My father used to say I would be late to my own funeral. I don’t think I would be late so much as putting the inevitable off until I could get around to it.
I procrastinate. Frankly, I’m something of a professional procrastinator. I think about items on my To Do list and what I will need to accomplish those tasks, how I plan to go about working on those tasks, and what I will need to put on the list after I have completed those items. That’s the problem. I think about the tasks without actually engaging and doing them. Sometimes when I’m driving, I’m thinking about all the things I will get accomplished once I get to my desk, and when I get there, I wander off into checking e-mails and Facebook and trolling Amazon. When I should be working on a paper or an article, I get caught in the trap of reading because something is interesting instead of doing the research then doing the writing. Even though I’m engaged in doing something, that isn’t productivity or working on the task.
This is part of the human condition, of course, wanting without following through. How often does a friend or coworker say he or she wants to learn Spanish but never actually spends any time learning the language—but this person can tell you the names of every person on a prime time reality TV show? If I want to write an article, I know the standard process, and I need to begin the process and stay with it to get the article written.
Overcoming procrastination is about getting started.
Lists, Lists, and Lists
Way back in the Dark Ages when yellow legal pads roamed the earth, a satisfying work day was punctuated nicely by a list of items on one of these yellow sheets marked through with a Sharpie. Notes were usually scribbled in the margins for the following work day, often with the strong India ink lines of an Esterbrook fountain pen. Today’s version of the calendar and To Do list fail in comparison, albeit everything is in our phone or tablet at the ready.
I believe in lists. I love lists. I offer prayers to Morris Perkin, patron saint of calendars and lists. My calendar and To Do lists merge into one long, rolling list that I can update daily and copy/paste into the next day as necessary. Evernote manages that aspect of my life and replicates nicely between my desktops, laptops, tablets, and phone. My personal To Do lists coexist with my work lists in this way. The standard calendar is too limiting and no longer works for me.
Breaking Down Goals Into Tasks
A line item of “Clean the House” or “Do Yardwork” means very little to me and is somewhat daunting in scope when taking the broader view of the tasks involved. I have to break down projects into manageable tasks and assign myself those tasks in the same resource management way I would any project. I tend to overthink the task process (procrastinate), so I need to list small tasks I can accomplish, usually in random order, and build on small successes. If I list for Monday:
- Clean out hallway
I am apt to get caught up in the “what” of cleaning the hallway instead of the tasks, subtasks, and milestones that would lead to the hallway being cleared of clutter. This is a non-starter for me. If we apply some basic project management tools to the line item:
- Clean out Hallway
- Put up scuba gear
- Move cooler back to storage building
- Fold up tarp and put back in truck
- Throw boxes in the hallway out
I am more apt to actually accomplish the larger task. Here we have small tasks that may be accomplished in any order, take only a few minutes per task, and will show a marked difference in the clutter in the hallway, perhaps even accomplishing the entire task. If the tasks run for more than five or six items, I will break them up over two or even three days to make the list less daunting. Often I find that I will get two or three items off the next day’s list if I get caught up in today’s list and get caught up in the doing. I find it satisfying to delete entries for tomorrow or the upcoming weekend.
The Two-Minute Countdown
What can you accomplish in two minutes? If you spend time thinking about doing something, the answer is nothing. Procrastination is thinking about doing instead of doing the doing. I read somewhere that by doing the small tasks that take two minutes or less to accomplish – empty the trash, put the dishes in the dishwasher, sweep the porch, roll the trash cart to the curb, send an email, make the bed – so much more gets accomplished during the day, and small successes build on each other.
“If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.” – U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McCraven, Commander U.S. Special Operations Command (SEALS).
Beginning the day with the simple success of making the bed puts us on the road to getting things done instead of thinking about what we would like to do. If the task can be completed in two minutes, take care of it and move on. Small successes add up quickly and promote forward momentum. As Admiral McCraven pointed out, no matter how badly your day goes, you get to come home to a made bed.
Schedule Productivity Time
Most employers would likely say that time on the clock should be 100 percent productive time, but how often does that happen? Most of us produce significantly less than the full eight hours in the office because of the myriad of distractions – e-mail, phone, coworkers, meetings, etc. Something is always flashing, beeping, or ringing our attention away from what we need to focus on, and we take several minutes to get back on task after these interruptions. Those of us who do not punch the time clock face the same challenge of being productive without the additional constraints of supervision and oversight.
Scheduling time to unplug from these distractions gives us time to focus on a task. Most e-mails and text messages are not so important they cannot wait thirty or sixty minutes to be returned. Concentrated, focused time on task sans distractions allows us to get more accomplished in less time. Schedule productivity time with the distractions turned off for the duration. Several such short sessions will cross items off the To Do list much more quickly with less effort.
Turn off the Television
The purpose of television is advertising with segments of entertainment sandwiched in between ads for things you probably do not need. There is nothing on television that is going to help you make more money, organize your life and your time better, or assist you in reaching your goals. Turn it off. I fall into the TV Trap all the time and sometimes I just can’t help myself. I finish what I’m doing for the day and sit down at nine or nine-thirty and flip channels until the local late news comes on at eleven. I’ve wasted two hours watching nothing. If you can’t miss your TV shows, record them and schedule time to watch them just like you schedule productivity time. We binge watch shows on the weekend now and then, instead of having to be in front of the TV at the same time each week and we can fast forward through the commercials. Get out of the habit of wasting time being hypnotized by the advertising screen.
Get Started. Tomorrow.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with taking a break and preparing mentally for something new – a last meal, as it were. Begin tomorrow with making your bed, and then, get to work on your To Do List. Break down the larger goals and tasks into manageable pieces and spread them out across your week in a way that makes sense in terms of likelihood of being accomplished and in whatever order necessary to complete them. If a task is likely to take less than two minutes, take care of it now, mark it off your list, and enjoy that little satisfaction. If you trip up, get up the next day, work on rolling your list forward, and get back on that horse. Success is measured not by how many times you fall down, but by how many times you get back up and get moving. Schedule some productivity time, some TV time, and some creative down time to doodle on a notepad, read from a collection of short stories, or sit and daydream to clear your head and get ready to move forward.
If you want to accomplish your goals, you have to do what is necessary. Get started.