November 23, 2015
Procrastination: we all do it. Heck, even Bill Clinton, Mariah Carey, Leonardo da Vinci, and Margaret Atwood all do it. But when deadlines are looming and you still haven’t gotten to work, knowing that you’re in good company offers little comfort (and it certainly won’t satisfy an angry boss). So, how do you move from being stuck to crushing the day’s most difficult tasks
Address the feelings that are keeping you stuck
Procrastination is usually driven by one of three emotions: fear, resentment, or a feeling of inadequacy relative to the task at hand. When left unaddressed, these feelings can act as powerful obstacles to getting anything done.
If you’re having a hard time starting difficult tasks, try asking yourself what emotional impediments might be getting in your way. By expressing the emotion(s) and converting negative thoughts into more affirmative ones (“There’s no way I’ll get this done in time” turns into “I can finish this before the deadline”), you’ll be able to move through the blocks and into a more productive state of mind.
Start by identifying your most frequent distraction(s)—is it texts, emails, social media updates, or browsing online? Then, take steps to reduce or completely remove the offending activities from your work space. Try silencing your phone, logging out of email for a few hours, deleting social media apps, blocking frequently visited web pages, or installing an app that tracks your activity and/or temporarily blocks internet access. By making it harder to give into the temptation of allowing yourself to be distracted, you’ll up your chances of staying focused on the task at hand.
Eat the frogs
This is a weird way of saying “do the day’s most unappealing task first.” The idea comes from a Mark Twain quote: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
Every morning, commit to tackling the item on your to-do that you’re dreading the most—and do it before anything else. Mornings are especially ideal for when you need to be productive on creative tasks, such as writing, because you’ll have fewer distractions and your mind will be free of the stresses that accumulate over the course of a workday. While it might suck to dive into undesirable tasks first thing, imagine how good it will feel to have gotten over that hump and still have a whole day ahead of you.
Break it down
Difficult tasks can be hard to start because they feel overwhelming. Make things feel more manageable by breaking down large or complicated tasks into a series of simpler action items. “Prepare important presentation” sounds way scarier than “choose a theme, compile relevant data, research market trends, create graphs,” and so on.
Make sure to assign each task a deadline (even something as simple as 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and so on)—that way you’ll have a built-in system of accountability. Then, focus on completing one action item at a time before moving onto the next one.
Commit to just ten minutes
If you simply can’t bear the thought of diving into a given task, tell yourself that you’ll just work on it for ten minutes. Then really make the most of those minutes—set a timer and challenge yourself to get done as much work as possible in that short time period. Odds are good that by breaking the ice, you’ll build enough momentum to keep working even after the buzzer’s gone off.
Implement a rewards system
Remember when we were kids and our parents would promise us ice cream if we straightened our rooms? This is the adult version of that. Tell yourself that if you complete the task that you’re dreading, you’ll treat yourself afterward—whether that consists of a walk around the block, taking your favorite coworker out to lunch, or heading home after work for a long nap on your beloved mattress. Sweetening the pot is likely to make even the most tedious tasks more appealing.
All of these tips make for great short-term fixes. But if you find that you’re a chronic procrastinator, it’s time to evaluate what’s dragging you down and how you can be more successful at staying on task. If you have a procrastination-heavy day, take a few minutes at the end of it to identify what kept you stuck. Likewise, if you have a really productive day, try to figure out what helped you stay on task. Track your failures and successes over the long term, and you’ll start to identify patterns that can help you consistently avoid procrastination triggers and steer toward the conditions that keep you on track.
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