Procrastination: it’s one of the problems that plague most of us, every day, and one of the problems that we most want to be rid of.
It’s not an easy task for most people, conquering procrastination, often because we procrastinate on taking steps to solve the problem.
But it’s not impossible. In fact, five simple habits will eliminate the plague of procrastination. Take them today, and you should see a huge difference in your productivity.
- Eliminate all but the essential. One of the problems is that we’re so overwhelmed with tasks that we don’t know where to start. Take a few minutes and list out your projects and tasks. Now look over that list and decide which task and projects are the most essential. Which ones would mean the most, over the long term, if they were accomplished? Which will lead to the most benefit to you, and have the most impact on your life? These are the essential projects and tasks — focus on them as much as possible.
Put a star next to the essential projects and tasks. Only choose a few. Now look at all the rest, and see if you can eliminate them, delegate them, or put them off for awhile. Clear the deck for the essential stuff, so you’ll actually have time to do them.
What does this have to do with procrastination? If you eliminate all but the essential, you’ll be able to focus on what matters. You’ll be able to think about the amazing benefits of each task, instead of the dull drudgery of it all. And therein lies the key to this step: if you focus on the benefits, instead of the difficulties of a task, you will be motivated to get it done. Motivation is the key.
- Create accountability. If left to our own devices, we will put things off forever, because there’s no cost to procrastination. While we might feel guilty procrastinating on something important to us, if we’re the only ones who know that we’re procrastinating, it doesn’t hurt us very much.
However, most of us hate to look bad to others. We want others to think highly of us. That’s human nature. So take advantage of that fact, and leverage it.
Here’s how: for every essential project and task on your list (see Step 1), have someone who you must report to. This should be so even if you are the boss or an independent freelancer or self-employed, or if the project is a personal one that you just want to do for yourself. In these cases, create the accountability if it doesn’t already exist. Email someone and promise them that you’ll turn something in to them by a certain date, or that you’d like them to review it and that you’re going to send it to them, or that you’d like for them to make sure you finish a project by a certain time.
The more people you have who are expecting you to complete a project, the more likely you are to ensure that you do it. Create that public accountability, and you’ll get it done.
- Focus on small steps. Taking on an overwhelming task or project can stop us in our tracks. Imagine looking up at a mountain and deciding whether you’re going to climb it today or if you’re going to go to the store to buy some groceries instead. You’ll go to the store every single time. So instead of looking at the mountain, look only at the next signpost up the road. Focus on that, and it’s not so undoable.
For each project or task, focus on a small task to get you moving. If you’ve got a report, just find one source for the research, or just write the opening paragraph, or just do 5 minutes of outlining. Whatever your task, you can break it down into something even smaller and more accomplishable. Make this a daily habit.
- Set deadlines. This is implied in Step 2 above (accountability), but it’s so important that I had to list it as a separate step. Without deadlines, we’ll never get anything done, even if we’re accountable to someone else. For example, if our boss says to have X project done by Aug. 5, and also to do Y project but doesn’t specify a deadline, guess which project we’ll work on first? Deadlines give a sense of urgency that gets us off our buts and gets us working on something.
But the important thing is not just to give deadlines to projects, but the individual small steps as outlined in Step 3. So if you are just going to do an outline for a report, tell the person you’re accountable to that you are going to turn in the outline by a certain date and time. When you’ve done that, set a deadline for the next small step, and so on, until the project is completed.
- Clear distractions. Once you’ve managed to focus on an essential task, broken it into a small step, and are accountable to someone with a deadline, you need to clear all distractions so you can focus and get the task done. This will not be a popular step with many people, but it’s so easy to procrastinate if you have a lot of distractions to pull you away from the task at hand. Clear the deck, and focus.
How do you clear distractions? Disconnect from the Internet if possible, or at least turn off IM and email notifications. Turn off the TV, and close unnecessary programs. Clear your desk and everything from the walls around you, so that you are in a distraction-free zone. Once you’re in that zone, don’t allow yourself to do anything else but the task at hand. When you feel yourself being pulled away from the task, stop yourself, and bring yourself back.
Written for Dumb Little Man by Leo Babuata of Zen Habits