William James said it best: “Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” We’ve all been through this. We have a big deadline or a very important project, and we know and feel that if we don’t start on it soon, we’re going to be in very big trouble. But despite the panic (and our ever logical brain, nagging us to just roll up our sleeves and do something) we drag our feet. We procrastinate.
Experts say that we procrastinate because of perfectionism (we’re afraid of failing, so we don’t start at all), anxiety (we’re overwhelmed by a big task, so we fun away form it) or distraction (we have too much to do, so we don’t finish anything at all). Here are some tips to conquer these problems, and stop procrastinating now.
1. Break a task into smaller chunks.
You can eat even an elephant, one bite at a time. Setting smaller goals helps you control your anxiety levels. “I’m not making my mid year report, I’m just…compiling the numbers in charts.” This also allows you to squeeze in tasks in a busy schedule, and tackle one item that you know you can finish within the given time frame. For example, if you have just one hour between meetings, you probably won’t be able to analyze the figures, but you can sort through the materials sent by the Sales department.
2. Give yourself a deadline—and hold yourself accountable.
Remember how quickly you worked when your boss told you, “I need the May figures by 3:00 p.m. today?” Compare this to entire afternoons you frittered away, browsing your emails five or six times, dawdling over paperwork, and taking way too much time on your coffee break? Productivity actually is based less on the quantity of time but the quality of attention and focus we put on a task—and sometimes, we just need to feel the pressure.
However, many procrastinators use this as an excuse to wait until the last minute, but that kind of time pressure can push you into panic mode. Set smaller deadlines instead. “I’ll finish my graphs by 2:00 today.” So you don’t just brush off this task, find a way to make yourself accountable for this deadline. For example, promise a co-worker that you’ll email the graphs so he can use it for his own presentation. Or, just ask a friend to be your nag buddy and to call you up at 2:00 to check if you’re ready.
3. Check your self-talk.
Words have power. Don’t say: “I need to finish my report by tomorrow” or “I should be done by the end of the day.” Instead, say: “I choose to submit my report by tomorrow.” Notice that this implies that you are in control of your time and your energy? It immediately dismisses any excuses you may come up to delay submission. Yes, Frank from Accounting dropped by your desk and spent 30 minutes talking about his golf swing, but if you choose to meet your deadline, then you also choose to tell him, “I’m sorry, I really have to get this done. Let’s have lunch tomorrow instead.”
4. Tackle the one task you dread the most.
There’s a saying that if you eat a live toad for breakfast the rest of the day is a breeze! Basically, just do what you dread the most. You don’t have to do it perfectly, and we promise you that it won’t be as bad or as hard as you imagined it to be. Once you’re actually in the middle of things, you’ll just be relieved to be working on it (versus just worrying about it). And once it’s done, the euphoria of being free of that “toad” may give you the energy boost to tackle the other things in your to-do list.
5. Stop shuffling papers.
Sorting and rearranging papers is not work, it’s just pretending to work. You either file it, act on it, or toss it—shoving it to the other side of your desk is not a productive option. (In fact, you’ll just end up rereading it later on, which wastes even more of your valuable time.)
What other habits are just “pretend” work? Passively reading emails, or spending three days “researching” on different websites when all the information you realistically need could’ve been taken from the first five you found. Ask yourself, “Does spending more time on this really add to the quality of my work? Am I just doing this to avoid the next step?”
6. Remove physical distractions.
Your productivity can be affected by your work environment. Do you waste precious minutes looking for documents? Does your desk face a corridor, so you can see people moving in your peripheral vision? Are your thoughts often interrupted by the ring of the phone? When you’re ready to work, barricade yourself from possible distractions. Turn off the phone ringer or reroute it to somebody else in the office. Move your chair so you’re facing a blank wall. In other words, avoid those interruptions!
7. Take charge of your schedule.
Assess how long you will need to finish a task and block off the time so you aren’t dragged off to a meeting just when your creative juices are flowing. If you’re overburdened with deadlines, talk to your superior about delegating other responsibilities so you can focus on an important deadline. You may also want to work with your natural body clock, and tackle jobs that require a lot of concentration during the hours when you’re most alert.
8. End the day with an “evaluation.”
Before you go home from work, look at your planner and assess how much you have done, and whether you need to adjust tomorrow’s schedule. That way, you don’t waste any time in the morning worrying about what you need to do, or shuffling around between different tasks. You have a battle plan—so when you return to your desk, you can plunge in and do what matters most.