Everyone procrastinates to a greater or lesser extent and there are certainly some situations when it is actually best to just sit back, rather than launch into action straightaway. In most cases, though, procrastination is likely to have negative connotations. It occurs when you are facing actions that need to be undertaken and you continue to find reasons to not start.
Sometimes you can find any number of other things to do rather than focus on the most important tasks. Having clarity on your goals and objectives, your priority tasks and your available resources can all help you battle your way through procrastination.
Here are a number of ways that I have used over the past 30 years to generate action and momentum towards my goals:
- Focus on one task at a time, your most important task. Put all your energies into completing that task before moving on. In many instances you will be unable to finish the task because of a blockage of some sort. For example, when you are in need of input from a third party which has been delayed. When this happens, simply move onto your next highest priority task.
- Avoid multi-tasking. This destroys your productivity. Your brain can only hold one thought at a time, so if you are working on task A it cannot focus on any other task. If you want to do something relating to task B, your brain must park the whole of task A first before retrieving everything about task B. It then needs to refresh itself as to the current status of task B before any progress can be made. It is easy to fritter away time simply by switching between different tasks.
- To help you focus on your top priority task, clear all the clutter from your work area. When you have other things scattered around, your attention can be easily distracted by something lying around. Avoid the temptation of being side-tracked by having a clear work area.
- Allocate specific times for doing routine tasks such as checking emails, returning telephone calls, accessing social media sites and general administration. These activities are best scheduled for the times when your energy levels take a dip. For most people this is in the early afternoon. I have four periods when I check emails and return phone calls during a workday. These are around 9am, 11.30am, 3pm and 5.30pm. In each case, I spend 10-15 minutes dealing with the most important emails and telephone calls.
- Introduce some discipline into your working habits by using a concept called time-boxing. For the procrastinator, the key discipline is that for a defined period of time all their efforts will be directed towards a single task. For these people, it is hard to have such a single-minded approach, so the length of each time box needs to be flexible. In some situations, having a time box of just 10 minutes is enough to get a bit of momentum behind an activity that continues to be put off or avoided. After this time box has finished, schedule something else and then come back for another 10 minutes. Gradually lengthen the time box duration from 10 minutes to 1 hour and the barriers to progressing this activity will be broken. Time box durations of 10 minutes are not ideal (see point 2 above) but in this case the objective is to build momentum behind an activity that has been continually avoided.
- Planning each day the evening before is a great way to getting things done. When you are working to a planned schedule your days are structured and organised. Starting a day with no firm plan leaves you open to reacting to whatever crops up and this is seldom the best use of your time. Even with a plan for every day, it is important that you manage and control the level of interruptions you receive. Multiple interruptions will mean you are continually switching between tasks, see point 2 above.
- For larger tasks, these can seem less daunting if they are broken into smaller “bite-sized” pieces. There is no limit to how small these sub-tasks can be. If you feel the overall task is too difficult and beyond your current ability, it would make sense to break down the task into sub-tasks that are so small as to hold no fears. If you want to write a 50,000 word book with ten chapters of 5,000 words, then having a sub-task of “write one chapter” might still seem too difficult. However, “write 200 words of one chapter” is likely to seem easy. It gets done and you have some momentum and confidence to tackle the next 200 word sub-task. Break down larger tasks in whatever way works for you.
- Sometimes you need an incentive to tackle a task. Allow yourself a reward when you have achieved some tangible progress. For example, after completing one 5000 word chapter of your book you might allow yourself an extra-long lunch to go shopping or an early finish to pick your children up from school. Pick a reward that works for you.
If you try these eight suggestions and you are still struggling with procrastination, consider engaging with a coach who will help you work through the real reasons (often subconscious reasons) why you are continually putting off certain activities. Keep your thoughts positive, even when you have only completed 200 words of your 50,000 word book. Yes, there’s a long way to go but you have some momentum. Build on it and your first chapter will soon be written.
- Prioritise your to-do list and concentrate on your top priority tasks, avoiding the temptation to multi-task.
- Explore how you can use timeboxing to help you develop more discipline and avoid switching between different tasks.
- Sub-divide large, daunting tasks or projects into smaller sub-tasks to a level where you will start work rather than procrastinate.