Note: This is a guest post by Arjun Muralidharan of The Productive Student.
I have the classic problem of ‘thinking about being productive, but not putting it into action’.
That’s what’s troubling Life Optimizer reader Kashmira. The deeply ingrained problem here is procrastination, or the behavior of deferring tasks to a later time.
Deferring tasks is all right when done the right way. You can defer a task if you’ve decided when to defer it to. The number one reason for procrastinating seems to be anxiety, and fighting that can be a daunting challenge.
Here are 7 habits to implement to counter the procrastination habit.
- Process without exception: As things come into your life, we collect them and at some point make decisions about what to do with them. Here’s the problem: Often the decision itself is put off to be made at a later time. The Solution: Make it a habit to process your inbox or pending items completely. In GTD, this would be processing your in-basket until it is empty. Ingrain in yourself a feeling of uneasiness when you see an inbox that isn’t empty. Even if you decide to do something later, decide. Don’t defer the decision.
- Love thy calendar: Many task-management systems such as GTD depend strongly upon to-do lists of actions that need to get done “as soon as possible”. Here’s the problem: If you need to decide on the spot whether to surf blogs or finish that Excel spreadsheet, the decision will probably go the wrong direction. The solution: Take your tasks for the next day, or week (I plan on a 3-day-in-advance basis) and put them in your calendar right away, setting aside the time to do them.This is a long-term solution, as you will learn how much time you really need for tasks (they totally didn’t match up for me in the beginning) and where your time gets spent. Quick Tip: Start collecting tasks you like to do – right now you’re reading a blog post, so collect that – “reading blogs”. Then set aside some time to do these as well.
- Reward yourself: Sprouting from the previous habit, you should not only budget work into your calendar, but fun as well. Balance these out, and you’ll get a good overview of how you’re work-life-balance is going once you’ve entered them side-by-side. Here’s the problem: Time is limited, and we usually go straying off, losing our perception of time. The solution: Get a timer. When I began using a timer, it changed everything. I recommend a physical egg timer, but a software one may do as well, depending on what you do all day. You learn an incredbile amount of things about how time passes, how much time something requires and you’ll be surprised at how long (or short!) those “15 minutes of coffee break” actually are.
- Clarifiy outcomes crystal-clearly: One thing people often do wrong when defining projects or setting goals is the clarification of outcomes. Projects should be defined as the best possible outcome for that project, and so a moment of thinking on your part is required. Here’s the problem: People often clarify outcomes, but not clearly enough. The solution: Use S.M.A.R.T. goals. Goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. I don’t use many of these concepts, as they seem more of a hype, but this one makes a lot of sense to me and keeps me on track when defining outcomes. I often miss out on measurability or timeliness. How about you?
- Stay motivated: Unless you’re motivated to do something, you won’t. Rational people think about what utility an action brings to them. If you decide to watch LOST, the utility might be 42 minutes of thrilling entertainment. The problem: In the context of work and tasks, we often don’t see the utility of doing them. The solution: Just like clearly defining goals, we can clearly define our long-term goals, which will explain anything we’re doing today. If I have to write a term paper, my long-term utility of doing it well is a good career and an 8-figure income (ha). Create incentives for yourself by picturing these long-term effects. Quick tip: Visualize! Putting these goals visually often helps to give yourself a motivational boost. Here’s the deal: Next weekend, find some paper, some magazines, and write, cut and paste together a motivational mission statement for one of your life goals.
- Eliminate the unnecessary: Often people suffer from anxiety because of too many tasks and areas of responsibility in their lives. Here’s the problem: We often don’t know what to eliminate, or we just can’t get rid of it. The solution: Rethink your life. While this may be asking a lot, sit back and think – do you really have to be president of the debating club? What’s it’s utility? If so, where else can you cut back?I think everyone should have around 5 areas of responsibility in life – family, friends, work and two things that make you really unique. For me, it’s my political activity and music. Blogging is about to become one (that depends on you, reader!), so I’ll need to rethink where I position music or political activity.
- Have a super-simple system: I’ve experimented with a slew of tools to help me implement efficient task management, and finally ended up with a select few that I’ve been using for weeks now. Here’s the problem: I’m sure you’ve found yourself endlessly fiddling around with tools and blog ideas (just like this one) without ever settling for one system. The solution: It took me a year to find my system. A year. Finally, I settled for the most simple system: a moleskine notebook for jotting down anything (and I don’t hack it, organize it or do anything to it – just collect free form) and text files on my computer. I also have a simple A-Z filing system physically as well as on my computer. I didn’t use third-party software to file my stuff or organize tasks.Gradually, I saw what my system was missing, if at all. I needed some basic sorting features for contexts, which took me to using TaskPaper. I then had a system that Things seems to encompass beautifully, which I use today, and probably won’t leave anytime soon. Its killer feature: A quick-entry box system-wide and support for David Allen’s areas of responsibility concept.
Rethinking your system is always a sign of progress, but never forget to ask yourself: Why am I changing? Why exactly is my current solution not working? Then learn to settle.
Those are just a few points where you can start remedying your procrastination habit. There’s a slew of problems that can cause task deferral, and I hope to have addressed a few here. Happy tasking!
This post on procrastination is a contribution by Arjun Muralidharan, author of The Productive Student, a brand-new blog about productivity for students and life-learners. For more posts like this one, be sure to subscribe to the feed.