Bullish: How To Stop Procrastinating About Stopping Procrastinating

Guess what day it is? Friday. Guess what day this column was supposed to be turned in? Thursday. Generally, I’m in the 90th percentile of not procrastinating, but this column about procrastinating seems to have opened up a rift in the prose-irony continuum.

Similarly, after that time I wrote a column about not being late, guess what I was? Late! Hilarious! My BFF was on the edge of her restaurant banquette with glee, waiting to rebuke me! Of course, a lot of the point of the column was that, if you’re not habitually late, you get some benefit of the doubt when you’re late due to forces outside your control, so it worked out fine and then we had mimosas.

In any case, here is a ten-point plan for stopping procrastinating. Perhaps you can bookmark it and return to it when you are feeling the urge to engage in gratuitous baking, play one of those games on Facebook that automatically leaves updates about how many nations you’ve conquered, or look up exes on the Internet even though you did that last month and probably nothing has changed.

Also, this is a career column, as always, so you can count on me to bring it all back to career success in the end. Here goes!

1. Get your shit together before you start. This might sound obvious, but most people greatly underestimate how many steps are required to complete a task, and how many supplies or pieces of information will be needed. Then we don’t want to start a task because we don’t know where or how to start. For instance, writing an article — which theoretically I could do from a beach in Mustique, although I am definitely not doing that right now — involves making an outline, re-locating all the links and books I want to refer to, checking my HTML before I pass along some kind of crazy forgot-to-close-my-bold-tag problem to the editors, and creating mental space by dealing with all my urgent emails before I start. It’s not one to-do list item; it’s more like six or seven. Which leads me to…

2. Break the task into steps, and do one tiny one immediately. If you accept the fact that everything on your to-do list is actually composed of many more steps than it initially looks like, the bad part is that your to-do list is ridiculously long, but the good part is that there are tiny things you can do even when you’re tired, or before you’ve had your coffee. After I spend a long day teaching fifteen adults to factor polynomials and then patiently explaining percents to an eight-year old (etc., etc.), I may not be able to write a Bullish column, but I certainly can find a stock photo of a cat sleeping on a book. In fact, I could do that basically anytime. Which leads me to…

3. Can you make a vow to only “procrastinate” by doing prescribed, secretly productive procrastination activities that you decide on now? For instance, buy the Italian-language Rosetta Stone software, and anytime you’re not doing what you’re supposed to do, you have to be learning Italian. Or, from now on, every time you’re not doing what you’re supposed to be doing, you have to go update your resume. Personally, whenever I’ve got writer’s block, I go get dressed up for wherever I’m going later that day — I mean, that has to get done anyway, right? So then I end up wearing a suit five hours before I need to leave the house, but at least I won’t be late at such time that I actually need to leave the house wearing a suit.

4. Take advantage of the power of sleep. A great deal of creativity and innovative problem solving depends on unconscious processing in the mind. Decide every night on your One Big Thing you want to get done the next day, and sleep on it. I would find it impossible to run my life without doing this; without deliberately setting up tasks to “cook” in the background, I would be able to do only 60-70% of what I do now. I literally squeeze the other 30-40% of the work I get done out of otherwise unused background processing. I credit this single technique — committing to doing something important at least a day in advance, and then sleeping on it — with tens of thousands of dollars of income per year.

5. Use a timer. In Bullish: Productivity Tips for People With Short Attention Spans, I talked about the Pomodoro Technique, which involves using a timer to work in twenty-minute bursts. The timer idea is also helpful to keep yourself from checking messages constantly. Telling yourself that you’re not going to check messages until your work is done is unrealistic, but if you can’t keep away from your phone, email, and Facebook for twenty minutes, then you have the self-control of a toddler and should work on that. Short, timed work spurts set realistic and achievable goals that add up satisfyingly — doing one “job” is one thing on the to-do list, but working for five uninterrupted twenty-minute spurts is five things!

6. Are there any activities you use only for procrastinating? If so, cut them out of your life, because you probably don’t enjoy them that much. I think most people watch a lot more Law and Order than they really enjoy. I mean, if you love Law and Order (or Angry Birds, etc.), then I’m not talking to you here. Imagine I asked you at the very beginning of the week, “How much Law and Order would you like to watch this week?” I think most people would say, “Oh, an episode or two” or perhaps, “I don’t care, maybe none.” And then people watch 7 hours of it, because it’s on twenty-three hours a day. I thought about this when a coworker asked me — in a crowded elevator, so there was a bit of pressure on me to give a good answer — “How do you do all the things you do? I don’t do half as much, and I’m exhausted.” I said, “I only do things that are productive or else incredibly pleasurable. I cut out everything in between.” I mean, that’s not a sacrifice. If everything you do benefits your career or is fucking awesome, you’re not losing anything at all.

