Four Crucial Steps to Avoid Procrastination

Respectfully reprinted from Dumb Little Man

At some point in our lives, most us have had some issues with procrastination. Perhaps it was while we were students, always leaving essays till the last minute. Maybe we struggle in the workplace, putting off reports and other big projects until they’re suddenly urgent. Or we might just find ourselves making little headway in our personal lives – never quite getting around to the things which we’d like to get done.

Procrastination never makes us happy. It’s not quality leisure time at all – it’s a guilty waste of time where we engage in low-value activities (like looking at funny videos of cats on YouTube) because we’re putting something off. And too much procrastination can have a seriously negative effect on our lives: it may cost us a promotion (or even a job), it may mean paying heavy fines or penalties, and it can make us feel miserable.

Like many problems, procrastination is best tackled before it even starts. So here are four steps to make sure that procrastination doesn’t get a chance to take hold.

Step 1: Get Stuck In Straight Away
How often do you go to your computer to work, or sit down with a book or journal to study, only to find yourself “warming up” with all sorts of unrelated tasks? I know I’m prone to doing this! If I’m not careful, my morning will start something like this:

The plan: Write a short article – should take an hour, and less if I focus well.

The reality: I make a cup of tea, then I decide to just quickly check Twitter. A friend has posted a link, so I click on the link and read a newspaper article that interests me. I scroll down and read the comments on the article. One of those sparks a thought: I look something up on Wikipedia. And then I can’t resist looking at a few other pages, and by this point I’ve finished my tea, so it’s really time to make a start on that article, but I remember that it’s a Monday so xkcd will have updated…

You get the picture! And I’m sure you can see that I’m probably not going to get that article done within the hour.

The best way I’ve found for heading off procrastination is to simply get stuck in. If I open up Word and begin that article, I’m probably going to keep going. If I open up a browser window to “just look at Twitter” or Facebook or a news site or my email … it’s very easy to get distracted.

If your day starts off with a “warming up” period of procrastination – do you really need that? Can you just get stuck in straight away, instead?

Step 2: Don’t Let “Frog” Tasks Linger
I love the way that Charlie Gilkey describes little tasks which we tend to put off. He calls them “frogs”, explaining that:

The longer the tasks sits there, the more you think about it, and the amount of time you’ve invested in thinking about and putting off the task somehow gets added to the psychological “size” of the task. The frog gets bigger and wartier, and the warts themselves start growing hairs and warts. It feels that way, at least.

(Charlie Gilkey, A Frog A Day Keeps Your Anchors Aweigh, Productive Flourishing)


I’m sure you can think of some “frogs”. Mine are phone calls. I don’t like talking on the phone: I express my thoughts more clearly in writing, and while I enjoy chatting face to face, I dislike the lack of visual cues on the phone. I can spend days putting off phone calls which end up taking (literally) two or three minutes. Of course, the best solution is to simply get them done when I first think of them. The more I put things off, the more resistance I build up.

Some typical “frog” tasks are:

  • Sending out invoices
  • Filing tax returns
  • “Difficult” calls or emails (e.g. to a disgruntled customer)
  • Cleaning or tidying tasks
  • Dull tasks (e.g. writing up the minutes of a meeting)
  • Fiddly tasks (e.g. fixing bugs in a computer program)

Do you have little tasks which weigh on your mind and tend to get put off for days or weeks? Tackle those frogs before they grow, and before procrastination gets a hold.

Step 3: Break Big Projects into Chunks
When you have a big project – like spring-cleaning the house, writing an ebook, doing your tax return, planning an event – it’s easy to put it off. It seems like such a huge thing that you just can’t find the time to make a start. You’re convinced that you need a clear weekend, or a few empty days, in order to get going.

The double whammy with feeling overwhelmed is that it can often lead to paralysis and inaction at exactly the time we need to do be getting stuff done. Which in turn leads to more crushing feelings because work just keeps piling up.

[…]

Chunking is the art of taking something that needs to be done and breaking it into easy to manage chunks. I accept that there are quite a lot of chunks to building a plane, but they do get built so somebody is dealing with them.

(Tim Brownson, Chunky Monkey Builds a Plane, The Discomfort Zone)

The truth is, we very rarely need to complete big projects in one continuous session. Almost every project can be broken down into smaller chunks. For example, spring-cleaning the house could be broken down into different rooms – perhaps starting with the messiest or the most-used rooms. You can then break these chunks into even smaller tasks. “Clean the kitchen” might be too big, but “Empty the cupboard, throw away anything out-of-date, wipe the cupboard clean and put all the jars and tins back in” is a job you can easily do in an hour.

It’s almost impossible not to procrastinate when we’ve got a big, vague task ahead of us. But breaking that task down into simple, concrete steps makes it much easier to simply get on and take action.

Step 4: Know Yourself – And Avoid Temptation!
Even if you follow all of the above three steps, and make a start first thing in the morning on a hard task which you’ve broken into chunks … you can still fall prey to procrastination.

Pay attention to how you work and behave, and look for any triggers which break your concentration and which encourage you to procrastinate. Perhaps you can’t focus if the television is on in the same room. Maybe you always end up spending an hour on Twitter or Facebook every time you log in. Some people can focus fine while on their own, but an interruption – like a phone call, or even an intruding noise from outside – can break them out of the flow.

Avoid temptation by cutting out the distractions. Keep the television or radio switched off; close your browser windows; unplug from the internet if necessary. Don’t spend a lot of energy on struggling to focus using willpower alone, when a few simple changes to your environment can do the trick.

Do you struggle with procrastination? Have you come across any great tips or techniques which have helped you?

Written on 8/20/2010 by Ali Hale. Ali writes a blog, Aliventures, about leading a productive and purposeful life (get the RSS feed here). As well as blogging, she writes fiction, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing.
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