John is bored. His firm just hasn't been busy this month and instead of the usual big transaction work all he has are small bits and pieces of corporate matters. Even though none of it is complicated he just can't get down to doing any of it and is wasting time surfing the net instead.
Terry is deadline driven. Every day is about putting out fires and meeting last minute deadlines. He knows he should plan ahead and get to his projects done before the last minute but he has gotten use to the adrenaline rush and just can't get motivated to do anything without the pressure of a short deadline.
What do John and Terry have in common? They are both procrastinators.
As a coach one of the number one questions I receive from lawyers is about how to deal with procrastination. A friend recently introduced me to a useful resource, Dr. Piers Steel's book "The Procrastination Equation." Dr. Steel's book offers an unflinching look at why people procrastinate, types of procrastinators and easily actionable tips for reducing procrastination in your professional and personal life.
What is procrastination? Procrastination is not taking action on something when you know very well that inaction has potentially harmful circumstances.
It helps to know what kind of procrastinator you are. If you are like John you might be easily distracted. You find it hard to take action on things that are not inherently valuable to you or are not pleasurable. For instance, boring or repetitious tasks might be really hard for you to take action on when there are more interesting things to do.
If you are like Terry you might be impulsive. You are more likely to seek immediate then delayed gratification. In terms of work you find it easy to focus on anything that requires immediate attention but have a hard time with longer time lines. The result is that your habitual choice to do what is urgent and ignore the rest means that you are caught in a cycle of putting out fires and last minute work.
There is a third type of procrastinator with low expectations who I will call Mary. Mary lacks confidence in herself and has learned to expect failure. She procrastinates on projects that she fears she may not succeed at, or follow through on. Mary was given a gym membership for her birthday but doesn't go because she knows she has never managed to establish a regular physical fitness routine and thinks working out just once in a while has no value so "why start?"
Do any of the above scenarios sound familiar? If so let me assure you that you are not alone. According to Steel about 95% of people are self-confessed procrastinators. I am also a procrastinator. This article will be submitted one day late because I didn't schedule it in my calendar early enough and focused on my many other deadlines instead.
What are we procrastinators to do? The good news is there is a lot we can do. As a coach I have made great strides in curbing my inner sloth and so can you. First, identify what kind of procrastinator you are, then implement some of the tips from the list below. The goal is not perfection but simply reduction. Try and start by reducing procrastination in either your personal or professional life by 25% and then build from there. For a comprehensive list of procrastination-busting strategies pick up a copy of Dr. Steel's book and prioritize reading it. (As I type this I am thinking to myself that there are a number of procrastinators out there who will buy the book and never get to reading it!)
Top tips for curbing your inner procrastinator:
- Make your workspace a zone for focused concentration. Eliminate the distractions. One of the worst distractions is a messy office. Take advantage of the periods of low energy and concentration that arise during the day to organize and tidy your space. Just 15 minutes a day can make an enormous difference.
- Use your computer at the office for your professional work exclusively. Do your web surfing and personal email on another device and preferably in a different space. Consider buying an IPAD or Netbook for personal use instead of your office computer.
- Turn off all the computer distractions – the audio alerts and mailbox pop-ups. Dr. Steel's research indicates that professionals are 10% more effective with these alerts disabled.
- Bring visual cues for focusing your attention into the office. For example if you want to be productive during the day so you can get home to walk your dog then put a photo of your beloved pooch on your desk where you can see it.
- Reserve your morning and mid-day peak performance hours for your most difficult tasks.
- Break up distant deadlines into a series of milestones. Schedule time for working on these milestones instead of waiting until the last minute to start on the project as a whole.
- Work in focused intense sessions of 30 to 90 minutes without checking email and handle email in scheduled blocks of time.
- Talk to your client. If you have a client file with dust on it that is keeping you up a night then immediately after reading this article prepare what you want to tell the client about it, pick up the phone and call them. Tell them when they can expect to have a response from you. Apologize for the delay. I have many clients who have made these dreaded phone calls and the results have been positive.
- Keep a to-do list and review it daily. Take just a few minutes to set your goals for the day. Get one thing you are procrastinating about on the list and done.
- Deal with the dog file first. As a former litigation partner now a judge once told me, each day do the piece of work you like least first. Get it out of the way before you go on to other more interesting matters.
- Break complex projects into concrete next steps and set up milestones to work towards rather than simply working with one final deadline. For example, if you have a presentation to prepare, set a goal for developing the outline by a certain date. Then set a goal to have the handouts prepared by a particular date. Finally set a goal to have the PowerPoint completed and all materials sent in a week prior to the event.
- What gets scheduled most often gets done. Schedule time for tasks you are procrastinating on.
- Establish a routine of doing certain tasks at a certain time of day. Start the day with a coffee and review of your task list and goals for the day. If you want to build a habit of going to the gym schedule a set time and days of the week to go.
- When you feel stuck identify the biggest task you are procrastinating on. Then think of some other tangential tasks you are also procrastinating about. Trade off by taking action on the one you will find most enjoyable. In some cases this will mean taking 15 minutes to tackle tidying your office.