Timo is a blogger, author, and speaker who helps work-at-home professionals get stuff done fast so that they have time for living. To make this post even more effective, you can grab a special list of procrastination-busting tools right here!
No matter how productive you are, we all have one trait in common: we all procrastinate.
But things start to become serious when you fail to take action on important habits and tasks, start missing deadlines, and never reach the goals you have set for yourself.
Before I share my favourite strategies for overcoming procrastination, let’s take a look at a typical task.
A cross-section of a task
If you look at any task, this is how it breaks down:
- Planning phase: All the necessary planning and preparation
- Execution phase: Making sure you actually pull through your task
- Finishing phase: Making sure that it’s 100% done
Sounds simple, right? However, there are more steps involved like the ones I just mentioned. In fact, there are a total of 12 sub-steps that help you to get started, keep the momentum alive, and finish your work.
1. PLANNING PHASE
Before you start a task, you need to do some planning to guarantee its smooth execution. Of course, if your task is just a simple one (like drink a glass of water), then planning for it may be overkill.
- Make necessary preparations
What is the task you are about to do? What resources, people, and equipment are needed in order to successfully start, execute, and complete the task? Take some time to figure all this out in advance, so that you don’t encounter surprising roadblocks during the execution phase.
For instance, if your plan is to write a sales report the next day, you might need things like the sales data from the previous month, Jim’s comment regarding why the sales volume has dropped down in the Far-East, or the notes from the last sales meeting.
When you do some prep work in advance, you stop wasting time and are able to get started with your work right away.
- Understand the outcome – both positive and negative
Planning and preparing are fine, but sometimes that is not enough. In addition, you may sometimes have to motivate yourself and find a reason for getting started.
Understand that there are two equally important parts that can motivate you:
Let’s take a look at the former motivation first.
For instance, when your task is done, you could be closer to accomplishing a dream of yours (like starting your own business that earns you a nice income.) The reward could also be a very concrete one and happen sooner, like finishing your work early so that you can get back home and spend time with your family.
Create a mental image of what happens if you postpone your task versus if you don’t get it done in a timely manner. In the former, this could be you being stuck in your day job for the next two years (compared to running your own business). Or in the latter, working overtime during the weekend (compared to spending fun time with your family).
Once the preparation part is over, it’s time to actually get started with your task! Use the following techniques to make the starting easier. The starting part is – after all – the phase that many people struggle the most.
- Use action triggers
Hoping to do something is very different than actually doing the work. This is also what researchers Peter Gollwitzer and Veronica Brandstatter found in their study.
They asked students to submit a report by December 26th, to earn more studying credits. Only 33% of the students returned the work in time. However, 77% of those who defined action triggers submitted the report in time.
In essence, an action trigger defines when and where an activity takes place. For instance, you could say:
- I’ll run 2K in the park after I have picked kids from kindergarten
- I’ll write a report in my home office right after finishing breakfast
- I’ll clean the kitchen as soon as the guests have left the house
According to Gollwitzer, action triggers “protect goals from tempting distractions, bad habits, or competing goals.”
Besides, think to yourself, what is more effective: saying to yourself that you will work on a task sometime next week or define the exact time and place with an action trigger?
- Break the task into smaller pieces
The next thing you want to do is to take an overview of your task and figure out how you can break it down into smaller parts. When you realize that a task is actually a series of smaller steps – rather than a huge big “lump” – starting and taking action becomes easier.
For instance, if your task is titled as “paint the home office ceiling,” the description is just too vague. Instead, figure out all the sub-steps that have to be completed first in order to finish a task. Perhaps you have to …
- Decide on the color of the ceiling with your wife
- Buy two buckets of paint from a hardware store
- Decide on the date when you actually paint the ceiling
- Empty the home office and cover the furniture
As you can see, a task that seemed like a single entity at first has just revealed four different sub-tasks. Once you have split the task into pieces, the task becomes more manageable and easier to start.
- Apply a 5-Minute Rule
One very powerful way to break the invisible wall (aka the procrastination) between you and the task is to use a technique called “five-minute room rescue.”
This rule, originally created by the home organising wizard FlyLady, helps people with their organising and cleaning efforts.
The idea is very simple: rather than overwhelming yourself with a huge and daunting task, you promise to clean or organise your room for only five minutes. What happens in most cases is that you actually do more work than just five minutes.
