Why We Procrastinate, and How to Conquer It
Full discolsure: This post was inspired by my own procrastination, which was done by watching a TED Talk about procrastination. I, like many others, have often felt both energized and paralyzed at the same time by a new work opportunity or project, a home project, or other deadline-driven tasks.
Energized, because there is excitement and anticipation about the work that’s yet to be done, the benefits of the final outcome, the opportunities within the process itself. Paralyzed, because of uncertainty of what’s the best place to start, if there are other things I should prioritize first, or a lack of clarity of all the steps required to complete the task successfully.
So I’ve come up with a system that works for me, and I hope it will help you too. At the very least, maybe it will get you thinking about different ways to counter-balance your own procrastinative tendencies and leave you feeling more accomplished and satisfied.
Step 1: CLEAN UP
A messy desk is NOT the sign of a creative mind. It’s just a messy desk. Which is anxiety-producing, stressful, and frankly makes me want to leave the room and close the door behind me. In order for me to be able to buckle down and get working, I need a clean, clear, organized space. For some of you this may be your desk or office, for others it may be your studio, kitchen or your car which usually looks like it barely survived a breakfast cereal zombie apocalypse. Taking an extra 10-30 minutes to get your space in tip-top shape pays off exponentially in overall productivity.
Step 2: MAKE LISTS
I keep two types of running lists – my weekly tasks and my daily tasks. Since I’m almost always working on my computer or smart phone, I do this digitally using virtual sticky notes. There are different free programs for this, the one I use is http://www.7stickynotes.com/index.php.
On Sunday evenings (sometimes Monday mornings – I am a procrastinator, after all) I create my weekly list based on what’s on the calendar for the week. This includes work items, as well as any personal tasks I need to take care of (taxes, stuff for the kids, etc…). Then each morning, as soon as I sit down to work I move several items from the Weekly List to the current Daily List. It’s important to be realistic and honest with yourself, and not put on so many tasks that you likely won’t be able to finish that day. You can always add more if you find you’re really knocking ’em out, but not getting through your daily list just creates more anxiety and frustration.
Step 3: CREATE A SYSTEM
Everyone’s work style is different. Some people organize themselves with a zillion folders and sub-folders in their Outlook, others use Google Drive to store and sort every bit of their life. Your optimal method will really depend on what type of work you do, and how you best process information.
Because I’m working on multiple projects, with multiple clients, and with several people on my team at one time, I need a project management system that enables me to clearly define each project, who is assigned to it, and keep track of the individual tasks and progress so that everything keeps running smoothly. I did a lot of research and there are many good Project Management platforms available at different price points (free->$$$). After trial runs of several programs, the one my team and I use is Wrike, and everyone has been very satisfied with it. It enables us to collaborate and make real-time updates to projects and tasks, share files, have group chats, and ensures that our work flow stays on schedule.
Step 4: LIMIT THE MULTITASKING
There’s this conventional wisdom out there that says that multitasking makes you a better worker/employee/boss/parent/spouse/friend, but I disagree. While we all need to multitask sometimes, if we over do it then the quality of our work and our relationships suffer. In this age of being hyper-connected, it’s even more critical to be very conscious of setting boundaries around our work, family time, and personal time.
When I look at my daily ‘to do’ list, I commit myself to focusing only on the task at hand, for a very specific duration of time, so that I know I am giving it my best. One of the keystones of our business is giving each client personalized service. I want each one to feel like they’re my only client, like they have our complete attention. To do this, I have to fulfill that commitment to them and to myself, by not allowing distractions to pull away from my focus on the work I’m doing for them. Sometimes this just means making sure I don’t have Facebook open on my browser, and other time it means completely closing my email and even putting my phone on silent, so that there will be no interruptions. Our clients are trusting us (and paying us!) to give them our best, and we’re committed to delivering it.
Step 5: CREATE MEETING-FREE DAYS
We’ve all had weeks (months? years?) that feel completely non-stop. We’re running from this meeting to that appointment to our kid’s school play. By the time your head hits the pillow at night your tank is running on fumes. One way to counteract this is to very deliberately schedule a day (or half day) in your week when you have no meetings or other obligations. You’ll be able to use that time very focused on your key priorities for the week, and simply not having to get from one place to the next adds valuable time to your work day. Sometimes we don’t have a choice because we’re dependent on others’ schedules too, but trying to do this on a regular basis will make a meaningful change in your workflow and well being.
Step 6: SCHEDULE MEANINGFUL BREAKS
No one can work nonstop without some sort of break to rest or recharge. We’re not built like Energizer Bunnies (though caffeine certainly helps). I schedule breaks in my day that are not just opportunities for me to watch cat videos on YouTube, but to do something that enriches me, adds to my physical or mental health. For example, I sign-up for exercise classes several times per week and those are my work breaks. I know that I’ll come back to my desk refreshed and re-energized, and I’ll also feel like I did something good for myself. Maybe your ideal break is taking a nap, or taking a walk around the block with a colleague. Whatever it is, make sure this is a priority in your schedule, and not just an afterthought.
Essentially, all these tactics are ways for me to structure and organize my life. The less that’s left to chance or whim, the less likely I am to procrastinate. And the more accomplished, satisfied, and optimistic I feel about what I can take on next.
If you have other strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear them!