as usual. I used to prorastinate “starting” & “continuing” in big things e.g. lots of studying for an exam, big projects, including beneficial habits into my life as waking up earlier than want to..etc
    As a working mom, I am “always” busy with different & many tasks to do. I worked my way through all of this by first making a fixed schedule around my most fixed points (e.g. work & my kids school) so that I know what am I supposed to do when & where exactly. Then I HAVE to do the things in time & not allow myself to be distracted during that time. I know that if I missed it then I am not going to be able to reach the final goal.. & that is actually my approach to any “big” project at work as well. I just have to make myself “start” doing it by making a complete plan of how I think things should go, then filling the spaces becomes easier or atleast I got the first push.

    My statement would be: “If you want to get it done, make a time for it” & “if you don’t get it done now, then you will never do”. So it is either NOW or never while when I used to procrastinate, it was always I will get it done later..

  20. One article I once read suggested thinking about the language you use (aloud or in your head) when you think about the next task. For myself, I have noticed that if I establish commitment through my language it is much easier to follow through – thinking about doing paperwork, for example, I used to think “I have to do that today” or I need to do that today” or “Maybe I can get that done today.” When I shift to “I am going to do that today” I’ve already made the commitment and that’s half the task.

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