Tech & Work

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.


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...

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