Getting to now: How to beat the procrastination habit
I am a procrastinator. I always have been. It's a character flaw, and I admit it. I've tried all sorts of things to beat the habit — Getting Things Done, e-mail reminders, dozens of list systems — but the only thing that seems to work is to:
Do it now.
This is blindingly obvious, I know, but many people lose sight of this fundamental skill. It's not that we don't know that we should do things now; it's that we've forgotten how. Here are some techniques I've been using to try to force myself to get to now:
- Set aside blocks of time to do things. When I was talking with my wellness coach earlier this year, she asked me why I didn't exercise more often. “I don't have the time,” I said. “Something always comes up.” She wasn't impressed. “J.D.,” she said. “You have to make time. Make an appointment with yourself to run or to go for a bike ride.” The same principle applies to other things you might procrastinate. Kris and I used to schedule a block of time on Saturday morning specifically to clean the house. Each week we'd tackle a different room. If we didn't do this, I'd just put it off for weeks (or months). Pick an hour a day to get things done.
- If it comes to mind, then do it. Often I'll be sitting on the back porch reading a book, and it will occur to me that some chore needs to be done — pruning the laurel hedge, for example. “I need to write that down so I can remember it,” I tell myself. Wrong! What usually happens is that I forget to write it down, and even if I do, I just look at the list and procrastinate for weeks on end. The best move is to actually do the chore when I think of it. (Assuming, of course, that I have the time at that moment. Which I usually do.)
- Use a timer to bring you back to reality. Part of the reason I procrastinate is that I have a rich mental life. This is just a flowery way of saying that I'm a daydreamer. I'm always lost in thought. One way to keep on track is to use a timer. I use the Ultrak Jumbo Countdown Timer, but not as often as I should. I set it for 48 minutes. When it goes off, it serves as an instant reality check: Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing?
- Do not multitask. Oh, how I love multitasking. “I'm great at doing many things at once,” I told Kris once. She gave me one of those looks. “No, you're not,” she said. “You're great at starting many things at once, but you never actually do any of them.” Ouch! But she's right. In order for me to get something done, I need to focus my attention on it. Trying to do several things at once is a sure way to be sure they'll all be unfinished tomorrow.
- Modify your environment to eliminate distractions. Distractions feed procrastination. How many of these have you told yourself:
- “I'll just check e-mail one more time before I start.”
- “I'll go for a walk after I finish reading this magazine.”
- “I can paint the house next weekend. I want to watch the Seahawks game today.”
Whenever possible, eliminate distractions. Remove clutter and snack items from your workspace. When working on your computer, only keep the programs you need open. (Ha! I feel like a hypocrite for advising this — I can't even make myself close my e-mail client for five minutes.) Keep your office tidy. Don't turn on the television unless there's something specific you intend to watch.
- Compare your actions with your personal values. Last week I wrote that it doesn't matter what we say is important to us — the things that are priorities in our lives are the things we actually do. How does what you do mesh with what you believe? If you say that getting out of debt is important to you, are you actually doing the things that will lead you to get out of debt? If one of your goals is to fit into your old Levi's, how is watching another episode of The Office going to help you achieve that? Go for a walk!
- Take back your brain! I've mentioned this website before in the context of marketing. Its premise is simple: Instead of letting advertisers persuade you, use marketing techniques to advertise to yourself. While this is a great way to fight consumer culture, it's also a smart way to combat procrastination. Create some in-home (or in-office) advertising to remind you to stop putting things off, to encourage you to do it now.
Beating procrastination isn't rocket science, but it is psychology. For many of us, that's just as difficult. It's scary how well this Psychology Today article describes me. If only it gave some tips on how to move beyond this. Instead it offers one small slice of solace:
Procrastinators can change their behavior — but doing so consumes a lot of psychic energy. And it doesn't necessarily mean one feels transformed internally. It can be done with highly structured cognitive behavioral therapy.
Can you tell I've been struggling with procrastination lately? This is something I'll continue to work on. If you have any tips or stories, I'd love to hear them. Meanwhile, it must be time to read The War of Art again. Maybe I'll do that next week…