How Productive People Keep From Procrastinating All the Damn Time
When I have a deadline looming, I play the temporal equivalent of limbo -- how close can I go? And while the job gets done on time (usually), my cortisol-battered brain can't help but wonder if there's a timely way to accomplish things without bending itself over backwards.
If you can relate, read on for tips from super-productive people like CEOs, inventors, and other people who have their lives in order. If you're procrastinating RIGHT NOW, close this browser window and get to work, slacker! (Sorry. Just trying to help you out.)
Pick three things to tackle each day
When you first wake up and go through your morning routine, jot down three things you want to accomplish. "Even when I am at my busiest, I never really have more than three important tasks," says digital marketing firm CEO Skyler Irvine.
Take baby steps
Make each step as tiny as possible. My first goal for writing this piece was to open Google Docs, for example. Once you've done that tiny thing, ask yourself what other tiny thing you can do. My next tiny thing was to write the headline. "Keep on asking yourself that question and do it," says life coach and blogger Alyce Pilgrim. "You'll find momentum will build up and procrastination will soon be out the door."
Use a timer to help you monotask
Sometimes it's best to work in short, productive bursts. "If you break your work into bite-sized chunks of time, you won't get bored," says Grainne Kelly, who invented an inflatable booster seat, which she was probably able to do because she didn't keep putting off acting on her ideas.
"Mantras are effective beyond just meditation," says Colin Darretta, CEO of a tech startup called WellPath. It doesn't have to be a complicated, mystical chanting, either. "My short mantra, which serves as an acronym, is DBL -- 'don't be lazy.' There's something to be said for easy, quick pick-up habits."
As for me, I tell myself the Dark Playground is not actually a fun place and the Instant Gratification Monkey is not actually my friend.
If a task takes less than two minutes, do it now
This tip comes from professional organizer Nancy Haworth. Reply to that email immediately or wash that dish instead of leaving it in the sink. You have to do it anyway, so why not get it out of the way before the alfredo sauce hardens into a rancid crust or your boss shows up huffing at your cubicle?
Save your hardest task for when you have the most energy
Another tip from Haworth. I'm at my best in the morning, so I do my writing then and schedule interviews for the afternoon. In case you were wondering.
Don't sit all day
Long periods of inactivity are terrible for you, and despite Descartes' popular philosophy of mind-body dualism, the brain is an organ, and it's affected by your physical activity or lack thereof. Some studies have linked intervals of standing and walking with greater productivity. "Standing desks are a great way to sneak in exercise during the day -- without getting sweaty at the gym or hindering work productivity," says Lyndsay Eliasof, who -- full disclosure -- does PR for a standing-desk company. You also could go for a walk or prop your old office desk up on cinder blocks. (That's what I did.)
Use the buddy system
I personally would hate it if my slacker friend asked me to hold them accountable for their work, but more than one expert recommended this tactic. "If you're having trouble completing a task, ask for help, advice, or just a friendly push from a co-worker or friends," advises Max Cron, a consultant of business coaching company Point Above.
Don't give yourself BS excuses for why you haven't started
"Be aware of subtle ways we procrastinate, such as waiting for the 'right time' or for everything to be perfect before starting," says Julie Coraccio, a life coach and professional organizer. "Or beginning an important task and shortly afterwards, distracting yourself with another task."
"By simply moving to a different spot, you can reset and get more work done," Cron suggests. "Environments with others working can inspire us to be more proactive about completing our own work." So find the most MacBook-heavy coffee shop and settle in for the long haul.
Don't fight it -- become an "active procrastinator"
Implicit in this article and many others like it is the belief that procrastination is bad. In some cases, it definitely is; if you're blowing deadlines, having meltdowns, or missing work on the regular, something needs to change. But for some people, procrastination is just how they operate. These people are called "active procrastinators" and they're the subject of a 2009 study that examines procrastination as a valid form of time management. Active procrastinators thrive under pressure, they make the conscious choice to procrastinate, they meet deadlines, and they're generally happy with the outcome.
By contrast, the study describes a passive procrastinator as someone who "fails to control one's focus on the task at hand and [has a] tendency to gravitate toward activities that are more pleasant than carrying out the task."
So if you're a natural, effective procrastinator, embrace it. And if not, the first step is admitting you have a problem.
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Missy Wilkinson can't foresee a world in which she doesn't wait until the last minute to get things done, and she's OK with that. Follow her at @missy_wilkinson.