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4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

Photo by Susanne Nilsson
Procrastination is opportunity's assassin. ~Victor Kiam

After a nice walk on a Saturday, my friend told me she had some housework to do and was weighing her options.

“I really don’t want to do it now, but if I wait until Sunday night, it’ll put a damper on my whole weekend. It’s like I won’t really enjoy anything until it’s done.”

Boy, could I relate. I had been the world’s worst procrastinator in high school, somehow managing to pull off amazing feats of academic strength with all-nighters, but that all changed after an incident in college.

I stayed up late into the night finishing a paper and had to drive to class to hand it in. (Oh the days when professors wouldn’t accept email files!) On my way back, I was exiting off the freeway and a cyclist ran a red light in front of me. I was so exhausted I didn’t notice him right away.

Slamming on the brakes, I swear I could see his life flash before my eyes. My bumper came inches from him. His hand touched my hood in a protective act. Neither of us cared who was at fault. We were just both so happy that somehow nothing happened. The only evidence of what occurred was the smell of burnt rubber.

Something changed in me that day. That would’ve never happened if I had been more awake. If I was going to be a productive member of society, if I hoped to someday write for a living in a world of deadlines, something was going to give. I decided then and there to banish procrastination.

This happened years ago, and I’d like to think I do a pretty good job of balancing the house work, career stuff and other obligations I have with the time I use. Of course I’m not perfect (this article sat on my to-do list for weeks), but I’d love to share what works for me.

1. Break Things Into Small Tasks

Earlier this week I was looking at my calendar and saw a menacing task: Create a website for a client. Right. Because that’s something that I can hunker down and do in one afternoon.

Shaking my head, I crossed it out and wrote:

  • Register domain
  • Host domain
  • Create logo
  • Insert client’s text
  • Create photo galleries
  • Send to client

That’s six projects within the original one, and I could have broken it down even further.

If I keep something big like “Create a website” or “Wash windows” on my list, it’ll get left for last because it’s abstract and seemingly overwhelming. And if something is left for last, especially a large task, it can get pushed to the next week or the week after.

When you notice you’re procrastinating on something, see if you can break it down into smaller projects that are less difficult to deal with in terms of time and space. I know exactly what it takes and how much time to budget in vacuuming the dust around the windows.

Simple. I’ll knock that out and move on to the cleaning the insides. Suddenly I’m two-thirds of the way done with the project, and if you use this tool, you’ll be amazed at how things you keep putting off will actually progress.

2. Work in Small Chunks of Time

A lot of successful people have told me about this or that method for working, and most of them involve lots of breaks. Who would’ve thought the best way to be productive was to take time off?

But I find it’s true for me. Here are my general rules:

  • I almost never work on anything for more than an hour in a row.
  • I generally alternate more difficult tasks and easier ones.
  • When I take breaks, I get away from whatever I’m doing, making a cup of tea, taking a walk or chatting on the phone with a friend.

With this pattern, I almost never have a problem getting a project started or keeping it moving. Try it. Have a closet that needs cleaning? Set your alarm for 25 minutes and work steadily.

Afterward, enjoy a chapter of that book you’re addicted to. Next do a quick task. Take out the trash. Then head back to the closet.

3. Get Real With Yourself

Have you had something on your list for months? It might be time to ask for some help, either in the form of hiring someone else to do it, asking someone else to lend a hand or just letting it go. Maybe you really don’t need to dust the baseboards.

I used to insist on washing and cleaning out the family car. We have what we affectionately call “a giant truck.” It would take me ages. So I just wouldn’t do it very often. It got to the point that I was worried it was ruining the paint.

Finally I just decide to fork over the cash to get it washed professionally. Now I drop it off, knit or read for 20 minutes and come out and the truck is clean as a whistle. It may cost more, but it’s totally worth it for less headache and guilt.

Check out your list or calendar. What keeps getting pushed back? What is gnawing at you but you still don’t bother to do? Can you delegate this to someone else? Find a way to get it out of your to-do territory.

4. Recall When You Did a Similar Task

Sometimes we make a project bigger in our minds than it actually is. That’s a lot of the reason we procrastinate in the first place. It occupies this grand space in our head so it must take forever and be miserable to boot. It’s time to challenge those thoughts.

