How to Manage Procrastination


Napoloen holding his ulcer.

Procrastination pisses me off. Some days it’s easy to manage procrastination. Other days procrastination runs amok like a drunken elephant. You’ve been there, sitting at your computer for hours, intending to work on some amazing project, but instead you spend several hours studying Napoleon’s exile on Elba. You really really want (need) to work on your project, but the only thing you’ve done is allowed yourself to procrastinate, creating a boatload of cognitive dissonance between what you wanted to do and what you actually did.

I believe that procrastinating a task is harder than actually doing that task. Why? You’d think that procrastinating a task would be easy, but that only takes into account the surface-level physical action. If you could somehow look at an image of a procrastinator’s brain, you’d find that procrastination uses a great amount of mental energy, an ongoing argument that probably goes something like this:

I’m doing this one thing, but I should be working on that other thing. I’ll get around to that other thing…later. Not right now. Laaaater. Damnit, I need to do that now. But Napoleon is so interesting!

If you know of a better recipe for low-level neurosis (with a side of guilt and shame), let me know. I’ve never seen one.

The worst part about procrastination is this: the time spent procrastinating is usually more than enough time to finish at least a large chunk of that all-so-important Task.

Why Procrastinate?

Dr. Timothy Pychyl, award-winning professor and diligent studier of procrastination, calls procrastination a ‘lack of self-regulatory abilities.’  According to him, low conscientiousness is a predictor for procrastination. Conscientiousness is influenced by the following factors: order, dutifulness (carefulness), achievement, self-discipline, deliberation.  Other predictors for procrastination include worry, anxiety, and a fear of failure. (I’ve written about managing the fear of failure before).

Further, your personality type will affect the how, why, and when procrastination affects you. Some of us are worse than others, so we all have to be cognizant of our own penchants for procrastination.

I’d hate to suggest that some people are born procrastinators. However, since this might be the case, then for those of us who do procrastinate (a staggering majority?),  we need to deploy some creative techniques to manage procrastination and get to work. Here they are…

Identify All Your Tasks

If procrastination is a result of low conscientiousness, and conscientiousness means being “painstaking and careful” (wikipedia), then an accurate inventory of tasks will help. Procrastination is also a symptom of uncertainty. So to avoid procrastination, you need to be certain and clear about your task. How can you do what you need to do if you don’t know what you’re doing?

  • Make a big to-do list of all your separate tasks. This is your starting point. A ‘mind sweep,’ in the parlance of Getting Things Done.
  • Break large projects down into a series of small, discrete tasks.
  • Be specific in what you need to do…and how you intend to do it.

Lasso Your Time

Procrastination turns your time into a crazy cow, running this way and that. You need to rein in your time and make it heel. Here’s what works for me:

  • For three days, keep a time log of your daily activities. You can be as detailed as you like, so long as you at least get the time down to fifteen minute intervals.
  • Set up a fixed-time schedule. Plan to do the same things at about the same time.
  • Work in 30 minute blocks (give or take). Set a timer and do only one thing until the timer goes off.
  • Identify your time suckers (web surfing, television, pursuit of snipes), become conscious of them, and learn to avoid them.  Once you get them under control, you could even use them as a reward system for completing certain tasks.

Other Creative Techniques to End Procrastination

  • Eliminate perfection and aim for results. Perfectionism will only create anxiety and a fear of failure. It’s far better to create something with a 90% amazing factor than to intend to create something that is 100% amazing. Never mind that 100% amazing is damn near impossible to achieve. Just get started and make creative inertia work for you.
  • Have a clean and tidy workspace. I’m sure there’s some debate between order, tidiness, and creativity, but I know that when my workspace is a mess, youtube and digg become very alluring. Other the other hand, if I’m making a mess while I’m working,  that’s cool; that just means I’m making progress.
  • Take a break and take a walk. As you’re walking, think about your task and the separate steps you need to take to finish it. The extra air and increased blood flow should offset some of that procrastination-stress and help you clear your mind.
  • Focus on only a few items from your to-do list. We’ve all got about 1,000 things on our lists. For me, working from a super-long list makes by brain shut down. Seriously. Things get fuzzy. To combat this curious phenomenon, I’ll write down only two or three items from this list and focus only on those items. When those are finished, I can either engage in idleness or pull a couple more tasks off the list.
  • Eliminate distractions. I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Shut off the email, chat, cell phones, etc. In short, anything that might popup, ring, flash, scream, etc.
  • Give up. If procrastination is a form of a avoidance, you’ve got to figure out why you’re avoiding that task. Maybe you really just shouldn’t be doing it. Drop it, forget it, pay someone else to do it, whatever. Learn to know when to quit.
  • Take tiny actions. Just do one little thing. Forget the big picture, the final product, all the different steps. Just take one single step. After that, take another. Then another. Take a break. Shake. Rinse. Repeat. Finish!

I hope this helps. I’ve used each and every one of these techniques in one form or another over the years. You’ve probably seen some of them before, but hopefully you’ll find something new that works for you. If you’ve used any of these techniques or if you have other creative techniques for managing procrastination, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what works.

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  • JA Lineberry

    This post really resonated with me, because I actually have spent an afternoon studying Napoleon’s exile instead of writing one of the many essays I’ve had to write over the years. Instead of washing the dishes, I end up on wikipedia reading the pages of every former Roman emperor. It’s frustrating.

  • Franklin Roop

    Seth, My brother and I are born procrastinators. I wrote a poem about
    going to my study to work and all I do is sort paper clips, rubber bands, and thumb tacks etc. At times my biggest accomplishment has been making a list of things to do and that’s it. Thanks for your blogs.
    Franklin

  • http://www.happenchance.net Seth

    @JA: That’s the problem with Napoleon, he’s such a fascinating character it’s hard not to spend time reading about him. Same for all those syphilitic, inbred Roman emperors. Sometimes I’ve just got to just turn off the wifi and remind myself that wikipedia will still be there when I finish whatever it is I’m doing.

    @Franklin: Thanks for stopping by. At least you’ve got a to-do list and you know what you need to do. I’ve got a couple things like ‘sort paperclips’ that I sometimes add to my lists; I know that I’ll do them (whether I actually want/need to or not) and that after I do I’ll have a real feeling when I can tick them off the list. A good use of time? Probably not. A good example of mostly harmless self-deception? Definitely ;)