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?


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.

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