So there’s a necessary task that only you can do, and you are capable of doing it. Except you keep putting it off until tomorrow — whether “it” is getting back to the gym, writing thank-you notes for wedding presents, getting past the second chapter of your novel, or filling out your annual employee evaluations. Some tips for beating a procrastination habit:
1. Find meaning in your task. People are most likely to procrastinate on work that they find meaningless. I wrote last month about how going to the gym had finally started to feel worthwhile, that running in place and picking things up and putting them down had come to seem like a good use of my time. (This is a good technique for academic procrastination, obviously.)
2. Or don’t. Maybe you’re putting off something that really is meaningless, like the week’s TPS reports, but you still have to do it. Don’t insult your own intelligence by trying to find the Tao of Paperwork. Either find a way to work through them with frequent rewards and distractions, or else play an efficiency game to make the task at least marginally challenging. Roald Dahl used to play “shaving golf,” and try to completely shave his face in as few strokes as possible. There was a lovely scene in last season’s “Mad Men” in which Don recounts how he used to write assigned essays in English class to the exact minimal word requirements — five paragraphs, fifty words each.
And there are times, also, when we procrastinate because the task has too much meaning. Starting our novel. Applying to graduate school. Pricing condos. The trick here is often to fool yourself into doing your work while pretending that you aren’t. You aren’t planning to move, you’re just going to open houses with a friend as a lark. I do this with my writing, often. Despite years of experience, I can still get spooked sometimes when I sit down “to write.” So I’ve developed a way of taking notes, and then gradually expanding and reordering them until whatever I’m working on is done. So I go right from “Note Taking” to “Editing” without ever stopping at that anxiety-producing station called “Writing.”
3. Build in rewards. If there is no way to find a task inherently rewarding (or at least, not sufficiently so), sweeten the pot. Take a sauna after your workout. Take a break for Words with Friends after each five exams you grade. Head to a coffee shop and enjoy people-watching and pastry along with your paperwork.
The trick here is to attach the reward to the task, so that the entire experience becomes more pleasant, and you’ll condition yourself to regard the task as less aversive in the future. If you impose a strict “first we write our thank-you notes, then we get to go play,” you’re reinforcing the notion that writing thank-you notes is a nasty chore. When possible, find some way to reward yourself during the task.
4. Other people are not necessarily a reward. A lot of the advice on avoiding procrastination revolves around making the task a more social one: joining a writers’ group, getting a workout partner, and so on. This is good advice, but it conflates two things: other people as a source of accountability and help, and social interaction as a reward.
For some people, that conflation doesn’t matter. But if you are in the minority of introverts, which I know many of my readers are, being with other people is not necessarily a reward. Even if you are extroverted, the people who can give you the most useful advice, and to whom you feel most accountable, may not be the people whose company you find most rewarding.
So if the writers’ group or workout partner isn’t working for you, figure out why. Maybe they’re fun but soft, and don’t hold you accountable. Or maybe they are great at keeping you motivated and providing advice, but the relationships feel more like part of the task than something intrinsically enjoyable.