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Get To Work By Meeting Procrastination Head-On

Being smart, energetic, and creative won't save you from procrastination, but knowing the whys and hows of it can be a big help. Here are four things you might not know about your worst habit.

There’s a huge distance between the physical energy it takes to run on a treadmill—the muscles, calories, and breath—and the often larger emotional energy it takes to head to the gym after a stressful day. Just ask a guy who gained 40 pounds during graduate school.

Rory Vaden is now much more trim, and quite focused on evangelizing the power of self-discipline in books like Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success. But back in graduate school, it wasn’t really laziness that kept Vaden him from the gym, but self-criticism.

"The number one reason we procrastinate is, we don’t believe we have what it takes to pull it off," Vaden said in an interview. "You think, ‘I probably don’t have the willpower to see this all the way through.’" You don’t necessarily say this exact line to yourself, though—you create a bunch of things in your head to do instead, even if, in the end, you don’t really do them.

Knowing and acknowledging when you’re actually procrastinating, and knowing what’s likely to trigger it, is probably your best defense against the monster that makes you feel busy without feeling productive. Here’s a few thoughts on acknowledging your misspent moments and not letting it bring you down, from Vaden and other brutally honest sources.

Clutter is procrastination, so deal with it

Your inbox can be empty, your to-do list entirely reasonable, but clutter gives away your latent procrastination. Whether it’s actual papers and books everywhere you look around your workspace, or a browser stuffed with check-this-out bookmarks, clutter accumulates because "you’ve deferred making a decision about what to do with it," writes Maura Nevel Thomas in Personal Productivity Secrets, due out May 1. "Maybe you think making a decision is going to take more time than you have to devote, or you’re afraid you might need it later, or perhaps you just don’t feel like dealing with it."

Thomas’ book recommends some techniques that should be familiar to anyone who’s looked into the Getting Things Done system, including the "two-minute rule": whatever you can process or deal with in two minutes, do it as soon as it pops up. But the real solution to procrastinating your cleanliness comes from actually wanting to deal with all that useless paper and unwanted emails and the like.

Messing with your tools is slick self-delusion

"It’s easy to always be getting ready to get ready." That’s how Vaden summarizes one of his key concepts around procrastination, "Creative Avoidance." Rather than do the things that seem far more emotionally draining than they are actually, physically demanding, we talk about projects with people, or mess with the tools we have to do them—find the right add-on, tweak the settings, add more contacts to LinkedIn. In other words, we avoid necessary, intimidating things, and busywork rushes in, like that lesson you still remember about gases from high school chemistry.

"The amount of busywork always expands to fill whatever attention we allow to be available," Vaden said. "You have to cultivate the habit of action … by demanding to yourself that you make progress, but freeing yourself from the demand for perfection. People wait to start until they have the perfect amount of time, the perfect set of resources, the perfect timing, but it never comes. You have to want to make progress."

Do the heavy stuff earlier

If procrastination is the art of avoiding decisions in favor of something, anything else, then you should know how decision after decision saps your willpower. So if you need to clear out a whole bunch of messages, items on your desk, or other nuggets requiring your snap judgement, do them early in the morning, or after you’ve had a good bit of rest from the other pressures of your work.

Be honest with yourself about the actual effort involved in doing your tasks, but be realistic about needing to space them out.

"Priority Dilution" is something even the boss’ favorite suffers from

Why do email inboxes always sort themselves in reverse chronological order? And why do you answer your emails that way? It’s because it’s easy to fall victim to the latest and loudest stuff, and because it feels great to dash off responses and knock messages down. It’s "incredible work, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective," Vaden said.

That’s the easiest example of what Vaden calls "Priority Dilution," a kind of unconscious procrastination (as opposed to conscious procrastination, which is, basically, choosing what you want to do). It’s why even after you label something as a High Priority, put a flag on it, and color it red, you don’t get it done, because you keep waiting for the right time to do it.

"Managers and high-performing employees suffer from this a lot, almost more than anyone," Vaden said. "We know which things are important, but we feel they need to rise to a level of convenience."

"But on any day, you can schedule things, move things so you’ve got 30 minutes available. Now that you’ve got those 30 minutes, you can ignore the small stuff while you work on the big stuff. Just as important, capture the small stuff that comes in while you’re working on the big stuff."

[Image: Flickr user Andres Rodriguez]

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  • Hubertus Schubert

    Well thought through article, I've not looked at "clutter" as a symbol of procastination. Thanks! I'll start to work on the change!

  • Cedricj

    I would add "Do the tough stuff first and follow it with something you really enjoy doing". In that way the procrastinator sets up his/her own reward system.

    I also like your two minute rule. But don't make too much of a messy desk. Some times a messy desk is a sign of a messy desk. It's kind of like "Sometimes Dr. Freud a cigar is just a cigar"
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Rory Vaden

    Distraction really is a dangerously deceptive saboteur of our goals. You did a great job of capturing the essence of these newer types of procrastination Kevin. As you pointed out the scariest part of all of this is not knowing just how much we're procrastinating because we are doing it unconsciously. I coined the term "Creative Avoidance" first from my self-diagnosis. It was like I was always creating stuff for myself to do so that I could avoid doing the things that I really needed to do but that I didn't want to do. Especially living in such an "escalator mentality" world its easy to procrastinate when most people around us are doing the same thing. Thanks for having me as a guest. See you in the stairwell my friend. - Rory

  • Russell Gray

    Great article.  I'm
    guilty of just about everything you mentioned. 
    Ironically, I'm procrastinating right now...let me get back to work.

  • Julia Spann

    Very beneficial ... once we put the advice into action!  I hear you on the point of self-criticism. If it's not constructive and it zaps our energy, then we need to consciously stop it.  Thank you for posting something that increases our awareness of our cognitive processes.  I'm going to share this on Facebook..This article was golden! 

  • Raj

    Fantastic article, I will be refering to this article regularly from today.

  • Suchitra Mishra

    Great post, Kevin - but it was like getting hammered early in the morning. I am guilty of almost all the above, the clutter, the messing with tools et all...
    Oh well, today is a new day and may be I can turn a new leaf through your post - once I get myself to get to it...

  • Morag Barrett

    Great article, I think if 'procrastination' were to become an Olympic sport I would stand a good chance of a medal.  The good news is that running my own business results in (and requires) focused effort and results.  I too avoid the clutter and clear away any distractions, I also find having a separate folder for each project keeps things in order.  When it comes to email and my inbox I have always worked with a 'read/action/delete' approach to keep the volume awaiting attention under control and visible.

  • Maura Nevel Thomas

    Great article, Kevin, and thanks for the mention! If people want to adopt the two-minute rule, then they should know that it is best applied during "processing" time - when you're making a to-do list, clearing out your email, opening the mail, or otherwise regaining control over all the incoming communication and information. Otherwise, it can quickly become another form of procrastination: doing what is easiest because it is in front of you versus focusing on the looming task that matters most.  Great summary of other useful advice!