Want to know how to tell if I have a deadline approaching? Check my bathroom. The shinier it is, the harder I’m working to avoid the inevitable.
Avoidance-by-cleaning became my modus operandi when I was in college. Over the years I’ve scrubbed more sinks, washed more mirrors and scoured more bathtubs than a fleet of Merry Maids. It’s my special routine for procrastinating. I’ve also learned it’s become one of my go-to activities when I need to think.
Deadlines to meet and I’m taking time out to think? You bet. Honestly, one of my main reasons for procrastinating is that I’m not exactly sure how to tackle the project that lies before me. Whether I’m struggling with wording or I’m having problems connecting two theories or I can’t figure out how to conclude a chapter, cleaning gives me the time to think. Oddly, this bathroom cleaning routine has helped me paddle through the procrastination pond and meet – or beat – my deadlines.
Unfortunately, not all procrastinators are so lucky. When I was teaching high school, I often asked students what kept them from getting their work done. I’d ask them to go to the white board and write down what they were most likely to do when they should have been finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Because they were teenagers, their answers most often revolved around technology: Netflix, Instagram, Snapchat, X-box, texting. A few also admitted to baking or playing with a pet. Whatever their answer, it was helpful for students to recognize their go-to distractions – the activities they turned to when they should have been doing important tasks.
Most of us do it to some extent. We dawdle until there’s too little time left to do the work. Anxiety sets in. Deadlines whiz by. We swear we’ll never wait until the last minute again, but we can’t help ourselves. It’s so easy to get caught up in this never-ending cycle: Procrastinate. Panic. Procrastinate. Panic.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Acknowledge you have a problem (acknowledgement is always the first step). Then follow these tips to get the work done:
If cat videos are your downfall, don’t allow yourself to watch YouTube until you’ve accomplished a certain amount of work. Instagram addict? Turn off your phone. Go through the process I did with my students and identify what you’re most likely to do when you should be finishing homework or wrapping up a big project. Then do what you can to remove the distraction, at least temporarily.
Break it down
I’m most likely to procrastinate when a project is overwhelming – perhaps it’s multifaceted or especially complicated. Breaking the assignment into smaller, more manageable portions will allow you to chip away at the work in a relatively pain-free fashion.
Don’t just think about divvying up the work; make a plan and write it down. In her book Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott tells this story: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”
The next time you’re faced with what seems like an insurmountable task, break it down and conquer it paragraph by paragraph, or chart by chart, or budget report by budget report.
Once you’ve divided the work up, set a deadline for each chunk. If you’ve got seven days to write a report, set a realistic timeline for accomplishing the task in six days, so you give yourself an extra day for proofreading and formatting. Again, the key here is to write down your plan – that makes it more concrete.
Ask for help
If you’re not sure how to handle some aspect of your project, get assistance. Don’t understand your company’s internal style guide? Ask a colleague. Do your Excel skills need sharpening? Watch a tutorial. Would background or history on your project make moving forward easier? Read past annual reports or old strings of emails.
Fretting about what you don’t know, will not get work done. Take action – and quickly – to fill in knowledge gaps.
The first time I ran a marathon, I announced my plan nine months prior to the race. I told my family, my friends, people at the gym, total strangers. I knew if I made my intentions public, these people would continue to ask me how my training was going. I couldn’t possible tell them I’d given up. They would, without knowing it, keep me on track.
Do the same thing with your project: Tell a colleague or a friend what you’re doing. Ask them to check in and hold you accountable.
I’m not suggesting you throw yourself a party every time you take a step toward finishing your project, but a little reward may help keep you going. Buy yourself a fancy chocolate bar and allow yourself a bite each time you meet one of your break-it-down objectives. Take time out for a yoga class or a walk through the neighborhood. Draw a smiley face on your deadline checklist next to your freshly accomplished goal. Stop for a moment to celebrate your forward motion.
These rewards feel great and, long term, may lead to what University of Houston Professor Robert Eisenberger calls “learned industriousness.” By creating a cycle of work-reward-work-reward, you’re training yourself to work harder and smarter in the future.
Following these tips isn’t a surefire guarantee that you’ll never again put off work. But they may help you manage your work and time in a way that makes future projects less stressful. Channel your inner Golda Meir who once said, “I must govern the clock, not be governed by it.” Tick Tock. Time to take control of your time.