Procrastination

“Procrastination is the thief of time.”

-Edward Young, English poet (1683-1765)

I procrastinated in writing this article.  Seriously.  I admit it.

At times, wanting to get things “just right,” I’ll slip into procrastination: making lists, jotting down ideas, checking emails, clicking on links to websites in my bookmarks toolbar…  and so forth.  Worried about how something will turn out, I’ll simply slow down or will be more prone to distraction. That was the case with this post – and as the Edward Young quotation so aptly captures, time was definitely stolen – or more accurately, wasted.

Procrastination isn’t usually a problem for me, but 20% of the U.S. population are chronic procrastinators, according to Dr. Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University in Chicago.  That fact means that procrastination and the ensuing reduction in productivity are significant problems in the U.S. . It gets worse:  studies have shown that college students who procrastinate are more apt to get sick from colds, the flu and gastrointestinal problems.

What can I do?

If you sometimes procrastinate, you might gain some insight into why you do so by understanding the three basic types of procrastinators; they are:

  • The thrill seeker who looks forward to the rush he or she gets when facing last-minute deadline pressure
  • The avoiders – those who avoid completing tasks for fear of failure or success and who are especially worried about what others think of them.  Perfectionists fall into this category  (this is me)
  • Decisional procrastinators – those who simply can’t make a decision; not making a decision relieves this type of procrastinator responsibility for the outcome of events

No matter what type of procrastinator you are, there are six simple steps you can take to address this issue…

1. Set clear goals

As you approach projects and tasks, set clear goals for their completion. Using this post as an example, my goal could simply be:  complete a first draft by Sunday evening, revise Monday evening, schedule for publication at 4AM on Tuesday.  My clear goal would be to have the post completed and final by Monday evening.

If you don’t know where you’re going, how are you going to get there?  Set clear, definitive goals. Your goals should be specific, measurable, and time-bound (i.e., have a clear completion date and/or time.)  And having done this, stick to those goals.

2. Eliminate distractions

We all have WAY too many distractions every day.  Only you know exactly what works for you, but here are a few things to consider:

  • Turn off all electronic alarms for email, SMS, etc.
  • Log off your email account
  • If working on your computer, have just one program or browser tab open – unless your work requires research & multiple tabs
  • Close the door
  • Ditch the iPod, iTunes, and anything else that’ll distract you
  • Forward your phone into voicemail
  • Shut off your Blackberry…

…and so forth.  In short, reduce the number of potential distractions so you can FOCUS.

3. Stop worrying about perfection

Face it:  it’s not going to be perfect.  Things in life rarely are.  Better to hammer out a rough draft and revise later than spin your wheels for hours.  Instead of worrying about how others will react to your work, recognize that you’ll be disappointed in yourself if you don’t get the work done or do a poor job because you procrastinated…  and in the larger scheme of things, that disappointment will sting far worse than any other.

4. Don’t lie to yourself

Sometimes we’ll tell ourselves little lies like, “I’ll be much better equipped to jump on this early tomorrow morning,” or “There’s not enough pressure on me to do this now – I’ll wait till tomorrow, or the day after.”  All we accomplish when we lie to ourselves like this is to waste our best resource – time. Don’t lie to yourself!  You aren’t kidding anyone.  Stop lying, start doing, and you’ll feel better about yourself.

5. Break it into pieces

One of the oldest axioms out there, but it’s true:  break the task into smaller chunks and tackle one at a time.  For this post, it could be something like:  a) create a rough outline of the post; b) conduct research; c) write a rough draft.  By turning it into a series of smaller pieces, the task becomes more manageable.  Focusing on the first, smaller step of a project makes the entire task less daunting, and makes it easier to start.

6. Do it NOW!

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”

-Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism (~200 BC)

Having done steps 1-5, what remains is simple:  START.  Do it now. As is the case with many things we fear, once underway, it’s not all that bad.  And if you stay focused, you’ll get a lot done quickly.  Getting started is the tough part; simply do it now.

Other tactics & issues


A few other tactics which should help you banish procrastination:

  • Make your goals public. Tell your spouse, your boss, your coworkers – whoever’s relevant & appropriate – of your goal(s).  Doing so will help make you a bit more accountable for following through on your commitment.
  • Know your “tells.” In poker, a tell is a nervous tic or habit that signals your intentions.  Know your tells when it comes to procrastination.  Perhaps your mouse mysteriously begins to approach your email icon.  Perhaps you begin thinking about getting a soda or cup of coffee.  When you catch yourself in a tell, resist the temptation to walk away from the task.  Keep going!
  • Finally, realize that you can get a great deal done in 15 minutes. As you start, commit to work away for 15 minutes without stopping.  Use a timer if you have to.  You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish in just 15 minutes of focused activity.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful.  If there are strategies you’ve employed to beat procrastination, please share them with other readers by commenting.  Thanks for stopping by!

