Software

Five tips for controlling procrastination

Some people say procrastination works for them, keeping them sharp and efficient. But for others, it's self-defeating, guilt-inducing, and demoralizing.

I recently heard a friend talking about a school assignment -- a report he had to write on a business book he hadn't started to read. With the deadline a week away, he admitted that he would probably wait until the last minute to read the book and write the report. A lot of us got through school (and handle our jobs) using that approach, and sometimes the pressure of a looming deadline actually makes us sharper and improves the results. But what he said next was the real kicker: "I won't be able to enjoy myself all week knowing I have this report to write, but I'll still keep putting it off."

If you're an "active procrastinator" -- you do your best work with the clock ticking down to the final seconds as you finish a job -- procrastination may not be a problem. But if you're a "passive procrastinator" -- chronically postponing tasks and becoming indecisive, anxious, or guilty -- you may want to work on modifying that habit. Here are a few strategies for keeping yourself from sinking into the procrastination abyss.

1: Figure out why you're procrastinating

The obvious starting point in dealing with procrastination is to analyze why it's happening. It might be that the work itself is ill conceived or you don't have clear instructions or the necessary tools, skills, or resources. Maybe the scope is intimidating or you haven't been given a deadline so it's easy to defer the project. Those issues may be out of your control, but often you can do something about them. And if you can, you should.

If the work itself is manageable and you know what you have to do to complete it -- but you just hate doing it so you're stalling -- you may have to trick yourself to get it done. (See #5.) Either way, the goal here is to determine what's really going on so you can develop a plan of attack.

2: Decide what has to get done first

There's some debate over whether you should tackle your most critical, front-burner tasks first or start by knocking out several small, easy-to-finish tasks. There are good arguments for both. Tackling the big projects, the ones that will have the most impact (aka the Eat That Frog tactic), is often essential. You may be operating under someone's mandate or unbendable commitment or there may be dependencies you can't ignore.

But sometimes, accomplishing the smaller, less urgent tasks will get you moving and clear your schedule (and remove the excuse/distraction potential of those smaller chores) so you can mount a more effective effort to get the big, gnarly projects underway.

Obviously, how you prioritize is governed by the situation. The important thing is that you prioritize purposefully and don't just randomly pick away at tasks that pull you in various directions.

There is a corollary to this tip: Planning is great, but make sure you don't use the process as a means of procrastinating. I once worked with a writer who simply couldn't hit a deadline. Never. Not one time. But he would spend hours designing increasingly sophisticated and elaborate schedules for delivering his work -- in lieu of producing that work. Then he'd spend even more time explaining his plan to me in passionate detail. Maybe that's not a problem for you. But if you're prone to using planning and list-making as a stalling tactic, remind yourself not to fall for it.

3: Break the work into manageable pieces

One of the most common reasons for putting off a task is that it's just too damn big. And one equally common -- and practical -- tip is to break the job into pieces. The key is to focus on each piece as a discrete task. Because if you keep looking up from the work in front of you at the monolithic project, it's going to take the wind out of your sails.

Can't subdivide a big job into smaller tasks? Try setting time goals instead -- like three hours at a stretch, interspersed with other work (or downtime). You'll still be taking a modular approach to the massive project, which should make it less daunting and give you a way to recognize progress along the way.

4: Don't get paralyzed by the need to be perfect

It's easy to become immobilized by concerns over the results you think are expected or standards you impose on yourself. If you find yourself saying, "I'll be able to do a much better job if I start this first thing in the morning" or "I can't do this until I've lined up all the resources I need," you could be absolutely right. On the other hand, you might just be manufacturing reasons to put off the work. The irony, of course, is that if you get the jump on a project, you'll probably have time to produce a rough draft, an alpha version, a work-in-progress that you can refine and perfect in time to hit your deadline. Working through a few iterations will take a lot of weight off your shoulders -- you just need to stay out of the perfection trap.

5: Make a deal with yourself: Five minutes and out

The "Just get started!" rhetoric you hear might make for a spiffy little motivational motto -- but in practice, it doesn't offer much of a toehold. If you can't bring yourself to get going on a project, the obvious countermove is to do it anyway. But HOW do you "just get started" when you keep failing to start?

Here's my favorite trick: Stick your toe in the water a tiny bit, with the promise that you'll quit after a few minutes. This might seem like you're teaching yourself an even worse habit (quitter!!). But what usually happens is that those few minutes prime the pump. Once begun is half done, and all that. According to one theory, our perception of a task changes once we've gotten a taste of it -- and for the better.

Even the most mundane and preliminary steps can get the ball rolling. Trying to get a report written? Create a folder for it, save a new document in the folder, add a title and a couple of headings to the document. It's the digital-age equivalent of sharpening a handful of pencils and straightening a fresh stack of paper. And that's often all it takes.

Bonus tip: Reward yourself

Most of the time, simply being DONE with something that's been hanging over you is reward enough. But if you promise yourself some other tangible reward ahead of time -- okay, yeah, call it a bribe -- you may have an easier time summoning up the resolve and momentum to jump into the work and see it through.

Additional reading

Other tips?

