How to Beat Procrastination
I know what you are thinking: “Can’t you pick another topic?” Truthfully, I don’t procrastinate as much as I used to. Perhaps my newfound diligence is because, one day, I finally discovered how much I detest the stress and guilt that always mounts as any on-the-back-burner deadline approaches. But it’s more than that. It’s called pride. Nowadays, I prefer to polish my projects, which means I am going to need a little extra time to tweak some ideas and review what I craft.
After decades of considerable foot-dragging, I have discovered that no matter what I wish to undertake, my work will not transform into something easier by procrastinating. In fact, it gets harder. Every month I write one of these articles, and I know it’s going to involve some effort and time because I tend to experience occasional bouts of perfectionism as well. Of course, I always procrastinate for a while, but it does seem that the sooner I at least start a project, the sooner I will find the motivation to finish it.
Of course, I wasn’t always so proactive. In fact, I used to be a persistent procrastinator. It was a perilous playground I lived in back then. ‘Someday’ was my favorite day of the week. I would go out and do other instantly gratifying stuff that came to me on a whim while the worry of what was important would hover over me. I would ignore all those nagging responsibilities clinging to my guilty conscience, knowing fully that I was being irresponsible when deadlines loomed. With the pressure mounting, I barely realized that time was becoming an obstacle and that my ability to do something well shrank with each moment of passing time. I knew, if I kept waiting, I was going to hate my future self. But, that never stopped me until the impending reality of any deadline came crashing down on my life.
Let’s make no doubt about it, some of procrastination is subliminal—a deeply embedded habit in our minds. Realize that the subliminal mind is not inherently suitable to change or logic. The only thing that will intervene is a cognitive determination to understand the underlying causes of procrastination and fix it. This determination is difficult to reach because the unconscious mind also loves denial. Really, procrastination is like an addiction in that we go about destroying our whole lives for no obvious reason.
One thing I have discovered about procrastination is that it is not due to laziness. One does not explain the other. Procrastinators eventually do what they should do just because they know they should. Watching a procrastinator play super-catch-up at the last minute is evidence that they are quite productive when they are in the grip of crisis management. Laziness, on the other hand, has more to do with just not doing something at all. Lazy people just don’t care, and if you just plain don’t care, that’s another problem.
Today’s technological playgrounds make procrastination easier than ever. With the internet, video games, social media, smart phones, etc., who wants to waste time by making old fashioned paper airplanes and throwing them around the room anymore? Today, there is so much more inventive, yet equally unproductive methods of procrastination that we can utilize just as ineffectively. Regardless of the era, one of the main reasons all of us procrastinate is to dodge the pain of doing the task. It’s not that we simply love making life harder; it’s just that, in many cases, we overrate the pain we will really be feeling.
It has been my experience that too few salespeople take the time to become conversant in their trade. We become complacent by becoming eternal procrastinators. Consider the need for product knowledge. In our business, people do not buy technical knowledge; they buy color, style and function. She came into your store looking for a beautiful room—not a trade fair on flooring. Still, once we have qualified a customer’s needs, it is difficult to present merchandise we know little about. Taking the time to develop a working knowledge of how to answer questions about design, quality and performance issues is essential to help your customer reach her dreams. Appropriate product knowledge is one of the ways we build value and it produces competence. Yet, many salespeople never bother to develop it.
In a way, there are two types of procrastination: those things to do with deadlines and those without. Semi-fortunately, procrastination involving deadlines have a way of eventually taking care of themselves, however haphazardly, due to the ensuing panic that eventually grips and motivates us. Then you have those undertakings without deadlines which often involve self-improvement. Those “wouldn’t it be gratifying if I did this” sort of aspirations. Naturally, those no-deadline types of procrastination are especially troublesome to fix because there is not that built-in, fail-safe cure of panic.
As procrastination goes, it is the no-deadline types that hurts us the most. It is the oddest kind of procrastination in that these are the things that we never really must do unless we eventually feel like it. There is no reward other than a visualization of our future enrichment. Sadly, within my sales career, I have met very few salespeople who will take the time to read something that will improve what they do for a living beyond a cursory or nearly painless effort. It is an absurdity that we put self-fulling affairs off when we could begin improving our lives at once. Barring procrastination, here is our chance to achieve our dreams rather than chase them.
So, how can long-term procrastinators get moving? Regardless of how insidious our habits of procrastination are, the solutions stay mostly the same. Here are some intervention techniques to help you break the ‘do-it-later’ mindset:
- Recognize that you are procrastinating. If you are only occasionally putting off important things in your life, then you are not necessarily a ruinous procrastinator. We all procrastinate to one degree or another. Within a range, this is normal, even healthy. However, if this is a reoccurring theme in your life and you find yourself switching focus just to avoid doing something important, then you are a procrastinator. Somehow, we must go beyond recognition; we must want to solve our problems and prepare ourselves to construct changes in our life. Supposing otherwise is to allow ourselves to persistently stumble down the proverbial rabbit hole. Somebody once said, “Who you are tomorrow begins with what you do today.”