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25 Comments on 6 simple steps to conquer procrastination

  1. Me says:

    20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators? Considering Americans are statistically known, worldwide, for their ridiculous work weeks, huge amount of overworking, and ‘get things done NOW’ personality, it may be more accurate to say 80% of Americans are chronic sufferers of pushing themselves too hard.

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    The figure is from Psychology Today – 20% of people identify themselves as “chronic” procrastinators… http://tinyurl.com/amrfd

    [Reply]

  2. Alex says:

    Ironically I actually read this article in order to procrastinate from my homework..

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    Lotte Reply:

    Me too.

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  3. Yann says:

    Very interesting. I think I’m a good procastrinator and I did just like Alex !
    The six steps you talk about are a good way to do better.
    And since I started to write down every thing I have to do, using GTD method, I’m on the way to beat procastrination.

    [Reply]

  4. Kevin says:

    Yann,

    Thanks for visiting and commenting – good luck – let us know how you make out!

    [Reply]

  5. Great post! I wanted to do many things but jobs never done! No. 2 will be a help. Thanks.

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  6. JohnBillings says:

    I have done some thinking about procrastination in relation to the clientele I serve. I’m an Adult Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, and the majority of my clients suffer from low energy and motivation.

    It occurred to me that the only way someone with low energy can get energy is to trigger their fight flight response. The four most used ways are to: worry, get angry, do risky behaviors, and procrastinate. If they wait long enough and the task is important enough, the closer they get to the deadline the more energy they can generate.

    The problems are that procrastination is not acceptable behavior, but neither is “being lazy” and so they are caught in a catch 22; you run the risk of missing the deadline; and, if you lose your adrenaline before you finish, you may never finish.

    Taking the guilt out of the equation makes it a whole lot easier to change the behavior. If I can determine why they don’t have any energy, and it is fixable or treatable, then procrastination becomes a non-issue. The issue then is dealing with the habit, and that is much easier to deal with when the cause for the habit is removed.

    [Reply]

  7. Kevin says:

    John,

    Thanks for an interesting comment! It sounds as though your patients are much like other procrastinators, but their energy level exacerbates the issue. Thx for adding to the conversation…

    [Reply]

    John Billings Reply:

    It’s been almost a year since I made the first comment in this conversation. Some additional insights I have gained that may be helpful.

    Two very important causes for low energy are ADHD, and Low T3(triiodothyronine).

    ADHD is theoretically caused by low levels of Dopamine and Nor-adrenaline in the brain. Nor-adrenaline is your ‘get up and go’ and without it your get up and go will have gotten up and left. Treating ADHD will improve this.

    Brandie (in her contribution to this discussion) said that 7% of adults have ADHD. What I have been telling people is that around 5% are diagnosable for ADHD, but only 10% of those that are diagnosable have been diagnosed, and only half of those diagnosed have been treated. Brandie was spot-on with her comment. I also tell my clients that ADHD doesn’t need to be medicated. After all, you have lived with it this long without medication. But, ADHD creates a lot of chaos the worse it is.

    Many of the adults I treat come to me for the first time in their mid 40’s. This is about the time that their T3 levels have dropped enough to cause significant energy problems, and their usual compensation methods for dealing with ADHD don’t work anymore.

    Low T3 is very controversial. The medical standards for treating thyroid are based on the Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH). TSH tells you nothing about what T3 levels are, but T3 is the basis for your basal metabolism rate. Medical professionals will tell you that T3 levels give very little information about thyroid function, and this is true. But all of my clients for the past 13 years have had normal TSH’s and low T3 levels.

    I’m out of letters I can use so I’ll have to stop.

    [Reply]

  8. Edwin says:

    Oh, man. I got this link on a retweet. Procrastination is a huge thing for me. I’m not sure if I’m an avoider, a thrill-seeker or someone who can’t decide. So why the hell do I procrastinate? I think I’m just lazy is what it is. I think lazy is a big secret and a taboo word to most of us. So out with it. Who’s just plain lazy, like me?

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  9. Mr Ken says:

    OOOOO YAH I’M Caught Between 4&5 man!!!! Will work on!!!