I let several squash starters sit outside without putting them in the garden until they were almost dead. In fact, a few of them did end up dying. I just convinced myself I didn’t have enough time for that big project. When I finally put on the gardening gloves and trudged outside, it took me less than 30 minutes.

Later someone gave me some tomato starters, which sat for a few days. It was looking like I was going to repeat my pattern, but then I thought back to when I planted the squash. There were only half as many tomato plants. I realized it probably wouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. I was done in 10.

When you keep putting off a project, try to think back to a time when you did something similar. It just might help you put it in its proper perspective. Get it done and move on.

Procrastination may not have triggered a life or death situation for you, but it’s bound to be something you struggle with occasionally. Don’t let an unfinished task rain on your parade.

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About the author

Rebecca is a fierce optimist who believes in the power of making life happen. Magic and creativity are her latest pursuits, along with exploring her new home, Germany. Read her blog, follow her on Facebook and Twitter for her latest enthusiastic (and sometimes witty) remarks. Check out her new book, Change is Easy & Other Novel Concepts: Short Essays on Changing Your Life, One Step at a Time.

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9 thoughts on 4 Ways to Stop Procrastinating

  1. I used to have a full range of productivity software, tools and systems working for me (well, that was the idea at least). I effectively built my own productivity palace as many other’s have undoubtedly have done as well. GTD, Pomorodo, you name it, i’ve used it. And as good GTD disciple I tossed every incoming task into my system, processed it, and checked it off. Fast forward 2 years. After reflecting on these two years I sat “safely” in my palace, I came to a rather harsh conclusion: in spite of all my diligent productivity I could not find one single profound way I had moved anything forward. Sure, emails were send, meetings were held, follow up was meticulous. But nothing of value was really accomplished. I realized that the presumed control our productivity palaces give us, is not control at all. It’s just a false sense that you are somehow in control of things that are not, and will never be, in your control. So, I traded my palace for a little cabin that just holds the stuff that is relevant TODAY. Every morning I list the 4 things that are most relevant to the current state of affairs and that truly add value and move things forward in a profound manner. After all, the world might be a whole different place compared to 30 days ago, when you scheduled that now irrelevant task. That’s another way to beat procrastination as you maintain a sense of relevance to the taks at hand.

    • Hey Corstiann, I think this is a really great point. We do often get caught up in the act of being productive without actually producing much of anything. I like your idea of four RELEVANT things. I have definitely had times where I was doing something on my list that had been scheduled weeks earlier and realized: this doesn’t fit with my goals. We’re an ever-evolving work in progress. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Hi Rebecca,

    I love the quote! It’s so true. Thank-you for the great tips to help us overcome procrastination! I particularly liked #2. Breaking up work into small chucks of time is essential. It forces us to focus, speed up, and work more efficiently. I really liked the tip about alternating between difficult and easier tasks. I’m going to try that starting today!

    • Thanks Wanda! Yes, the easier tasks make you feel more accomplished throughout the day. It’s amazing what you feel like you can get done when you have a little momentum. Hope it works out for you :)

  3. Amy

    Some great tips! Thanks. I like the idea of breaking things down into manageable morsels. I’m not great at using smaller bits of time well, though. I’m a procrastinator and will use some of these ideas to become more productive. Hope you’re having a great week.

    • Good luck Amy. Using small bits of time can be challenging but that’s really a great place to get the little stuff that turns into big stuff done. Thanks for your comment and hope your week is going great too!

  4. Amy

    Thanks Rebecca. I know it’s true. Old habits die hard, but I’m determined to make those needed changes. Have a great weekend coming up. Take care.

  5. Good points in this article, thanks!

    Procrastination is a type of pain, really. You think it’s the unsolved problem that is causing the pain, but actually it’s the fact that you are delaying it. The more you postpone stuff, the more pain you “collect”.

    Most problems will need to be solved at some point anyway, so there’s just no point in delaying them.

  6. Maria

    Thank you for these great tips! One more advice I would like to add to your article is concerning your 4th tip: Recall When You Did a Similar Task. My weapon against thinking the project is too big to deal with it is http://casual.pm. Here I draw a workflow and see the big picture of the project at once. Also I can recall when I have done the similar tasks and see how much time it took.

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