- Break your task into smaller chunks. This technique is by far the most utilized method of reducing procrastination. But it takes simple planning and the drive to follow a basic strategy. By doing little chunks, we are creating a smaller mountain to climb. Creating smaller goals makes our work more appealing mentally because tasks become more manageable in terms of effort and time. We must lose that all-or-nothing notion that gives rise to perpetual waiting. Instead, we are aiming for slow, steady progress rather than the single deadline.
- Stop over-complicating things. Many procrastinators miscalculate the difficulty of a task. Often, over-complication bases itself in nothing more than our dread of something. The truth is we are worrying about the wrong things. It is waiting that makes stuff more difficult overall. Until we do something, we tend to exaggerate the amount of time or effort it will take to complete a task.
- Set a midday alarm. This is particularly useful for crucial specifics. Dedicate yourself to a framework of time to do something. Sometimes I tell myself that by a set hour of the day, if I have not yet done something important, I am going to stop whatever I am doing and do it now. As another benefit, setting short-run, self-imposed deadlines never fully invokes the existential beast of dread which often daunts prompt action.
- Stop telling yourself you have plenty of time. Remind yourself that there is always more to be done than you think. We may think there will be extra time later, but our experience as procrastinators tells us that is just not true.
- Learn how to manage your time. Most people I talk to agree that a “to do” list helps motivates us and increases discipline. It also organizes time and relieves stress and anxiety. But few people do it on a regular basis. A ‘to do’ list will prevent you from ‘coincidentally’ forgetting about those unpleasant or not-so-fun tasks. By putting things on paper, it will focus us away from all those other trivial activities that keep us buried in procrastination.
As salespeople, if we can discover a practical method which methodically prioritizes our use of time and then actualizes our efforts, then we not only increase production, but reduce procrastination as well. Such a method exists, but few people know about it. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Matrix organizes our use of time in terms of importance and then ranks action based on the degree of urgency. Stephen R. Covey also made this approach famous in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In this simple model, all our time is spent in four quadrants. 1) Important and Urgent, 2) Important but Not Urgent, 3) Urgent but Not Important, 4) Not Important and Not Urgent. The trick is to say “no” to quadrants 3 and 4. They are the distractions. The objective is to keep your focus in quadrant 2 - still important, but not yet urgent. Quadrant 2 is where we ideally want to be at all times. Quadrant 1 is where procrastinators finally end up while believing they are in quadrant 2. We are always going to have some things come up, but the focus is to act before we get to that crunch point when possible.
- Decide what you are going to do first—the easiest or the hardest. This may seem like two opposing aims, but it is really a philosophical way to navigate yourself through quadrant 2 of the Eisenhower Matrix above – not urgent but nonetheless important. Quadrant 2 is a case where urgency is not yet the principal factor. This technique assumes that the pants-on-fire stuff of quadrant 1 has not yet happened. Here is where you must know yourself and your circumstance.
- Identify detours. Avoid those pitfalls that never get you to your destination. Put away the distractions. Keep sidetracking co-workers at bay. Parental controls are not just for naughty kids—they are pretty handy for us distracted adults too. Block or hide distracting web sites and apps. Having trouble staying off social networks while you are working? Remove the bookmark from your browser, or even uninstall it from your phone or computer. If it is going to tempt to you, get rid of it.
- Create an itinerary and monitor what you accomplish. Schedule and evaluate your workload. Just because you finally start something does not mean you will stay with it until you finish. Creating a specific timetable of what must be done helps manage your incentive to stay on track. When I was in college, there were often times after completing some exams that I felt that I had time to relax. However, I found that after I completed a quick itinerary of upcoming work, there was no playtime at all. In fact, I was swamped, and I just didn’t know it. When you do not meet your quota within your plan, it means you will have to double up on the work later.
- Focus on your task as if you are going to show it to other people. As a columnist, this is obviously my goal. But, it also applies in other areas. Have some pride in what you do. Recognize that excellent work takes time and preparation. Don’t kid yourself about doing your best work under pressure either. You cannot do decent work waiting till the last minute. Keep the end in mind. In many cases, we operate more conscientiously knowing our work will inevitably be noticed by others in some form. Think of your work as a kind of inspiration for other people, rather than seeing your efforts as something just to do for the requisite of doing it.
- Get a grip and just do it. The most important part of any activity is starting. Think of important tasks as opportunities or challenges to solve worthwhile dilemmas. To do otherwise puts us on a mission of failure or at the very least, mediocrity.
A final note: Before I decide to write another one of these columns, I think I will get on Google Earth and see if it will navigate me all the way over to Iceland. Perhaps I will travel up to the top of a nearby iceberg and see if I can get a better view of the capital city of Reykjavik. Later.
And, good selling to you.