3 Ways To Tackle Your Procrastination Problem

Even Charlie Brown recognized his own problem with procrastination. Here are a few tricks even kids can understand to stop putting things off and be more efficient.

True confession: I started writing this article more than two months ago, and I am just finishing it now.

I had the best intentions, of course. I planned to bang it out that very first week, but I realized that I was going to be traveling for work, which meant that I really needed to spend time planning for packing, and then, of course, do the packing itself. So, I aimed for the following week when I came home, but I realized that I had follow-up emails from my work trip that needed to be sent out in a timely manner, whereas writing this article could surely wait.

Then I had a sick kid. And then I got sick. And then I had to take care of the work that I had fallen behind on while I was sick. So this article—now weeks behind schedule—just sat there, waiting to be written.

All of a sudden, I realized that I was channeling Charlie Brown from the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown in his song, "The Book Report":

If I start writing now when I'm not really rested
It could upset my thinking, which is no good at all.
I'll get a fresh start tomorrow, and it's not due till Wednesday,
So I'll have all of Tuesday — unless something should happen.

Chuck and I were both trying to convince ourselves that we were really, truly setting priorities about how and when to do our very best work. We were telling ourselves that we needed to put health (or mental health) first to ensure the quality of our final product. We were buying into the belief that a clean and clear schedule would guarantee our commitment to the task ahead. Unless, as Charlie Brown, noted, "something should happen."

Guess what? Something almost always happens. Have you noticed that too?

When it comes to getting things done, I admit that it is important to set priorities and stick to them. It is important to put our health and mental health at the top of our to-do list. And it is important to start fresh on important tasks. What becomes a problem is when we wait…and wait…and wait…for the perfect time to get started. Because while there are better times to get started and less than ideal times to get started, there’s no such thing as the perfect time. Yet, we wait for it anyway.

If you struggle with procrastinating on the start of projects or even the end of projects, you may also be grappling with perfectionism. Think about it: How often do you find yourself waiting for something to be perfect—or close to it—in order to get started or know when to stop?

Here are three reasons why many people procrastinate:

1. They are waiting for the perfect time to get started, aka "How can I start networking when I don't have my elevator pitch down?"

2. They are waiting for something to be perfect in order to call it finished, aka "How can I launch my new website when I still don't have all my keywords ready for SEO?"

3. They are waiting for themselves and their lives to be perfect, aka, "I can't _________________ until I lose 10 lbs/get my MBA/get married."

Sound familiar?

It does to Alistair Ostell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Bradford Management Center in England, who has identified this mindset as absolutist thinking. This black-or-white approach can lead to emotional distress—often anger—when we can’t achieve perfection. And procrastination is only one of its side effects. In her Psychology Today article, "The Cost of Perfection," writer Amy Wilson describes how absolutist thinkers "get upset if things don't go their way, which impedes their problem-solving and coping skills…This may translate into health complications such as insomnia, heart palpitations, chronic fatigue, and high blood pressure." And if you’re a perfectionist, you absolutely can’t afford to get sick—because then you might have to delegate/downsize your expectations/settle for less than perfect—all of which could make you really sick, right?

Wrong. Replacing the entrenched belief that flawlessness is the goal with a new and healthier belief that good enough can be enough may be painful, difficult, and even stressful, but it won’t make you sick like striving for perfection can.

Because as you know, I know, and even Charlie Brown knows, something is probably going to happen anyway.

Voltaire wrote, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." The perfect is also the enemy of you. At a time when the ever-changing world requires us to be resilient and adaptable, our perfectionist-procrastination tendencies keep us stuck in place, locked into unrealistic expectations and counterproductive behavior.

Here are three strategies for getting more done by getting more comfortable with less than perfect conditions:

1. Just start anyway. You have likely given yourself a laundry list of requirements for how your day needs to look, what resources you need to have at your fingertips, or even how the world needs to be in order to get started on your project. But unless your endeavor is legitimately a high-risk undertaking (to more than just your ego), just get started. Nothing stops us more than the start. Once you’re in it, you’re more likely to keep going.

2. Tell yourself three stories to challenge your thinking. First, tell yourself the story of a time when you were "less than perfect" but still managed to successfully accomplish a goal; second, tell yourself the story of someone who you believe to be perfect (or pretty close to it), but fell short of achieving his or her objectives; and third, tell yourself the story of the "default future" you’re facing—in other words, how will your project, endeavor, or career turn out if you continue on this course of inaction?

