Tools for Procrastination

…I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while… but I’ve been putting it off. 😂

For me, procrastination comes from five sources:

  1. Ambiguity: confusion about how to move forward
  2. Conflict: disagreeing about next steps
  3. Perfectionism: doubting my ability with the task at hand
  4. Busyness: believing something will take a long time to do, and delaying until I can find a large enough block of time to do it.
  5. Lack of agency: focusing on what I’m being told to do, rather than the opportunity I have or the value I can create.

Before sharing some tools, it’s worth noting: procrastination often serves me well. It shortens the time to finish and eliminates unnecessary tasks. But – it also has caused me to miss out on a lot.

Here are the tools I’m using:

  • To help with clarity:
    • Short Assignments (or “the One-Inch Frame”) – If I find I’m delaying a task, I try to break it down into a set of absurdly small tasks I can start completing to build momentum. At work, I’m often synthesizing information–so it helps to make a list of each file I need to open to help me get started. A nice mental image for this comes Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott, where she talks about viewing something through a one-inch frame. What is the smallest possible bit of this big project I can tackle?
    • Absurdly detailed list – related to short assignments, it helps me to create a list from the short assignments. If it’s a long project, I’ll make a visual tracker where I can see my progress towards goal over a longer period.
  • To handle perfectionism:
    • Bad first drafts – another concept that helps: remembering that editing is much easier than writing. Even an incredibly terrible first draft, no matter how bad it is, brings me closer to the goal and makes starting the next time easier.
    • Breezy Emails – For complex projects, it can help to get feedback from trusted peers or mentors with a light, quick email. A single paragraph with a few bullets for an outline, then go do something else. This gives people a chance to weigh in with some feedback, suggestions, or affirmations, without creating the pressure of a larger assignment.
  • To help with busyness:
    • 10-minute Timer – Agree to work on the assignment for 10 minutes, and be okay with however far I get. Usually, the barrier for me is getting started–so if I can get through the first 10 minutes I’ll feel good about continuing. But – it’s also okay to stop. For me, this lowers the pressure of getting started.
    • Impossible deadline – I saw this idea on Twitter and thought it was brilliant. Try to get the task done in a completely unrealistically short amount of time. Hopefully this eliminates the pressure, causes you to get further than you expected, and maybe helps you be more creative about how you reach the finish line.
    • The Shelf – Maybe this isn’t the right time to do the project or worry about the thing I’m worried about. If that’s the case, have a list or file where I write down the progress and the reasoning and come back to it later. If it makes sense, set a time to circle back on this idea in the future. If it comes up again, you can add to your notes until it’s time to prioritize it.

One other thing I’ve noticed: when I am procrastinating, creating extra pressure doesn’t help. Procrastination happens when the cost feels immediate, but the benefits feel far off–so much of the online advice focuses on making those far-off consequences feel more real. Tools like making public commitments are an example of raising the pressure on oneself. That strategy may work well for others but doesn’t work for me. For me, lowering the pressure and starting through a familiar process work better.

I hope these help you tackle the big challenges in your day! Take care.

References & Further Reading:

  • Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird has great advice, and includes the ideas of bad first drafts and short assignments
  • I appreciated this twitter thread, which included the idea of the Impossible Goal
  • Tim Urban has a hilarious TED Talk and articles on procrastination

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