Weeding Out Procrastination

Sam is frustrated. Having settled her big trial, she faces a pile of small tasks she is behind on. None of it is particularly challenging, but she spends hours a day surfing the net instead of getting caught up.

Chris is deadline driven. Every day runs like a fire drill of running to meet deadlines. They know they should plan to get projects started sooner but are stuck in the habit of relying on the stress of an impending deadline for motivation.

What do Sam and Chris have in common? They are both procrastinators.

Procrastination is avoiding taking action when you know this inaction has potentially harmful implications. Delay is not procrastination if there is no downside.

Procrastination is something most of us do in some aspect of our lives. There are many reasons we procrastinate.

My top reason is to avoid the unpleasant.

Dentist appointment for the sore tooth? Delay.

Call to that family member who never stops talking? I’ll get to it later.

In the words of Tim Pytchl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, I am giving in to feel good. Short-term gain for long-term pain.

Another common thinking trap is your future self will handle it better. “If I wait until the weekend, I will have more time to focus on it,” you might think. The weekend comes, and the last thing you want to do is that thing, so you delay it again. And so on.

Or you might avoid boring or repetitive tasks when there are more exciting things to do. Entering time is a pain, so it gets left until the end of the month. Next thing you know, you spend an entire sunny weekend in the office getting your bills done instead of enjoying time outside on your bike.

Do any of the above scenarios sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. As coaches, a frequent question we hear from lawyers is about how to deal with procrastination.

The good news is that there are many ways to reduce the amount you procrastinate.

To get started, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is one thing I am procrastinating about currently?
  • Why am I procrastinating about this?
  • How could this delay cause problems?

Next, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the result I would like to achieve?
  • What is one small next step I can take now to move it forward?

For example, Kim is procrastinating about drafting a document. She realized this because she is uncertain of how to approach it.

Kim knows that delaying getting started will limit the time she has to work on it and could result in having to rush and turn in a shoddy work product or miss the due date.

Kim decides the next small step is asking a colleague for guidance on how to draft this type of agreement.

In another case, you may be stuck on completing some dull administrative tasks. Your small next step is to work on it for ten minutes each day until they are done.

To reduce procrastination this year, try this: Every Monday, ask yourself this question– where am I stuck? Then choose one small step to move the task forward.

Over time you will have the opportunity to notice any trends in your reasons for procrastinating.

As you learn about the internal and external causes of your procrastination, you can put in place some new routines, habits, or processes to reduce procrastination:

  • Keep a to-do list and review it daily. Take just a few minutes to set your goals for the day. Choose one thing you are procrastinating about on the list and take the next small step first thing.
  • What gets scheduled gets done—schedule time for important tasks.
  • Make your workspace a zone for focused concentration. Eliminate the distractions in your office and on the computer. Put a do not disturb sign on your door for part of the day so you can have time for focused work.
  • Use your computer at the office for your professional work exclusively. Do your web surfing and personal email on another device, preferably in a different space.
  • If you are a morning person, reserve your morning hours for your most demanding tasks. If you are a night owl, protect your afternoons for tackling complex work.
  • 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 the project.
  • If you delay asking for help, schedule time with colleagues or mentors each week to discuss work in progress.
  • Work in focused sessions of 30 to 90 minutes without checking email and handle emails in scheduled blocks.
  • Use small blocks of 5 to 15 minutes to take small steps on tasks you routinely put off.

As you reduce procrastination by getting started on tasks sooner, you will likely experience relief and enhanced motivation.

One final thought from Piers Steel in his book The Procrastination Equation: Procrastination is like weeds in the garden. You can control it but can never entirely eliminate it.

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