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Overcoming Procrastination (June, 27, 2008 version)

By Marty Nemko

Procrastination can be a career killer, even damage your relationships. Here are the strategies that my clients have found most helpful. See if you can find one or two you think might help you:
  • Set a big goal. Goethe said, “Dream no small dreams because they have no power to move people’s hearts.” So, what’s an important goal that, if you put your mind to it, you could potentially achieve? Even if you’re not sure you could achieve it, might getting partway there be beneficial enough?
  • Perhaps your procrastination is a sign that the task really isn’t worth doing. Consider that. If so, drop it and tackle a more important one.
  • Simply use your force of will: Make yourself sit down and do it. That is such an obvious suggestion, yet it’s the one that has most often worked with my clients.
  • Imagine how good you’ll feel if you get the task done well and on time. Perhaps envision yourself getting praised by others, that your work will have made a difference in people’s lives, or that it will help you get tenure. Or simply think about how good it will feel to cross it off your to-do list.
  • Imagine how embarrassed you’ll be if your procrastination results in a poor product or missing the deadline. How would you feel if the recipients of your work think or say, “I’m disappointed in you.”
  • Remind yourself that once you get started, you’ll probably feel more motivated to get it done.
  • Be aware of the moment of truth: the moment when you decide — usually unconsciously — whether you’ll tackle the task or do something more pleasurable. Of course, there are times you’ll choose the more pleasant task, but if you make that decision consciously, you’ll more often choose to tackle the task.
  • Schedule a time to work on the task. Treat that like a doctor’s appointment: You would not blow that off.
  • If the time to begin your task arrives and you’re overwhelmed by its enormity, follow the time-honored advice to start by breaking it down into manageable bites. One way to do that that avoids the perfectionism that so often stalls procrastinators is to set a timer for three minutes. In that time, write all the steps that need to be taken to complete the project, or as many ideas as you can think of that are related to the project. However long it takes you to develop that to-do list, ask yourself, “What’s my first one-second task toward completing that first sub-task. It could, for example, be typing in a search term in Google, opening a book, whatever. Often, that one-second task gets you rolling.
  • If you reach a stumbling block, try using the one-minute struggle. If you can’t make progress on the stumbling block within one minute, the odds are that spending much more time will not bear fruit. So, often it’s wisest to — at the one-minute mark — use the best solution you’ve come up with, ask someone for help, or figure out if there’s a way you can continue without having solved that stumbling block. What too often happens is that when people reach a stumbling block, they keep struggling with it for such a long time that the task becomes so odious that they procrastinate the entire task.
  • Be aware of excuses to procrastinate. Often, to avoid working on the core task, you do a tangential but more pleasant one: for example, pursue some fun part of the research in greater depth than necessary. I find it helpful to continually ask myself, “Is this the most time-effective approach to getting the task done?”
  • Does your procrastination stem from fear of failure, an unconscious belief that your procrastination allows you to save self-esteem by thinking, “Well, it’s not that I’m incompetent. I just chose not to spend the time on it”? If so, that temporarily propped-up self-esteem usually gets clobbered by the repercussions of procrastination.
  • Does your procrastination derive from fear of success? Are you afraid that if you succeed, expectations will be raised further? If so, it may help to remember that you can set limits on how much you’re willing to tackle. Other people fear success because they don’t want a loved one to feel inferior. It may help to remember that if another person feels worse because you succeed, that’s more likely a problem the other person needs to work on than a sign that you should sabotage yourself.
  • Does your procrastination come from laziness/hedonism? The best curative is to remember that, like a shot of heroin, the short-term pleasure of procrastination will be dwarfed by the long-term pain of feeling guilty you're procrastinating and the ill-results of a shoddily done last-minute job.

And now, would you stop procrastinating by reading this blog and get to work? All right, a few more minutes with my blog.

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