IT Employment

Fighting procrastination when working independently


I love my job. I have several active clients, and I work part-time for each of them from the comfort of my home office. This arrangement provides great flexibility in managing my tasks and my life. But it has at least one pitfall: procrastination.

There, I admitted it. I am a procrastinator. Sign me up for Procrastinator's Anonymous. Wow, the Great Google informs me that there really is such an organization. I don't think my case is quite that bad, though. Out of the 10 signs of compulsive procrastination, only three of them apply to me (wanna guess which three?).

You'd think that you'd only be tempted to procrastinate when you believe that you have plenty of time to get all your work done. But the truth is quite a different story. When I have one client waiting for a specification, another waiting on code, a third on help debugging a problem, and a fourth on a weekly TechRepublic post, guess what I do? Apply software updates, read my feeds, chat with apotheon, play a game of backgammon, check my Technorati stats, anything but work on what so urgently demands my attention. On the other hand, when I only have a few well laid-out tasks to perform, then I'm ready to get them done and check them off.

Therein lies the key, I think, to overcoming procrastination. If you feel overwhelmed by the enormity of what you need to accomplish, then it's easy to put off getting started -- because you feel like you'll never get finished. So, the most important step is to break down your work into small tasks that can be easily accomplished. Make a list. As you check each one off, your sense of progress helps you to keep going on to the next task. Make sure that you give yourself a break now and then, as a mini-reward for getting things done. But then turn right around and get started again.

Getting started is the hardest part. Once you start working on a task, it's pretty easy to keep on going. So minimize interruptions. Every time you're interrupted, you have to force yourself to get started all over again. Make sure that the people around you understand that and respect your "on" time. I've even stopped answering the phone, unless the caller ID shows me that it's going to be related to my current task. Otherwise, please leave a message.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why I've always preferred billing by the hour is that it represents an incentive to keep me working, because time spent procrastinating is time without pay. But honestly, that doesn't help much.

Sometimes procrastination represents a passive-aggressive pushback against a task that you never wanted to perform in the first place, but you agreed to do anyway. You've got to ask yourself some hard questions when that happens. Why did I agree to do this? Did I feel powerless to refuse? Is this really the kind of work that I want? One of the best cures for procrastination is to weed out some of those tasks. Sometimes you just need to say no. Once you get that monkey off your back, your remaining tasks will seem even more rewarding. And if you can't get rid of an onerous task, then get rid of it by doing it first.

A site called Procrastination Help offers some "quick fixes.".I like "get attractive tools for tasks that cause your procrastination" (as if I needed another excuse for buying new gadgets). Why does that approach work? Because it helps you to envision the task differently, as something fun. You could also try other ways to change your attitude towards the work, like thinking about how cool this job would seem to someone else -- maybe even to yourself several years ago. "If I could have known when I was a lowly entry-level programmer that I would be doing this kind of work today..." should help to lift your spirits. But of course, if you would complete that thought with "... I would have slit my wrists," then maybe it's time for a new job.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

22 comments
LLL3
LLL3

Helpful Column. I really relate to your point about procrastinating because I am overwhelmed by too many different things to do. So I end up doing nothing and then hating myself at the end of some wasted hours. Breaking it down into small tasks helps People with jobs can procrastinate too (I know I've done it. :-) but there is something about not having a boss or structured hours that makes me less productive at times. (If it weren't for deadlines, I'd do no work at all...) The same with realizing I am dreading/procrastinating something because I should have said NO to begin with and now I feel resentful that I "have to do it" when it will be a lot of work for little money for an overly-needy client. That was a second good point in your column. Recently I installed a timer on my computer that I set for 30 to 60 minutes and I focus on one task until it goes off. Going to go set it now... Oh, but first - I also set my email to only come when I click send/receive. That helps until I start complusively clicking it when I'm supposed to be working.

rsbrown
rsbrown

A decision was made shortly after this article was posted to form a 12 step group to provide help, assistance and support for people who struggle with this issue - but we kept . . . putting . . . it . . . off! (Rimshot please)

djb
djb

I will post a response to this later :-D

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... and I'll reply to your response promptly. Within a week or two tops.

