Let me start by admitting that I am a master procrastinator. Combining that with the fact that I’m terrible at estimating the time required for a task, probably makes me a little difficult to work with. But I’ve been successful enough because I manage to pull off most things, most of the time…or at least close enough. Sound familiar? If so, are you feeling the stress?
I’ve been skipping hours of sleep for years because I procrastinate, waiting until a deadline is on top of me. Whether it’s a presentation to prepare, a trip to pack for, or a stack of essays to grade, my modus operandi has been to put it off until the last possible hour or minute. And then it usually takes longer than I thought. And then I’m up for hours into the night.
But lately, I’ve taken “skip sleeping” off the table as a way of getting things done (see my recent post on the importance of sleep), which means that I don’t have that extra 2-6 hours to burn the midnight oil and get my task completed. This has helped change my habit a little: I’m more prone to start my projects earlier, but in the end, I still can’t estimate time and I still procrastinate. Ultimately, I now just take everything non-essential task off my list in order to get the pending obligation done. Better maybe (I am getting my sleep) but still not good.
Just thinking about all this is exhausting. Procrastinating is stressful. Eric Jaffe, in Psychological Science, writes that procrastinators are:
- More stressed
- Have lower well-being
And it’s worse for those who have a “poor concept of time.”
But solving this pattern is not necessarily easy. Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University says, “to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
Jaffe writes that the inability to manage emotions seems to be the root of procrastination. Trying to figure what emotion triggers my procrastination is a good idea, and something that I’ll take up with my coach (yes, coaches have coaches).
But in the interim, I’m inspired by Professor John Perry’s article: “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done.” Perry suggests that it’s a mistake for the procrastinator to have only a few tasks on her list, thinking it will force her to do the one she’s avoiding — it backfires and makes her unproductive. In other words, a procrastinator will avoid what’s at the top of her list, but could be incredibly productive if she does items 2, 3 & 4. She might even acquire “a reputation for getting a lot done.” Incorporating Perry’s suggestions for creating an effective and motivating to-do list, here’s my advice:
- put the most important to-do items at the top, in order of priority (details below)
- try to include clear deadlines if applicable
- make each item as specific and actionable as possible (again, details below)
About the ranking of the “most important” – I like to write things down, so my to-do list is on a paper weekly planner. I use the 35 lines in the right column for my “to-do list.” When I add an item to my list, it goes at the top if it’s important for this week, and at the bottom if it’s not. If the top and bottom collide (i.e. I’ve got 35 to-dos) then I don’t allow myself to add any more. After all, I know it’s unlikely that I’ll even get those 35 done, so adding more is completely irrational. In a good sense, this finite list forces me to think twice before putting something on my list.
And about being specific, having a large, daunting project on your to-do list can destroy your motivation. Instead, break down your project into manageable chunks. And then do enough thinking specify exactly what the next action is. So, rather than something vague like “complete strategic plan” on your list, you will have a clear action step such as “email consultant to confirm meeting time” (if meeting the consultant is the next step in completing the strategic plan). Or, if you are waiting for the consultant to get back to you, then pick a date when you should have heard back from the consultant e.g. Thursday, and put “Thursday: reach out to the consultant” on your list. This will keep the project moving smoothly, but take it off both your mental list and your “to-do” list (this insight was gleaned from David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and shared by coach Michael Dolan on episode 12 of Stepping In Podcast)
Why not give it a try this week?
I think this productivity hack is a good idea, but it leaves a lingering question: if the procrastinator dives into the to-do list starting at #2, how will she EVER get to number 1? Perry doesn’t offer any clear advice on that. Perhaps it’s when a different to-do becomes the number 1 task, bumping the former #1 to #2, and then it will get done. Or perhaps she will eventually uncover the emotion behind procrastinating and take it head on. The latter is my plan and I’m off to work on it…as soon as I tackle number 2, 3 and 4.
Seriously, in addition to my to-do list being a reminder, it will also be a useful tool for the procrastinator in me. And for the record, this blog post is #3 on today’s list, and I did it first.