Procrastination is a huge problem for a lot of people.
It was also always a huge problem for me for the longest time. Enough so that I had a Pearls Before Swine comic tacked to my office door to remind me not behave that way (protip: turns out taping funny comics to your door doesn’t do much to help productivity).
Chances are good you’re even reading this while putting off work right now, in which case I apologize for the link to the comics. That probably didn’t help you much.
To make up for it, I’d like to share my personal favorite strategy for killing procrastination and ensuring that you get a good bit of productivity out of each and every day.
The Procrastination Death Spiral
I recently shared this strategy with our e-mail subscribers and a handful of people had questions about it so I decided it’d be best to elaborate in an article.
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Procrastination comes from two main sources – apprehension and indecision.
You wake up in the morning or you head in to work and you run a quick check of everything you’ve got to do today. Immediately you feel like someone dropped a heavy rock on your stomach. Your to-do list is ten miles long and every single thing on it is miserable.
You steel yourself and dive into the first task headfirst. You’re tough. You can do this. An hour later you’re on Facebook poking around, or maybe YouTube or Netflix if you work from home. You feel a bit guilty about not being productive and try to dive back in but the fire’s gone. You might make a weak attempt, but before long you’re back to screwing around and your day’s wasted.
Sound familiar? What happened?
Most people don’t have the willpower to fight through that much unpleasant work. Sure you can build up a tolerance, but in the end your subconscious is not a fan of being tortured by a litany of dreadful tasks.
Whether you consciously realize it or not, facing a huge list filled with work you despise destroys your motivation. That dread you feel is potent procrastinatory poison that drains dry your drive to work and leads right to Facebook, or whatever your particular time-sink drug of choice is.
Indecision is the other frequent cause of procrastination. What’s that look like?
You sit down at your desk and get ready to get to work. What should you do first though? There are a ton of things you could work on, but you’re not sure what you should do right now. That little bit of indecision is the wedge that drives open your resolve just enough to let some temptation in.
You figure you’ll check your e-mail really quick. There are six different things in there you need to respond to that weren’t originally part of what you planned to do today. You deal with all of those and wind up back whee you started. You’ve done a lot of e-mailing though, so maybe five minutes on Facebook or Twitter is in order. You see a link with a title like “12 Most Embarrassing Cat Photos of Despotic Dictators”.
Like a former drug addict coming off a hard relapse you come to a few hours later with a vague sense of unease over the fact that you have no idea what happened to the past four hours. You’ve seen some weird things, probably been to a few dark corners of the Internet and somehow wound up on a Wikipedia article about the Volsunga Saga.
What you haven’t done is any real work.
Any strategy for eliminating procrastination has to address both of these factors if it’s ever going to be effective.
That’s where the Most Important Tasks list comes in.
Killing Procrastination with Preparation
I can’t claim this strategy is my invention – honestly I think every idea that can be expressed about fighting procrastination already has been – but it’s one that’s worked particularly well for me over the years.
It requires a bit of preparation though. The night before, either right before you go to bed or earlier in the evening, write down the five most important things you have to do the next day. These should be things that can reasonably be completed, but if not you can put in a goal-oriented tasked based around that bigger task.
So instead of “Write my novel” you would put down “Write 2,000 words of my novel”.
You’re going to order your list as follows:
An Easy or Fun Task – This should be either the easiest or second easiest thing you have to get done, or something you’ll actually enjoy doing.
The Most Difficult or Painful Task – This should be the thing that you least want to do. The thing you dread putting on your list.
The Second Most Difficult Task
The Third Most Difficult Task
Another Easy or Fun Task – If you don’t have a second task that sounds fun, schedule in some mandatory play for this task. Lighten up.
Then, the next day when you sit down to work, you just run through your list in order.
Having a structured list laid out for you ensures that you never have to be indecisive about what to do next, just follow the list. Since you did it the night before you also don’t have to worry about indecision over what to put on the list screwing up your work for that morning.
Structuring the list in this way also deals with the apprehension problem.
Starting off with something easy and fun means there’s a very low barrier to entry. You can jump right in and get started in a good mood because the first thing is easy and fun. Once you’ve warmed up on that you’ll have enough motivational momentum to tackle the toughest task you set in the second spot on the list.
If you tried to do it first, it’d be too painful to want to get started and if you put it off until last your motivation would be too sapped by the time you got to it to face it. This way you’re in the best possible mindset to get it taken care of.
After that, you have the promise of some fun just a few tasks down the list. Each task you do leads to an easier task after that second difficult one and at the end you get rewarded with some fun.
Nothing to be scared of.
Like I said there is a lot of advice out there on productivity. Different things are going to work better or worse for different people. This has been my single favorite though, so give a try and see if it works for you too!
If it has, or if you’ve found some way to modify things to make it more effective for you, share it with everyone in the comments! I’m sure there are other people who would find your modification useful as well.
Photo Credit: Matt Gibson