My “aha” moment with procrastination was in college, when I had a huge research paper due immediately after the November Thanksgiving holiday. “No problem”, I thought when it was assigned, “this is more than two months away!”
At first, it started out great: I chose a topic quickly and completed my research well before November arrived. But then came procrastination!
You can imagine what happened during my Thanksgiving holiday. Rather than enjoying time with my family, I had to work all weekend writing my paper. I did take a break for the turkey dinner, though!
I now consider myself a pretty productive person, but I still fight procrastination — and it appears I’m not alone. The results of the survey I conducted as research for this article tell the tale:
- 85% of respondents procrastinate at least occasionally.
- Nearly 25% of respondents procrastinate often or more frequently.
Do you fall in that 85% of people — or even in the top 25% of procrastinators from our survey? You’re in good company.
In this article, I’ll explain some tips I’ve learned in my struggles with procrastination over the years, which should help you get your next project done on time. Trust me, you’ll thank me next Thanksgiving.
The Good Side of Procrastination
Before we get into tips about fighting procrastination, I thought it would only be fair to mention that procrastination isn’t always bad; it has a good side too.
In fact, sometimes there are actually benefits to putting off a task until the last minute – when you take the right approach. Let’s take a look at the top 3.
1) Lack of Time to Overthink
I’ve developed a good packing routine for my short trips, but I often overthink what I need to take on longer trips. The longer I have to pack, the more I second-guess myself and pull out my suitcase to repack.
A few years ago, I packed days in advance of a week-long trip to Death Valley, California. With daytime temperatures over 100 degrees and nights below freezing, packing properly for the extremes was a challenge.
No sooner than I’d finished packing, I immediately started overthinking what I’d packed. “What if it got colder than forecast? What if I ended up taking a longer trip? What if…?” Before I knew it, I had a suitcase that wouldn’t close. I had to repack everything the night before — and ended up pretty much with the exact same things as when I’d started.
All I’d accomplished by packing early was a lot of wasted time. Delaying tasks that you tend to obsess over reduces the time available to overthink what you’re doing.
2) Allows the Dust to Settle
Procrastinating can also give you more time to gather information about the task at hand. When faced with tasks that are directly impacted by things beyond my control, I find it saves time to wait until those outside events have settled as possible.
For example, when integrating a project with an API still under development, I’ve found that completing the API integration tasks earlier is rarely worth the time. There’s too much of a risk those implementation details will change near the end of the project.
3) Starves Out Bad Ideas
Finally, it frequently pays to procrastinate on tasks of questionable validity.
Have you ever been faced with a task you can’t say no to, for political or personal reasons, but you know is a waste of time, effort, or just a bad idea overall? Sitting on that task usually means the team will forget about the task (since it wasn’t important anyway), or people will eventually come to their senses and realize it was a bad idea to start.
It’s not a terribly moral high ground, to be sure, but I’ve dealt with contracts and scenarios where it can be easier to wait and let a task go away, than to waste time arguing against it.
This Only Works If You Make a Conscious Decision
Note that all three of these cases only work when you make a conscious decision to delay tasks for a future net benefit, rather than just letting it happen.
For example, you might think:
- “I know I can do this at the last minute and get a better result.”
- “It’s probably worth waiting on this because too much is in flux.”
- “This is a dumb idea; I’ll try waiting in hopes that it’s deemed not important.”
In these situations, procrastination isn’t hurting your ability to get things done; it’s actually improving your ability to get things done.
OK, so there are cases when procrastination can be good. But what about its bad side?
The Bad Side of Procrastination
Putting important, doable tasks off until a later time has real consequences: the task must be rushed, resulting in lower quality results. Put a task off too long, and you’ll miss an important deadline.
Why is that bad? Well, missed deadlines in a team environment delay others who are waiting for your work — and you’ll end up with a line of angry coworkers outside your door!
Poor results and missed deadlines can result in lost contracts and wasted money for freelancers and consultants. Rushing at the last minute can mean important steps are missed or glossed over.
Kaden Wilkinson (@kdawgwilk) shared a story about rushing a product release:
I’m sure we all have a similar story, where due to procrastination we ended up with a problem that wouldn’t have happened if we had started earlier!
Why Do You Procrastinate?
Understanding why you are procrastinating on a task can help determine the best approach to overcome the procrastination.
The survey highlighted many common reasons for procrastinating — they oddly line up quite neatly with my own reasons for procrastination. Here are the top 3 reasons people gave.
