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How to stop procrastinating

This is a guest post by Nic Bryson, VP of Customer Success at Wrike, with some insights into the causes of procrastination. He offers some helpful advice for project managers struggling with a lack of motivation.


“I’ll finish it later” and “I’ll start from Monday” – Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? You are not alone. According to Dr. Piers Steel, one of the world’s foremost procrastination researchers, 95% of people admit they are procrastinating occasionally, and for 20% of us, the problem is chronic. Nike has this smart ad campaign that says, “Yesterday you said tomorrow.” But is it easier to say “Just Do It” than to actually stop putting it off?

4 pillars of procrastination
After 10 years of research, Dr. Steel came to the conclusion that the roots of procrastination lie in the lack of motivation:

Among the four reasons, our own “impulsiveness” is the most dangerous of them all. It makes us focus on the urgent tasks that keep popping up, instead of concentrating on the important ones. And as an average person gets an interruption every eight minutes, it’s even easier to get distracted. We also tend to procrastinate if the task seems boring (lacks “value”), too intimidating (leaving you with low expectancy of success) or feels too remote in time to start thinking of (the deadline is delayed).

So how do you deal with your own enemy named procrastination? It’s quite simple: Spot your “weakest link” and apply the useful hints below to improve it!

When the task seems intimidating:  

  1. Make your To-Do list short. As an experiment, try to keep it under five tasks. Developer Jakub Stastny calls this concept the “3+2 rule.” Say you have seven tasks in your task list and hope to complete them all. But, obviously, that doesn’t happen. You feel overwhelmed, get frustrated and, therefore, procrastinate. Instead of having unrealistic expectations, just acknowledge that you can do only three big things and two small things. Do them, enjoy the result and call it a day!
  2. Break it into smaller steps. Mark Twain once said, “The secret of getting started is breaking your complex, overwhelming tasks into small, manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.” Just follow the classic writer’s advice and keep breaking the task down until it seems almost effortless, and you realize you can handle it right now.

When the task is mind-numbingly boring or doesn’t make any sense to you:

  1. Reward yourself. When you dislike a task, you can make it a bit sweeter by celebrating its every accomplished step. The “treat” should be triggering enough for you. Enjoy drinking Puerto Rican coffee, but hate doing your accounts? The promise of the hot cup will take you through the unpleasant duty faster and, therefore, will keep you from postponing it. Just find your own motivator and leverage it. To gain extra satisfaction, mark each small part of your task completed in the task management software you use.
  2. Create a competition. Bring some spice into your assignment. Can you compete with a friend/colleague on who finishes the monthly report first? Say the loser treats the winner to lunch? You can always compete with yourself, too. Use the time-tracking software and see how fast (with no harm to the quality) you can complete a similar task in future.
  3. Play with it. If you’re tempted to avoid a non-exciting task, try to add a “game” element into the process. For example, Myrtle Young, a famous American potato chip collector, made her boring job at a potato chip factory more interesting by looking for potato chips that resembled celebrities. Even everyday chores like grocery shopping can become fun at the moment you make a game of, say, finding better bargains than you did last time.
  4. Learn to enjoy it. If you have to handle a mind-numbingly dull task, make sure you profit from the time you spend on it. For example, listen to the new album of your favorite band in the background or some classical music. Finding the type of music that works best for you will help you get through the routine faster and may even boost your productivity!

When you keep getting distracted and task-switching:

  1. Set feasible deadlines for each part of your task. As we covered above, big projects can seem overwhelming until they are broken down into manageable steps. And setting due dates for each part of your project or task will help you stay motivated and focused.
  2. Devote 10 minutes an hour for e-mails. Dr. Piers Steel estimates that the U.S. gross national product could rise by as much as $50 billion if new e-mail notifications suddenly disappeared from workers’ computers. Constantly checking your e-mails and clicking on “refresh” keeps you from doing your actual tasks and creates a false feel of overload. To stay concentrated, make sure to log out of your e-mail account, rather than keeping it just a click away. And, most importantly, check e-mails only during those 10 minutes especially assigned for that task.
  3. Schedule your concentration. A famous time management technique Pomodoro suggests is alternating a 25-minute period of concentrated work with 5-minute breaks, scheduled with the help of a simple timer on your computer or mobile phone. You can find other timeframes that work best for you. The trick is just to keep them strict.
  4. Don’t break the chain. This method, featured by Jerry Seinfeld in his popular TV show, helps you to stay focused on the long-term task. It suggests that you spend some time every day on the desired activity (it can be anything from “learning Spanish” to “writing a script”) and, when you do, crossing off that day on a one-year calendar with a fat red marker. You’ll like seeing the growing “chain” of productive days on your calendar and will have fewer reasons to procrastinate on the task.
  5. Throw away the key. If you feel like you can’t completely rely on your own will power in the matter of procrastination, perhaps you should try more radical means. Of course, you can follow the example of the famous novelist Jonathan Franzen, who plugged the Ethernet socket with superglue, but there are programs like RescueTime or Freedom that will block your Internet access or some particular sites for as long as you dictate – just give the password details to your more iron-willed partner.
  6. Raise the stakes. The website Stikk provides an even more radical solution and helps you make the failure really unpleasant. It lets you set aside money you will lose if you don’t meet your goal, and it can post the updates of your task commitment on Facebook!

Do you have your own anti-procrastination weapon? Do you use any acknowledged techniques or rely on yourself only?

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