This same can be applied to anything, not just to organising and cleaning. So if you feel helpless in front of a big task, why not promise yourself to work on the task just five minutes? It sure makes the task easier to deal with.
2. EXECUTION PHASE
• Don’t Break The Chain
Starting a task is one thing. But you should also make sure you keep the momentum alive and work on the task as long as necessary. This is especially true if your work spreads over to many days (or even if your goal is to do a certain task every day).
This is where a technique called “Don’t break the chain” comes into play. It was originally invented by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
He wanted to become a better comedian, so he set a goal to write every day. And to motivate himself to writing, he invented a nifty technique which helped him to reach this daily goal.
The solution was a calendar, where the whole year was presented in one page. When he managed to accomplish his daily writing goal, he marked a big red X to the calendar.
Eventually, when there were enough Xs on the calendar, they started look like a chain.
Once the chain was formed, it became harder and harder to skip over one day, since you had to start forming the chain all over.
- Limit your time
Have you heard of the Parkinson’s Law? According to Wikipedia, it means “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
In other words, if you give your task two weeks to finish, it will most likely take that two weeks. Then again, if you give your task just three days for its completion, it will be finished in that shorter time frame.
When you shorten the amount of time you allocate for a task, you are also building pressure on yourself to finish it in time. Besides, if you can really get the task done in three days, why would you give it more time than necessary?
- Limit your distractions
Distractions can lead to procrastination too, especially if the task you are doing is challenging and tedious. These sources of distraction could be things like:
- Instant messaging
- Other people
Anything in your sight that catches your attention (movement coming from outside through the window, a flashing web page on your other monitor, an incoming call which activates your phone’s screen)
Sometimes the distraction can be helpful, however. For instance, many people like to work in coffee shops, since the background noise can help them to focus better.
To deal with distraction, understand the nature of your task first. Then make sure to either cut out the distractions or let it help you to become more productive and focused.
- Take breaks (aka perfect your work rhythm)
To make the work more enjoyable and effective, make sure to schedule breaks into your workday. It has been proven by certain studies that breaks do improve our productivity.
So what kind of breaks should you have? There are many ways to set the rhythm of your work, ranging from Pomodoro Technique to Ultradian Rhythm. For instance, I have just started testing the latter and so far I have found that it helps me to focus better, thus avoiding unnecessary procrastination.
All you have to do is to test different techniques and see which fits you the best (and then stick with that strategy).
• Review your daily work
A daily review gives you valuable feedback on your progress. So after you have finished your workday, do the following kind of examination:
- What tasks you worked on?
- Why you were/weren’t able to accomplish a task?
- How are you making progress related to your goal(s)?
Take five minutes to review this information and write it down in a journal. This helps you to understand how you day went and see the lessons you learned. With this information you can:
- Have a better plan for the next day
- Adjust your future actions, so that you get closer to your goals
- Help you feel grateful towards your work, towards the lessons you learned, and towards the progress you have made
3. FINISHING PHASE
You are now in a final stage of a task. If you manage to pull through this phase, your task is done and you can move on to something else. And by the way, when I talk about a finished task, I’d like to quote my former boss who said it best: “A task which is almost finished is NOT finished.”
- Beat perfection
If there is one thing that can lengthen the completion of a task, that’s perfection. In other words, you keep tweaking every detail of your assignment, until it’s 100% ready.
Not only you are unable to finish your task, but you are also in a never-ending loop: even if a task is perfect right now, something will always come up that could be improved further.
To escape this vicious cycle, create a checklist that lists the most important criteria that have to be met. Once the criteria are met, you can move on to the next task on your list.
- Offer a price
You are now close to finishing a task. To help you to travel the last mile, create a compelling reward that you can claim once you are finished.
The reward should match the complexity of the task you want to finish. So booking up a trip to Bahamas could be fine when you have finished writing a 200-page book. On the other hand, this kind of reward might be bit extravagant if you just mowed the lawn.
Tools that help you to beat procrastination
There was plenty to go through in this post, but I hope that I was able to give you strategies that help you tackle procrastination. But this wasn’t all!
I have created a list of tools that make you even stronger in a battle against procrastination. If you want to defend yourself from this unfortunate trait, click here to download this free report today. It contains 15 tools that can be helpful in your daily work.