3. Create artificial criteria for stopping. If you’re the kind of person who can’t finish a project until it is perfect (end-state procrastination), choose a different benchmark for finishing—and stick to it. You might decide to end your project at noon on Friday, or after 25 hours of working on it, or at 1,000 words written. A hidden bonus: For those of us who procrastinate the start because we can’t picture how or when this project or process will end, creating wrap-up criteria helps us have a compelling, appealing, and (hopefully) motivating image of what done looks like.

Whether it’s perfect or not, eight weeks later, this article is finally—FINALLY—finished.

What practical tips have helped you overcome procrastination? Tell us about it in the comments.

[Image: Flickr user John McStravick]

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22 Comments

  • icethy

    Dear JC,

    You know me so well, it is creepy. 

    Sincerely,

    A procrastinator procrastinating right now by looking up what to do about procrastination

  • Paul Parker

    I am also a procrastinator, procrastinating, reading your reply on procrastinating about procrastination.

  • Dasha Golubeva

    According to our recent study with 2,000 respondents, 21% see procrastination as the no.1 enemy to their productivity (http://www.wrike.com/news/wrik.... It ranked higher than such serious factors as digital distractions and inaccurate plans. What usually helps me to beat procrastination is breaking down tasks into smaller one. And for each part I try to set a realistic deadline and stick to it. If I see a big task without a strict deadline in front of me, there might be some psychological barrier that prevents me from getting started right away, so I need to use some additional triggers :) I know some people feel extra mobilize when they work on a task in a very last moment, but that seems to be pretty much stressful!

  • Lbrice

    Getting started is often the most difficult for me.  I want to visualize the entire project before taking the first step, and feel overwhelmed if there are likely to be options and unknowns.  Now, I try to just identify the first step, and take that step, knowing that I will be able to "see around the bend in the road" or make the next choice when the first step has been taken. 

  • crb

    Confession - this has been in my inbox for 9 days... and i'm just reading this now!

  • Michael

    Procrastination is a sin
    It really is a sorrow
    I really ought to stop it soon.
    In fact, I'll start tomorrow!!

  • parsnates

    I still procrastinate, but I've been able to change the definition of "at the last minute".  I learned the hard way that if I left just enough time to complete something, I was counting on nothing unexpected happening that would prevent me from getting the work done (e.g. system down for maintenance at 1 AM).  Now, the "last minute" allows for the unpredictable and the needed sense of urgency builds just as before, but with a realistic cushion build in.

  • Liz

    Love this article. It is perfect because you got it done. I struggle with ADHD & procrastination is a huge problem for me. I'm supposed to start blogging for my website & I keep putting it off because, I want to loose more weight or to come up with better content.
    Thank you for this. I will tackle my writing projects now.

  • Trudy Phillips

    So very true.  I work diligently at not procrastinating and it is hard.

  • Dual218

    I keep a kitchen timer on my desk at work. When I catch myself finding excuses to start a task / waiting for that perfect time, I just press the start button. The timer is set on 45min. I find that I can get most tasks done in that timeframe.

  • Jstephens

     I totally related to it, I procrastinate on everything because I worry I wont have time to complete projects the way I want it done.

  • Cynthia

    I set my timer for 5, 10 or 15 minutes.  I tell myself I can stop when the timer goes off.  I rarely stop, but even if I do, I feel better for having gotten the project started.  And, when I decide to stop something, I leave a note as to where to start, so it's easier to get back on track.  Twyla Tharp calls it 'building a bridge'

  • Irene

     HI Cynthia. That is such a good idea. I tried something like that when I would think I will read this book for at least 10 minutes and I almost always ended up doing more.
    Irene

  • Dan

    Quickly break down the "project" into steps. Preparing an income tax return sounds daunting. Steps: 1.Create file for income tax stuff 2. get all sources of income (W-2s, 1099s, etc.), 3. get deductions (break this down if there are many) -- Each step becomes a project in itself and can be started and completed in very little time. (I want to landscape my backyard; I have this great vision which has not been started on for 10 years. So, I am going to build a planter first and not worry about the ENTIRE project which can take weeks or months. 

  • JC Atom

    3 Ways To Tackle Your Procrastination Problem

    1) Stop reading this article.

    2) After stopping reading this article do what you've been putting off.

    3) Do it now.