    [Reply]

  10. [...] 9. 6 simple steps to conquer procrastination [...]

  11. [...] Face it:  it’s not going to be perfect.  Things in life rarely are.  Better to hammer out a rough draft and revise later than spin your wheels for hours.  Instead of worrying about how others will react to your work, recognize that you’ll be disappointed in yourself if you don’t get the work done or do a poor job because you procrastinated…  and in the larger scheme of things, that disappointment will sting far worse than any other. (via Practical Hacks) [...]

  12. I am also guilty of procrastination due to perfectionism. I find myself having to remind myself several times per day that it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s got to be as good as I can get it and it’s got to be done on time, period.

    [Reply]

  13. This is really good. thanks for sharing.

    [Reply]

  14. Dave says:

    This is great, I know of a blog dedicated to productivity and procrastination follow the link below to check it out

    http://www.productivity501.com/

    [Reply]

  15. DeeDee says:

    Edwin! Holla! I’m the world’s most motivated lazy human. I have so many huge goals and aspirations but I just don’t feel like getting up and doing it. Also, I’m largely successful in everything I’ve reached for and I’ve got there by procrastinating, so I use that for a “hey, why change?” attitude. I just feel that it wont be the greatest asset as a 13 yr old in uni. *sigh* Better fix it soon, then.

    [Reply]

  16. Greg K. says:

    I second (third?) the person who said they’re procrastinating by reading this article. I’m on day 4 of being overdue on a deadline, and it’s something easy to do too, I just can’t get myself to start. I am adding to procrastination by posting a response too, but I promise, I’m going back to work right after this.

    While I’m here, I might add something useful:
    A. The 15 minute trick REALLY REALLY REALLY works. I have a very hard time reading books, especially required ones back in school and college. So I’ve learned this trick to set a number of pages – I’ll just read 10. That’s it. NO MORE! NO LESS! The no more part is ABSOLUTELY CRITICAL. When your alarm hits 15 minutes, get up and walk away, or open that email. What happens is that you use it as an excuse for the next time that you have “overtime credit”. I worked 20 minutes before (or read 15 pages), so I can work that many minutes less now. That’s where inconsistencies stop and the whole system is lost. Should you ever chose to work longer, remind yourself, that “we don’t pay overtime here”. No benefit will ever be applied to the next time.

    B. I think there’s another reason for procrastination. While it MAY have common roots with fear of failure/success, it is more so rooted with the fundamental motivation to do something because it feels wrong. If I feel that the subject is beneath me, or that I feel disrespected by an employer giving me an assignment, I may chose to do more pleasant activities instead. I think this could be equated to procrastinating in attempt to avoid emotional grief of being forced to perform work for which one has little on no respect, or the motivation is all gone. I guess that’s why they say “DO WHAT YOU LOVE, AND YOU’LL NEVER WORK A DAY IN YOUR LIFE!”

    Back to work now…

    [Reply]

  17. Brandie says:

    I have another take on procrastination that I just learned about. I stumbled upon an article on WebMD about adults with ADHD. I had been curious about it, so I took their quiz and it said I most likely have it. They estimate that 8% of adults have it, so that accounts for a good chunk of your 20%. Upon researching it further, another potential reason for procrastination (resulting from ADHD) is that a task may require a good deal of focus and thought. These kinds of tasks are very difficult for a person with ADHD, so they may opt to work on things that are easier or “more enjoyable” instead.

    I do like your suggestions, and I intend to try them. The one about working for 15 minutes with a timer is actually a behavioral modification suggestion for people with ADHD.

    I encourage people who might identify with this to research it. While every online quiz says I probably have it, I need to stop procrastinating and try to find a doctor who can diagnose me. I hate trying to find a good doctor… :)

    [Reply]

  18. [...] Six Simple Steps to Conquer Procrastination Procrastination is the thief of time, as we all know, but we still find it difficult to overcome which slows down our productivity. Here are some useful and simple ways to tackle this issue and make a START. [...]

  19. Janet says:

    Thankyou for this great advice. I am translating your steps to help me clean & organize my room. The quotes are great motivators as little signs arround the house! Thankyou.

    [Reply]

  20. Jane says:

    I need help… I’ve been diagnosed with… with… CHRONIC PROCRASTINATION!

    [Reply]

    Kevin Reply:

    I would have approved your comment earlier, but just didn’t get around to it. :-)

    [Reply]

  21. […] Picture credit: Kevin’s Practical Hacks blog post, 6 Simple Steps To Conquer Procrastination.  […]

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