Planning to Be Productive: Procrastination

I have a confession: I am a procrastinator.

It's true. I have been one all of my life. I have to actively work to not procrastinate -- to drill down and get the stuff I need to get done, done in a timely manner. I am plagued by waiting until the last minute to really dig in on a big project if I feel daunted by it, and I admit that my bent toward perfectionism actually steers me toward inactivity more often than not. I realized this when I was running my own business -- it became clear very quickly that procrastination + taxes were going to be a real problem in my life, and I needed to figure out a solution. Procrastination can be a type of personality trait or even an addiction if you let it -- you have to work actively (and be committed) to changing your ways. 

So, I started to explore how to change my mindset. We all kind of know what "Time Management" is-- it's that process of deciding how to divvy your time up between activities, projects, obligations, and regular, ordinary "life." Effective time management is all about the idea of working smarter, not harder, right? The ultimate goal is to get more things done in less time, with less stress-- because when we don't manage our time well, our buddies stress and anxiety enter the picture and make managing time so much worse. 

First things first, you need to come clean with yourself. Are you a procrastinator?  Take a look at the prompt below and answer these questions. 

These are all classic "procrastinator" traits. So, how can you avoid it? 

First of all, let's get the psychology and biology behind why we procrastinate. First off, it becomes learned behavior. If you procrastinate a lot and became, at some point, one of those people that always waited until the last minute to get things done, and for some time were successful at that (meaning, your last-ditch efforts at the last minute actually produced quality work), then there can be a type of high that comes from that experience. You can condition yourself to say "Oh, I work best under pressure, so it actually benefits me to wait until the last minute." But, I'm here to tell you -- it doesn't actually benefit you to do this. What you're "benefitting from" is a) the luck you got by on doing it that way, and b) the rush of serotonin and endorphins that came from working on the wire. 

When we procrastinate, we enter into a "loop" of learned, conditioned behavior-- what is known as a "reticular activating system": our brains fire the neurons that are familiar pathways in our mind, and before we know it, we're procrastinating. Author Jeffery Coombs, who has written on procrastination and how to avoid it in his book The Procrastination Cure gives this additional insight:

Procrastination becomes a denial, it’s a way to avoid perceived pain, that’s the number one reason that people procrastinate because their ego, their left brain, their analytical mind starts to tell themselves a story and the story is about perceived pain. To avoid the pain we procrastinate, that’s why we “intend” to do something, that’s why we put it off, that’s why we’re going to do it later. We’re going to start a new diet, we’re going to go to the gym, we’re going to start a new business, we’re going to write a new book, we’re going to lose weight, we’re going to do this, we’re going to get a new career. We’re “going to,” see, that’s a future tense with no commitment statement.

Coombs identifies that so much of our procrastinating ways are fear or anxiety based. Fear of failure, fear of "doing it wrong," being anxious about getting started, or being afraid of change. There's also that feeling that comes from being and feeling overwhelmed -- a feeling I feel quite often and one that I find myself wanting to fall back on as a reason for my inaction.  But, I have some tips to help you overcome. 

1. Remember that being "busy" does not necessarily mean you're being effective.  We live in a world that prizes and praises being "busy"-- but if you're not really productive and efficient, you're not really doing that much. How are you filling your day? How are you filling your time? One way to do this is to actually track what you do in the course of a day and see how much time you spend. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. How much time do you spend checking social media? How much time on emails?

The Bumbling Bujo has a great post about different trackers you can use to track your day and the way you spend time. Actually visualizing it can be really revealing about where you spend your time. 

 A spread from Bumbling Bujo's Bullet Journal. Click to see her post. 

A spread from Bumbling Bujo's Bullet Journal. Click to see her post. 

