Procrastination is like a sore throat; it’s a symptom with many possible causes. Unless you know the cause, the treatment for the symptom might things worse. This column contains the five most common causes of procrastination and how to overcome them.
1. The size of a task seems overwhelming.
Explanation: Every time you think about the task it seems like a huge mountain of work that you’ll never be able to complete. You therefore avoid starting.
Solution: Break the task into small steps and then start working on them. This builds momentum and makes the task far less daunting.
Example: You’ve decided to write a book. Rather than sitting down and trying to write the book (which will probably cause you to stare at the blank screen), spend one hour on each of the following sub-tasks:
1. Jot down as many ideas as possible.
2. Sort the ideas into an outline.
3. List out anecdotes you’ll want to include.
4. Write a sample anecdote to determine style.
5. Review existing materials (e.g. presentations).
6. Assign those materials to sections of your outline.
7. Write the first three paragraphs of a sample chapter.
8. Create a schedule to write 2 pages a day.
2. The number of tasks seems overwhelming.
Explanation: Your to-do list has so many tasks in it that you feel as if you’ll never be able to finish them all, so why bother getting started?
Solution: Combine the tasks into a conceptual activity and then set a time limit for how long you’ll pursue that activity.
Example: Your email account is being peppered by so many requests and demands that you feel as if you can’t possibly get them done. Rather than fret about the pieces and parts, set aside a couple of hours to “do email.” Schedule a similar session tomorrow or later that day.
Thinking of the work as an activity rather than a bunch of action items makes them seem less burdensome.
3. A set of tasks seem repetitive and boring.
Explanation: You’re a creative person with an active mind so you naturally put off any activity that doesn’t personally interest you.
Solution: Set a time limit for completing a single task in the set and then compete against yourself to see if you can beat that time limit. Reward yourself each time you beat the clock.
Example: You’re a newly-hired salesperson who must write personalized emails to two dozen customers. The work involves quickly researching their account, addressing any issues they’ve had with the previous salesperson, and then introducing yourself.
Rather than just slogging through the work, estimate the maximum amount of time it should take to write one letter (let’s say 5 minutes). It should thus take you 120 minutes (2 hours) to write all of them.
Start the stopwatch, write the first email. If you have time left over, do something else (like read the news). When the stopwatch buzzes, reset, write the second email, etc.
4. The task seems so important that it’s daunting.
Explanation: You realize that if you screw this task up, it might mean losing your job or missing a huge opportunity. You avoid it because you don’t want to risk failure.
Solution: Contact somebody you trust and ask if they’ll review your work (if the task is written) or act as a sounding board (if the task is verbal). Doing the task for your reviewer is low-risk and thus the task is easier to start. The reviewer’s perspective and approval provides you extra confidence when you actually execute the task.
Example: You need to write an email demanding payment from a customer who’s in arrears. Because you don’t want to damage the relationship and yet need to be paid, it’s a difficult balancing act–so difficult that you avoid writing the email.
To break the mental log-jam, ask a colleague or friend if they’ll review your email before you send it to see if it hits the right tone. Writing the email then becomes easier because you’re writing it for your friend to read rather than for the customer.
Problem: You just don’t feel like working.
Explanation: You’re feeling burned out and generally unmotivated, so you’re finding it very hard to get down to work.
Solution: You have two choices: 1) reschedule the activity for a time when you’ll be more motivated or 2) motivate yourself in the short-term by setting a reward.
Example: You need to write a trip report but you’re tired after a long day of travel. While you know that the report will be more accurate if you write it now, you decide to write it tomorrow morning after breakfast and coffee–a time when you’re typically more motivated.
Alternatively, you motivate yourself short-term promising yourself that you’ll buy and download a book that you’ve been wanting to read… but only if you write the report tonight.