Overcoming Procrastination

If procrastination keeps you form being as productive as you want or need to be, there are some tricks you can use to overcome procrastination. These tricks involve making the activities you procrastinate on

  • More Simple
  • More Pleasant
  • More Interesting

(You might prefer to view these as less boring, less unpleasant, less complex.)

One way of making a task more simple is to break it into smaller tasks. For example, consider the task "Pay income tax." If you put that task on your ToDo list, how long is it going to stay there (especially if you think you will owe tax)? It'll probably stay on your ToDo list until you come up against the deadline. But, if you break the task up into smaller steps (round up records on tax deductible items, buy the latest tax software, do a rough draft of taxes, ...), the task is likely to get done much sooner than it would otherwise. Breaking tasks (projects) down into Next Actions is really a hallmark of David Allen's Getting Things Done system, as I note on my Managing Tasks page.

The trick of making a task more pleasant can even be applied to the example of "Pay income tax." For example, you can make a game out of finding ways of reducing your tax. You can even get your family involved and offer a reward for the person finding the best tax-reduction techniques. The more creative you are (which comes with practice), the better you become at making unpleasant tasks more pleasant.

Other tricks you can use are to make lists, prioritize items on those lists, and "eat the frog first." This last item relates to the old joke "If you start your morning out by eating a frog, the rest of the day is almost surely going to get better than it started." That is, start your day by doing something you need to do but that you really don't want to do. The rest of the day goes easier and with less stress, partly because you just feel better from getting the task out of the way. Although I haven't read it yet, there is a highly-rated book by Brian Tracey that sounds like it tackles this: Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time (BK Life)

Overcoming procrastination can take some discipline, a word that strikes fear in the hearts of many folks, including me. But I can generally get the fear to subside, when I work at it, by focusing on what Lou Holtz says about discipline: "Discipline is Not what you Do TO yourself -- it is what you Do FOR yourself."

And, speaking of doing something for yourself, don't forget to give yourself a reward when you do make progress on overcoming procrastination. Rewarding positive behaviors helps turn them into habits.

These are just a few of the thoughts help me to overcome procrastination (a battle I periodically have to re-win). You also may find Merlin Mann's and David Allen's discussion of procrastination to be of interest. Another interesting resource on procrastination is this wikibook.

Another popular book on this topic is The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, which describes a number of psychological reasons for procrastinating. For example, it discusses how perfectionists tend to procrastinate by putting off tasks until the last minute so that they have an excuse for not doing it perfectly (all done subconsciously and not consciously). Some people procrastinate because they are "adrenaline junkies." That is, they enjoy being pushed and thrive on the adrenaline that comes with having to much to do ... so they push things off to increase the "rush." I know first hand that adrenaline is something that can be craved: 25 years ago, I left a job that involved crisis management, of sorts, a job of solving one problem right after another, a job of having frequent pressing deadlines, and went to a job that didn't have the same demands. For at least six months, I craved the adrenaline rushes that I had become accustomed to. Of course, I am glad I am not like that now, but I know that adrenaline can be craved, and almost went back to my old job because of it.

If procrastination is something that you just cannot kick, I'd suggest you look into the why's, perhaps using "The Now Habit" as a guide. And, if one form of time management is just not getting you out of the procrastination rut, try another form of time management. An associate of mine, who has attention deficit disorder (ADD), found that going from away from a Getting Things Done style back to a Covey style helped him immensely in "getting things done." [See footnote below. Also see my blog post on ADD.] If you search for ADD within the Gtd forums, you'll find some folks claim the opposite. Regardless, as I have noted elsewhere, one should experiment to find what is best for you at your stage in life and in your situation. While Gtd has been very helpful to me for the past five or so years, I am migrating more and more back to the Covey approach: the discipline of the Covey approach is more in line with my current needs.

Update of January 14, 2007: A recently completed 10-year study has concluded that perfectionism is NOT a cause of procrastination. The study goes so far as to provide a "formula" for procrastination, involving variables such as (1) E, expectancy of succeeding at a specific task, (2) V, perceived value of completing task, (3) D, desirability of completing the task, and (4) S, sensitivity to delay. Interesting, but I'm not really sure how much weight it carries. One can probably find a study that supports just about anything one wants to believe. I must say, in possible support of the study, that I have known very successful perfectionists who are certainly not procrastinators. But, whether the study is right or not, I thought the it might be of interest to some of you.

Good luck.

[Footnote] Although not related to procrastination, I'll confess to my own psychological nemesis, one that came about because of Vickie's passing (now a little more than 5 years ago): general anxiety disorder, with the primary symptom being an extremely strong intolerance to uncertainty. My strong intolerance for uncertainty was particularly manifested in my spiritual search, in which I attempted to definitively answer whether there is a God and whether there is an afterlife. This resulted in my buying tons of books, something I've only recently slowed down on, because I was obsessed with trying to definitively answer questions that nobody can truly definitively answer. It has also resulted in a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder (a subset of the GAD), particularly as regards safety checks (triple-checking that the stove is off when I haven't even used it in days, for example). If you met me, you wouldn't realize that I have GAD. I don't mention any of this for sympathy, but to illustrate how one can have a time-management-related hinderance without even realizing it. For example, while I knew it wasn't normal to buy a couple of books a week for almost five years, I never really thought of it as being caused by general anxiety disorder, until recently. And, again, while it hasn't caused me to procrastinate (not directly), it sure has impacted my time.

Last updated December 22, 2006: added link to Mann/Allen talk and fleshed out the last couple of paragraphs a bit more.


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