1) I Procrastinate Because I Feel Overwhelmed
Procrastination can often result from feeling overwhelmed by a task. When overwhelmed, there’s an urge to put off a task and hope for clarity to appear later. Ironically, the clarity may never arrive because of your procrastination. When I’m unsure of what my priorities are, it’s easy to work on the wrong thing or not work on anything.
The irony of procrastination is that it can feed on itself. Tasks that come in the door while you’re putting things off also suffer. This compounds the feeling of being overwhelmed, which causes you to procrastinate more.
The feeling of being overwhelmed can be signs of uncertainty as to where to start on a task. It can be a result of poor direction, trying something outside your comfort zone, or working on a project that needs organized. Whatever the cause, not being sure where to start often leads to not starting at all.
2) I Procrastinate Because I Don’t Want To Do It
Procrastination can also be a sign you’re faced with a task you just don’t want to do. The majority of respondents to the questionnaire listed “lack of motivation” or “boredom” as the primary cause of their procrastination.
You rarely need encouragement to do something you enjoy or find exciting, so it’s no surprise that difficult tasks spawn procrastination.
For instance, I really should be working on my app, but hey, cool — someone just liked my post on Facebook and I should totally check that out. I really don’t like doing my taxes, and Netflix is right there in the other room with all these movies I haven’t watched yet — and that tax deadline is so far away.
3) I Procrastinate Because I’m Afraid of Failure
Fear of failure often manifests itself as continuous tweaking and endless revisions, insisting that your task must be “perfect” or “done done” before you can release it to the world. In reality, you’re just avoiding the judgment of the world.
A task that you never finish will never be reviewed by others; an incomplete project cannot be evaluated or criticized. An app never published never gets one star reviews. Even without formal grades as you have in academia, work projects are judged by peers or supervisors and the success (or failure!) of those projects determines eligibility for promotions and pay increases.
It’s easy to get sucked down by the problems of procrastination — but don’t fear! People have spent many, many years analyzing how to beat procrastination. Read on to see how you can get yourself out of that rut and back on top of your work!
How I Fight Procrastination and Usually Win
OK, so we’ve seen that although procrastination can be good sometimes, it can also cause major problems.
Now, it’s time for me to share the promise of this article: techniques I’ve learned to fight procrastination over the years, allowing me to (usually) win! :]
There are three techniques I’ll cover:
- Managing Distractions
- Managing Time
- Managing Energy
Let’s dive in!
Note: Although I think the advice in this article should help if you struggle with procrastination, note that you can’t cure procrastination overnight.
Personally, I recognize that procrastination is a constant enemy of mine, and I have to make sure I don’t slip back into old habits. No single article can give you all the answers to overcome procrastination, but I’ve found three things that have helped me keep procrastination (mostly) at bay.
1) Managing Distractions
There are a million distractions in this world, but there a lot of distractions that are completely under your control.
I recommend taking some time to reduce your distractions, allow you to focus on your real work. Here are three things that have worked for me:
a) Turn off notifications
Whenever I set up a new computer or a new phone, my very first step is to turn off almost all notifications.
My coworkers took a while to get used to the idea that I only check email a few times a day, but I find I have better focus when I’m not distracted by email and other social notifications. It takes very little time to shut down notifications, but you’ll be surprised at the time you gain back.
b) Make it harder to go social
When struggling with an Auto Layout bug, the temptation to lose yourself in your Twitter feed can be irresistible. Adding just a small bit of friction between yourself and your social feeds can be really effective.
For instance, stay logged out of Facebook while you work. The extra time to log in will serve as a constant reminder of what you’re not getting done.
c) Block the biggest time sinks
In more extreme cases, most browsers have extensions that can be used to selectively block sites.
Quitter can shut down selected apps when they’ve been left idle and reduce the temptation to switch from your work. Cold Turkey will temporarily block tempting web sites and apps during specified times.
2) Managing Time
OK, so you’ve gotten a lot of time back from managing distractions: how can you make the most of it?
I find focusing on time and project management really helps me feel in control of the situation, and reduces my desire to procrastinate. There are many time and project management systems, and all have unique approaches to the problem of getting stuff done. Some systems are simple tricks or rules of thumb, while others provide a complete, all-encompassing approach to managing your work and personal life.
a) Getting Things Done
I’ve used the basic Getting Things Done, or GTD, approach for a long time. The GTD system uses five steps to process tasks and projects:
- Capture what needs your attention
- Clarify what needs to be done.
- Organize what you capture.
- Review and reflect on where you are on a regular basis.
- Take appropriate actions depending on location and priorities.