7. Avoid, delegate, or reconsider. Are you constantly procrastinating on the same kinds of things? If so, maybe you don’t want to be doing those things. Can you quit? Do you need a new career? Can you delegate these tasks to someone else? Can you hire someone to do these tasks and use your freed-up time to make money doing something else, and then use that money to pay that person? If not, be very explicit about why you must continue doing something you don’t want to be doing. To graduate from college? To feed your kids? To get promoted? Maybe even add that reason to your to-do list. “Write client proposal in order to make sale, impress boss, and get promoted.” Sounds better that way. Read more about making your list match up with your values here.

8. Visualize next time. When I tutor students for standardized tests, I tell them all the time, “I know that was just a ‘silly mistake,’ but we can’t just let that go and move on. What can we do so you don’t make that kind of silly mistake next time?” Often, it’s organizing information in a chart, or writing down an extra step, or anticipating before we begin what kind of answer would be logical. Similarly, if you go through procrastination hell but then finally get something done — in the middle of the night, after wasting hours getting started — root out the cause and make a plan to fix it next time. You procrastinated because … you started at a time of day when you’re not at your best, or you didn’t have all the materials in one place so it was intimidating, or you hadn’t planned ahead of time so you didn’t know how to get started. Visualize how the next time will play out. Make it different. Never let yourself make the same procrastination mistake twice.

9. Consider what you can do to make an unpleasant or daunting task more pleasant. I discussed this at length in Bullish: Maybe Work-Life Balance Means You Should Work MORE, in which I talk about my outdoor desk, and suggest that soaking your feet and drinking champagne are perfectly excellent and inexpensive ways to make desk work more pleasant (seriously, when I was a broke 24 year old and discovered that cheap champagne could be purchased for $7, much like regular cheap wine, I discovered a new reason to go on living despite not being able to afford health care or a rat-free apartment). In How to Remain Blissfully Unfrustrated in the Face of Other People’s Incompetence, I share motivational guru Tony Robbins’ story of having to return over 100 phone calls, and deciding to make it more pleasant by doing it from his Jacuzzi. I doubt that you have a Jacuzzi. But you can totally turn up the heat in your apartment, make iced tea, put on a bikini, and write a client proposal or design a website or start a business while playing beach party in your apartment. Although you obviously cannot do this at work. Which leads me to…

10. Make not-procrastinating a competitive advantage. Doesn’t everyone at the office procrastinate? If so, not procrastinating is your new competitive advantage. Since I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding 9-to-5 jobs — and yet spending a strange amount of time in offices in which others are employed in such positions — I see all the time how little work people are really expected to do in eight hours a day. One colleague admitted that “two real work hours is about standard” — the rest is emailing and office bullshit. It’s not hard to do better. It’s how to win.

In fact, not procrastinating — hitting your targets on time or early — is an excellent way for the youngest and newest person in the office to get ahead. It doesn’t really matter if your coworkers went to Harvard and have impressive job titles. Getting shit done immediately is more valuable than any of that.

(See also: Bullish: How to be a Productivity Unicorn).

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    • Shannon

      Thanks! This caught me at a time when I was (surprise!) procrastinating. I’m going to save my procrastinating activities for later, when they’ll just be activities, and get my work done. Granted, even writing this may be considered procrastinating, but I think using two minutes to give you feedback – namely, thanks, this was helpful, and this isn’t the type of stuff I usually hear about not procrastinating – can be excused. Now, to work!

    • andrea dunlop

      As a fellow columnist who also procrastinated writing her column this week, I appreciate the timing of this. And you better believe I’ve been using your sparkling wine and patio techniques.

    • porkchop

      I feel hugely awesome now because I didn’t look at the column until after I banged out 2 work tasks in one hour. yay for meeee! I loved the practical advice in the column, especially the note about work-avoidance activities (law and order) that you would never do if you weren’t procrastinating. My view on procrastination is that a person usually does more work AVOIDING work than the actual task would involve.Sometimes it’s because people like to attach hidden meanings to tasks (If I screw this up, I’ll never get ahead). Some people are so worried about rejection that they feel more comfortable showing crappy work that they did in a hurry; procrastination protects them from ever finding out what would happen if they tried their hardest. I just thought I would chime in on some of the odd neurotic fears that hinder efficiency.

    • Eve

      Seriously helpful. And the thing about Law & Order? Oh my yes. I haven’t lived with cable TV in years, and now we have it because it came with the phone and internet… but it is a dangerous brain-suck if I’m not careful.

    • matbo

      I’ve procrastinated reading this article for 4 days now.

    • Mel

      I have discovered the brilliance of using timers trying to get back into study again a decade after my last degree. It’s such a great pleasure to be surprised by the “time for a break” alarm when I’m really getting something done.
      Cutting down on tv watching by taping the things you love and only watching those shows, without ads, when you need a break has also been a great time-saver!
      Oh and there goes the “time to work” alarm…