Ways to Stop Procrastinating

April 19, 2013 | By Felicity Cull

Wednesday morning I announced that I would be writing a blog post about procrastination. I then promptly began to look into getting a new water cooler for our office, sent a letter to the council, took a phone call, followed up on some emails, had a meeting over a coffee and then I tweeted our followers asking them about their procrastination habits.

If you can’t relate to this you’re possibly not human. Procrastination is a habit most of us admit to. Even the most productive people occasionally pair socks instead of writing a report or do the dishes instead of tackling an full inbox (or vice versa).

One of my favourite web cartoons is this one from Toothpaste for Dinner of the Procrastinatron who is able to put everything off until the last minute. I think there is a little Procrastinatron in all of us. As such, I thought it’d be great to discuss how some people handle this habit and meditate on how destructive it really is.

Now, none of the tasks I completed on Wednesday were useless – in fact they were on my To Do list – but doing them prevented me from opening this blank document and filling it with content. John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination would say I was practicing Structured Procrastination, which takes advantage of the habits of your average Procrastinatron and helps them spend their time usefully. He suggests that at the top of your To Do list should be a task that has inflated importance and a flexible deadline. For example, something like ‘finish draft of zombie novel.’ Everything below it, from doing your taxes to exercising to household chores, becomes an alternative to doing that one big difficult task. Suddenly, you’re doing a lot every day just so you don’t have to work on the novel that you promised yourself you’d finish by the end of the year. With structured procrastination, it’s okay to have lots of stuff on your To Do list (which is the opposite of the Learn to Say No school of thought) and to avoid some tasks, because you’re using your time to do stuff that genuinely needs to get done. This is certainly a technique that would work for some of us.

The thing is though, at some stage, you’re going to need to get that zombie novel done… look, that’s a bad example unless you’re Charlie Higson, but the top of the pyramid is something that will need to get done. John Perry is an academic. I have worked in academia as both an academic and in admin and trust me, for some academics deadlines are strange elusive creatures that may actually be extinct. Inflated importance and flexible deadlines might be something you feel you can’t apply to any of your tasks. If this is the case, this strategy might not work for you. Some people want to trick their brains into not procrastinating at all.

Apparently to do this, Jerry Seinfeld uses the Don’t Break the Chain strategy. He decides on tasks that he has to do every day (for him it’s to write jokes about salsa, but it could be anything) and if that day he achieves what he has on his list he gets an X on his calendar. His goal, once he gets an X, is not to break the chain. It’s an interesting strategy. Writer Adam Dachis took the strategy on with vigour and in February 2012 he sung its praises. By April, he was deriding it. I think that this strategy would work short-term if you had multiple deadlines at around the same time. Say if you had two have two major projects done in three months and you had a commitment to set aside a portion of every day to each project, I think this would really help. I think longer term, however, you’d need to think of something else. And, as Dachis suggests, maybe that something is being okay with the ebbs and flows of your work ethic – sometimes you have to do nothing, and that might actually help you get things done.

One of my favourite things about 10Collective is that we take time out to clear our heads quite often. Walk past our office and you might find two or more of us having a brainstorm or a chat or a cuppa in the laneway behind our office. These moments might seem like a waste of time to people who prefer to be chained to their desks, but these breaks help us get things done because we return to our desks focused. I appreciate these moments away from my desk – for me they work because I’m still at work but I’m not in work, if that makes sense. Just like how your best ideas come to you in the shower or while driving, I think time out helps you sort out ideas because your brain relaxes a bit.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that we all procrastinate and it doesn’t really help to panic about it. There are a lot of really great tips and strategies out there on how to avoid procrastination and if it seems like a tip might work for you, use it. My favourite tip was directed to those who have a penchant for falling in a YouTube vortex when they have something to do: don’t just open YouTube and start looking at videos randomly. Take five minutes out to watch your all time favourite video instead – here’s some of ours – this way you’re treating yourself to videos of cats or someone falling over but you won’t get caught looking at stupid videos for hours and hours. Take restricted time out to do something useless and you won’t feel like you can never be productive because you spent some time trying to balance your pencil on your nose instead of writing code today. Focus and distraction work together.

I really don’t think procrastination needs to be written about as seriously as it sometimes is. Here’s what I think: if you procrastinate deliberately and conciously and allow time for it, you’ll be okay. If you’ve lost focus, take ten minutes off to do something else. Embrace the reality of your own work habits, good and bad. Extra points if the other thing you do is useful but who cares if that thing is looking at pictures of cats. You know you’re going to do it so you may as well accept it, work around it and move on.

Photo by Quinn Anya.