ElTel
ElTel

which was why I was glad to receive your email, then read your article, then read all the replies and best of all, put off designing that database for another day when I have more time. :)

john.a.wills
john.a.wills

My main procrastination is in getting out of bed in the morning. I get out to turn the alarm off and go back to shave, but when shaving's done...

boxfiddler
boxfiddler

Yes, I am a procrastinator. I like to think it's inadvertent - I'm distracted by something new and interesting or just get too involved in one thing and forget about the others that need doing. More than likely I just prefer certain things and let the non-preferred things go until they just HAVE to be done. I really have to focus my will on doing the things I put off. And mostly I have to never open the door to the computer room if I have things to do that don't involve being parked in front of the PC. Leaving that door closed works most of the time.

monsalbus
monsalbus

Chip: thanks for getting me to think more about the issue. Seems as if I spend so much time thinking about others issues that I really do avoid thinking about my own. Sheer will power is what ends up getting it done in the end. Instead of the overwhelming, which i handle well, it is the stupid tasks that i have such a hard time getting checked off. i also find it amusing that you say "...billing by the hour... incentive to keep me working, because time spent procrastinating is time without pay. But honestly, that doesn?t help much." you hit that one on the head with me. I will think about what you wrote and copy/paste it to read again while in a different state of mind. THANKS.

apotheon
apotheon

I procrastinated a bit earlier this week by talking to you, in fact. Funny how that works. My procrastination is almost entirely mood-based these days. Pressing deadlines, overwhelming projects, and prioritization issues don't seem to have anything to do with it. Sometimes, changes in routine can help change a procrastinatory mood -- but otherwise, I need to either just break the inertia through sheer willpower or wait it out.

The Scummy One
The Scummy One

Sometimes procrastination hits people who do show up at the office. I know for me, sometimes I am just too friggin busy, so I push things off the list to get more critical things done. Then later, as I free up some time, I forget completely about the other tasks. Other times, I may have a busy morning and find myself with nothing to do except for an ongoing task. Right after I start on it, I start getting other tasks, so I drop it. Then it slows down again, and I start it up again. Then, again, other things interrupt. By this point I am unlikely to restart the ongoing task for the day, even if my schedule frees up. Mainly because I then feel that if I start on it, I will almost immediately be interrupted again.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Like many personal issues, the biggest hindrance to solving procrastination is denial. And the best tool for denial is the ability to reclassify an activity from "procrastination" to "important work."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... I have no trouble staying up, but if I manage to turn off the alarm before getting out of bed, then all bets are off.

jeff.allen
jeff.allen

But at least I don't feel alone anymore! THanks for a great article - i have a heap of on-going little jobs that are really very easy. So, why don't I get to them? The line about "passive agressive" is right-on. They aren't big-deal jobs, but they are neccesary. How do I stop this procrastination? I wish I knew!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

This post was difficult for me to write in some ways (it's hard to admit that you have problem, however well managed it may be), but once I started writing it just flew off my fingers with a great sense of relief. One of the 10 signs linked to in the post has been rattling around in my head ever since: "We are acutely aware of what we should be doing, or think we should be doing, and oddly out of touch with what we actually want and need." Seems to me that the real key to defeating procrastination is to move to the other end of that scale -- or at least close to the middle.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but I enjoy our discussions, and they often inspire me to delve into things that do improve my work. I hope that's mutual.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Right, I never meant to imply that procrastination only affects those working from home. And I agree that interruptions are the prime exacerbator.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I've found the best thing to do is just to start doing one of them. But sometimes it's hard. It hit me again just today.

apotheon
apotheon

I get to justify my procrastinations involving talking to you by virtue of the fact that I gain more benefit than I lose through those discussions.

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