2. Experiment with systems for how to prioritize tasks. I used to start with the small tasks and work up to the big ones on my to-do list (this is just procrastination hiding out in the guise of being "productive"). Sometimes, I'd even find myself adding things to my list to avoid getting to the big stuff I knew I needed to do. I discovered Eisenhower's Urgent/Important Principle. This helps you to prioritize based on the idea that you should first tackle urgent/important tasks -- these are usually emergent or things you can't plan for (or, if you were being bad, things you put off), Important tasks that aren't urgent (like a long term task you need to break into stages), Urgent but not important (tasks that are time-time sensitive but are of lower priority than the important ones) and then the lesser to-do items that feel satisfying to check off but are, in reality, not urgent and not important.

A page from my BuJo to remind me of the system 

3. If a task seems overwhelming, insurmountable, or makes you feel exhausted to think about it-- try breaking it into smaller tasks or into increments of time. (Coombs calls this "bending time"). If there's 60 minutes in an hour, break that hour into 15 minutes and devote at least 15 minutes to the unsavory task.  Sometimes, that 15 minutes is all you need to get started: telling yourself I only have to do this for 15 minutes and then I can stop is really empowering-- and then the 15 minutes are up and you keep going. Another thing that works for a lot of people is the Pomodoro technique  which operates under the same principle:

The methodology is simple: When faced with any large task or series of tasks, break the work down into short, timed intervals (called “Pomodoros”) that are spaced out by short breaks. This trains your brain to focus for short periods and helps you stay on top of deadlines or constantly-refilling inboxes. With time it can even help improve your attention span and concentration.

Pomodoro is a cyclical system. You work in short sprints , which makes sure you’re consistently productive. You also get to take regular breaks that bolster your motivation and keep you creative.


4. Set small, attainable goals. Often, we self-sabotogue by creating goals that we can't possibly accomplish. These may seem like we're being optimistic and positive about the future. For example, you maybe are like me -- I'll get hyped up on goal-setting and do some pie-in-the-sky planning when I'm at my lowest points (this is usually in the doldrums of December, right before the new year:  "This next yearis going to be the best year yet! I'm going to lose 100 lbs, I'm going to run a marathon, I'm going to organize all of my house, I'm going to start getting up at 4 am every day, I'm going to read 10 books a day, and I'm going to stop biting my nails all by next week."  But the reality is I just set myself up for failure because there's no way I could accomplish all of that in a week, and maybe not even a year unless I was really dedicated, right? 

The key to successful goal setting is that they have to be goals you can actually accomplish in a reasonable time span. 

Coombs offers this insight into goal GETTING: 

Success if about what you do today, not what you do tomorrow, what you do today, because this goes back to time. The only time you possess is now, you don’t have yesterday, that’s gone, that’s history, tomorrow hasn’t happened, that’s a mystery, what you have is the present, that is now. So in goal getting, and that’s G-E-T-T-I-N-G, not setting, S-E-T-T-I-N-G, it’s not so important to get the goal than it is to set it. Now we’re conditioned to have big goals, to write our goals down, get a vision board and write down 100 goals, 200 goals, 500, 1,000. There’s merit to all that, but it’s a lot more important that you get goals, you write goals that are achievable or you attract goals that are achievable, and then you build on a compounded effect. The only way you’re going to get a bigger goal is to go through the process of it to attract it, and you have to have a system to your goal, you can’t just wing it, you can’t just pray for a miracle and hope it shows up, you have to have a system, a method.
— J. Coombs, The Procrastination Cure

I'm going to delve more into this in a future post, because goals and goal setting are my jam, but I think that it's important to bring this up right now and get you thinking about how procrastination and goals maybe go hand in hand.

5. If you're going to do something, you need to actually commit to doing it. This seems really simple, but making a commitment to yourself is the first step of breaking your procrastination. You can't keep saying "I'll start tomorrow" : You need to pick a date. Make a commitment to yourself to actually start a positive change. It takes time and it takes work every day. But in saying "I am going to do this" follow through. Write down your commitment. Sign it if you need to. That is why it's helpful to spend 10-20 minutes at night reflecting on what you got done in the day and planning the next day's tasks by priority or indicating their priority. It will help center and ground you and get you on the right track. And, most importantly: follow through.