I feel the most valuable step in this methodology is recording everything I might need to do at the moment it enters my mind so I don’t need to keep everything in mental RAM. Capturing these thoughts lets ideas and upcoming tasks flow freely into my mind without interrupting what I’m doing at the time.
The organizational aspect of GTD means you start tasks with everything you need to complete the task right at hand. Imagine sitting down and getting straight to work, without hunting for files or notes or tools — what a relief!
The GTD approach also focuses your effort solely on the next small task that will move your project forward. This takes your attention away from the overwhelming large picture so you can focus on, well, getting things done. :]
b) The Pomodoro Technique
Under the Pomodoro Technique, you break your work time into 25 minute periods called Pomodoros. During each Pomodoro, you work on the task without interruption and without giving up. After 25 minutes, you take a short break, then start the next pomodoro.
After completing four Pomodoros, you take a longer break so your brain can process the work you’ve done and get ready for the next tasks to tackle. Depending on the work I’m doing, I will often expand or contact the 25-minute period to better fit the task at hand. When I writing, I’ve found stretches of 50 minutes of writing with a slightly longer break in between pomodoros works best for me.
c) Simple Prioritization techniques
GTD helps you organize, and Pomodoro helps you focus, but how do you know what to work on?
Every morning, I select three tasks I would like to complete by the end of the day. Some days I know that I won’t be able to complete all three, and some days I know that I can do more. But going through the selection process helps me consider and pick just the three things that are most beneficial to me.
Examples of priority tasks are things that need to be completed on a specific day, things you want to get off your mind, or even things that will give you a clear sense of accomplishment when done.
How They Work Together
Here’s how these three techniques work well together for me:
- The Pomodoro technique helps me overcome inertia and get started. I can work on anything for 25 minutes, and I almost always make some progress in that time.
- GTD helps me from becoming overwhelmed by complex projects that stretch over months and have lots of moving parts which distract from my focus.
- My three priorities help me finish each day with a feeling of accomplishment. Feeling good about what you’ve done is as important and getting the things done in the first place.
3) Managing Energy
Personally, I’ve noticed that certain times of the day give me more energy, while other times of the day leave me feeling drained. Therefore, I try to plan tasks needing less mental or physical energy for lower-energy time, and I save more challenging tasks for those times when I know my energy level will be higher.
For example, reviews, email, and research come when I have less energy. Debugging and other high-focus tasks come when I know I’ll have more energy.
If I know I have a very demanding week ahead, I schedule the more difficult tasks early in the week when I’m fresh. I also take my current physical state into account. If I have a cold, then it’s probably not the best day to design a new application. On those days, I tackle jobs that require less physical and mental agility. If I’m unexpectedly energetic right before lunch, then I’ll pivot and pick up a task that needs extra energy.
When I need a quick energy boost to finish a high-focus task, moving around or taking a short walk can do wonders to get my energy back up. When I just can’t seem to focus at all, I’ve found a nice long outdoor stroll, exercise, or a hike in the woods does wonders to clear my mind for the next days. Sometimes my breaks between pomodoros are composed of short walks. Find what gets your energy up and work it into your day.
Despite all my planning and my processes, sometimes I still have to delay a task until another time. But when I’m not hiding behind procrastination, I can push back a task without guilt.
Where to Go From Here?
There’s been a lot to absorb in this article…assuming you didn’t put off reading it! :]
Beating procrastination is far from a simple process. Everyone’s reasons for putting things off are different; you’ll find that some of these ideas and techniques work for you, and others don’t work as well.
Looking for a simple way to start? Start with removing distractions. It doesn’t take a lot of time to turn off notifications on your phone — and fiddling with your phone is a fun bit of procrastination in itself! Also close every app and program on your workstation that you don’t absolutely need. You’ll see an immediate boost in focus when you don’t have 23 apps vying for your attention.
Check out Ray Wenderlich’s amazing Inspiration Talk from RWDevCon 2016, Feed Your Fire, that covers motivation and procrastination, including the concept of internal vs. external motivation. If you’re going to kill time watching videos, you might as well be learning something! :]
If you’re looking for more approaches to beating procrastination, here are some great resources that cover the techniques discussed here and many more:
- Getting Things Done by David Allen
- The Now Habit by Neil Fiore
- Pomodoro Technique Illustrated by Staffan Noteberg
- The Procrastinator’s Handbook by Rita Emmet
- Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It by Jane B. Burka and Lenora M. Yuen
If you have any comments or questions about this article, come share them in the discussion below. And don’t wait for later — do it now! :]