Everyone procrastinates. We usually do it to avoid a task that's unpleasant or daunting. But when procrastination starts to interfere with performance at work—by causing us to feel worried, fearful, and stressed-out, or by causing others to feel anxious because we're holding up progress—then it's time to stop putting the task aside and get on with it.
Here are 10 strategies to escape the quicksand of procrastination. They will help you reap numerous benefits: improved productivity, enhanced mood, less stress, better coworker relationships, a sense of accomplishment, and a reputation at work as a “doer.”
1. Identify the situation.
Write down the specific task you've been putting off. For example, “I have to convert all of my client contacts and notes into the new file-sharing software system and learn how to navigate its tools and folders.” Writing down the task helps you identify the job at hand.
2. Pinpoint your emotions.
What's preventing you from diving in to this task? It's typically one or more of three core emotions. Perhaps, to use the above example, you're intimidated by all the new bells and whistles you'll have to learn (fear). Or you're resentful about having to do this when the old system worked perfectly well (anger). Or you're bummed that you're just not tech savvy (sadness). This step helps you see the act of dragging your heels for what it truly is: an emotional reaction.
3. Deal with those emotions.
It's helpful to know that emotions—sadness, anger, and fear—are just pure energy in your body. Look at the word “emotion.” It's energy (e) in motion. Take some time in private to express those emotions constructively. By crying to express sadness, punching or yelling into a pillow or stomping around to release the anger, or doing exaggerated shivering for the fear, you give yourself permission to express the emotion. The energy dissipates and you won't feel stuck. It's like letting steam out of a pressure cooker.
4. Do some planning.
Good planning is the foundation of success for most any project. Start by getting clear on your goal. Your written goal is your beacon to keep you on track in treacherous waters. For example, “I want to be facile with this new software so it's a useful tool, not an impediment to my progress.” Having a clear and precise idea of your goal will keep you oriented and motivated.
5. Find some “truths.”
Identify sabotaging thoughts that are hanging in the wings, ready to pounce in a weak moment, then come up with a couple of truths to contradict them. For example, if you continually tell yourself “I'll never be able to learn all this,” you might say to yourself, “I can do this” or “If others can learn this, so can I.” That's a plain and simple truth. To neutralize your frustration at having to do this task, you might say, “I'm doing this because I want to be a team player” or “My boss thinks I'm the best person to do this.”
6. Break your goal into a series of small, doable steps.
You've envisioned the task, dealt with what's been holding you back, and fixed your destructive thinking. Completing the task requires deciding when you'll get started and figuring out a doable step-by-step game plan. Write it down, schedule it, and commit to it. Then go on a mental journey, plotting out each part of the task, including details such as who you will talk with, what you’ll discuss, where and when you'll be working, and how long you expect each step to take.
7. Anticipate roadblocks.
Once you've created a game plan, step back and imagine the challenges and obstacles that could pop up along the way. For example, other projects with shorter deadlines might land on your desk. How will you tackle such challenges in order to keep moving forward with the big task at hand? For every such scenario, have a tactic ready for sticking to your original plan. You may also want to find someone to support your efforts and with whom you can check in on a regular basis.
8. Take the leap.
After all this preparation, it's time to tackle the task you’ve been putting off. Before you do, acknowledge your emotions—whether it's anger, fear, or sadness. Take just a minute or two and release the pent-up emotion in a physical and constructive way. Without the emotional energy dragging you down, you'll feel prepared to take the leap and be amazed how easy it is as you just focus on one step at a time.
9. Battle resistance.
As you move through the task, you're likely to meet with resistance in the form of excuses, bad moods, and discouragement. Meet resistance with tenacity and stubbornness, and continue to deal with any emotions that surface. Say to yourself, “I can do this. I'll feel better when I handle this.” Say it over and over until it's set in your mind. Any time you feel discouraged or are tempted to procrastinate, refocus on the goal.
10. Focus on the upside.
Completing a daunting task is incredibly satisfying. Praise each little step you make along the way. Remind yourself at every step that you'll feel incredibly virtuous when you get the task off your plate once and for all. Accomplishing what you're avoiding will simplify your work life. You’ll feel better about yourself. You'll feel more energetic. You'll sleep better at night. And best of all, you’ll be able to put that nagging task behind you.
For additional time management tips, consider these AMA seminars:
Managing Chaos: Tools to Set Priorities and Make Decisions Under Pressure