Do you wrestle with the procrastination devil or do you stay on top of your tasks and responsibilities? What tricks do you use to keep yourself from putting things off -- or does putting things off work for you?

About

Jody Gilbert has been writing and editing technical articles for the past 25 years. She was part of the team that launched TechRepublic and is now senior editor for Tech Pro Research.

18 comments
Old Toppie
Old Toppie

I my world procras....... does not exist. I call it planning. Planning is the most important phase of any project. So I do a lot of it.

RB1955
RB1955

Prioritize.It's easier than it appears, but it takes a little practice to become proficient. Obviously there are viable methods, so here's the one I use. Make a square on a piece of paper. Divide it into 4 boxes. The scales outside the boxes are (vertical) = Importance; the other (horizontal) = Urgent. Top left box is Important AND urgent, while bottom right box is less urgent and not important. This method can be done on a spreadsheet, or a word processing document, if that suits a persons style. For a while I have used a 3" x 5" card, divided into the 4 quadrants, all written in pencil. There's alot of reasons I prefer this overly simplistic way... We've all heard the KISS acronym (Keep It Simple, Stupid), but I like my version, which is, "Keep Internal Systems Simple". It makes sense.

Batchman
Batchman

By working the additional time to start the next task, you have primed the pump for the next day or work session. It isn't as difficult to get going again. Also by starting the next task I understand more about the next task and while I am away, ideas related to the task come to me.(lightbulb moments).

junk
junk

Looks like a good article. I've clicked "Read it Later"...

hippiekarl
hippiekarl

unless there's plenty of work to do! -----Mark Twain

medomoreno
medomoreno

I particularly enjoyed the story about the writer

janicedeane
janicedeane

Is it bad that I've been wanting to read this article, but keep putting it off? Seriously, I just skimmed the headings and hope to get back to it tomorrow... :P Not reading it yet didn't stop me from commenting though. OK - that's bad.

Dumber_z
Dumber_z

I found that I don't put away my tools, etc. after a job is done, I just go get the beer I promised myself. Next job I can't find tools...so...I can't do the job until they turn up. My secret was to put the tools away when a job is finished. (Promise yourself 2 beers) Now that is not a reason to procrastinate.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Calibrated sloth, it's called. Don't just do something. Stand there. Marvel how others run about.

SThurlbeck
SThurlbeck

I am a chronic procrastinator and find that regardless of the task, if I publish what I am going to do (highlevel steps with dates) then I get them done. At the end of the day, I am really creating a series of deadlines that I must meet or look foolish.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Hard work pays off in the long run. Procrastination pays off now. (It's Monday) ;-)

Fireboss
Fireboss

So is apathy. I've found I don't care about apathy and when it comes to procrastination, We can talk about that later. . . . Seriously I've used all those tips at one time or another. The only way I successfully deal with it - when I do - is by remembering that others depend on my work. If it's for me it waits forever but for others I always try to get it done.

maj37
maj37

Number 5 is what I find is my problem and what works for me. It is often about "that seems to be somehting that will requre a lot of effort or thought or time", if I just "man up" and start it then I usually find it was as hard etc. as I thougt it would be.

susanbuyer
susanbuyer

I use a 10-minute timer. Amazing how much can get done in 10 minutes and how much easier it is to sit down to a task when you've got a timer ready to bail you out. I keep one statement on my computer: Do time critical things first. I pick the one with the worst deadline and put myself on the 10-minute timer. I fantasize on what it will feel like, look like, be like, if/when I finish one thing. I pick that one time-critical thing, and put myself on the 10-minute timer. Whew! You'd think with all that activity I subject myself to I'd be able to get things done, but it's the getting-important-things-done-fear that keeps me from moving.

acmp
acmp

I really am, and while I get the idea of this article I'm reasonably sure that the tips won't help me much. Unfortunatly it's the interesting jobs that get my time, that and reading TR when I'm susposed to be working ;-)

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

But I'll wait till latter to start. ;) Col

fennemore
fennemore

Good article . Got all the Tee shirts. Now nearing 70 have it sorted . Make a list , rank in order. Do one difficult thing a day and a few easy "Knock offs". The downside is that the old adage "Want a good job done ...give it to a busy man/woman" kicks in with a veneance. Finally learn to say NO ! Nigel , London.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I have it down to a fine art now. I used to try to put off the Easy Jobs till I discovered that they tended to be really nasty. Now I don't do them at all. ;) What I think will be an interesting Job tends to be easy so there is no challenge there. Now I just put off what I can for as long as I can and then follow the lines of Do it right First Time so I don't have to do it again! Some think I'm a perfectionist but I'm just [b]Lazy.[/b] Of course 25 + years ago I had a reputation for doing poor work because I did the job in the same day as I was given it or the next day when it came in late. The Customers insisted that I wasn't doing the work right because they didn't have to wait weeks to get the thing back and still not have it working. Apparently if you store it for weeks and return it not working it's considered as Good Workmanship where as doing it immediately and returning it working properly is Bad Workmanship. I never did quite figure out those people but it certainly didn't do anything to encourage me to continue in my misguided ways. :D Col