Sunday, February 26, 2012

Six Steps to Stop Procrastinating

I used to be a procrastinator. I was very, very good at it. I pulled all-nighters with regularity, and I don't mean the kind you want to brag to your friends about later, but the kind where you're working feverishly to complete a project you could have easily completed weeks earlier.

In fairness to myself, at various times I have had jobs that required other people to meet deadlines in order for me to meet mine. Unfortunately, when other people didn't get the necessary materials to me, then I was in a pickle. So, because I was the "end of the line" before the publication had to go to press, I was the one who had to stay up all night in order to not miss my deadline.

I take deadlines seriously. They're not suggestions. They're deadlines. They exist for a reason. If you can't make one, you better have a good reason.

I was always able to pull off meeting the deadline, but it often required  a very intense day or two. Sometimes, when you work in news, that is required because you can't plan ahead. News doesn't tell you when it's about to happen, so you have to react. And sometimes you work day and night because that's what the story requires.

But, because I used to do that for a living, I adopted that as my norm. And I worked for people who had also done that for a living, and they lived in that chaos as well. In fact, they viewed chaos as a normal way of running a business. It was what they knew. It worked for them. They would occasionally try something new, but there was always the safety net to fall back on of just doing it by the seat of our pants.

Entire businesses are built on this principle. Some of them work quite well. There are some things where this is a fabulous way to be - you can react quickly, you can roll with the punches, and nothing flusters you. I get that. Been there, done that. However, it also means you can't ever move beyond the next crisis, because there's always another one looming as soon as you get this one under control.

In the last few years, I have broken the procrastination habit. I'm not saying I have the next five years of my life planned out or anything crazy like that, but I like to have projects that have deadlines solidly under control. That leaves time for things that pop up unexpectedly. If I get a call from an editor who has a story she needs next week, I can take that on because the story I already have due is underway.

But, you give up some things when you stop procrastinating, too. One that is a huge factor I hadn't identified, was brought up in conversation the other day. A friend mentioned that after you complete a project like that you can sink into a chair, breathe a sigh of relief, and feel like you've really accomplished something. It's not the same rush to complete the project a month early.

However, it is a totally different kind of satisfaction. And, dare I say, a better one. You now have the energy you devoted to being in crisis to do something you want to do. You have time to do fun things. You no longer have to live in fear of what might be coming down the pike that you will have to react to quickly. Because, if it does, you will have the time and energy to handle it. It's so much easier to handle the unexpected when the expected is already under control.

Life comes with surprises. Lots of them. I'm glad I've finally managed to break the habit of procrastinating. And that's what it is - a habit.

If you are a procrastinator, here are some steps to break the habit:

1. Deadline
If you don't have an official deadline, give yourself one. And it's not the morning something is due. It's a week or month before - whatever is reasonable for the task.

2. Decide
People often procrastinate because they don't want to decide what to do. They just keep living in limbo until they HAVE to make a decision. Just decide. Today. And move forward with whatever it is. It's not going to be any easier to decide in a week or month or year. Just do it right now and start putting the energy into accomplishing instead of wallowing.

3. Do
It's easy to get "stuck" when there's a step involved you're not comfortable with. Just do it and get it over with. You will spend more time dreading it than it will actually take to do it.

4. Move ahead
Don't second guess yourself and go backwards. You've made a decision, now stick to it, and start enacting the plan. Obviously, if you have some reason it won't work you have to reevaluate, but it has to be a real reason - not just a feeling you have. People stuck here by going back to step 1 and engaging in a loop. Just keep moving ahead.

5. Finish
Complete the task. It's tempting to stop when your part way through because you can finish it up quickly later on. You'll be in exactly the same predicament as if you hadn't started because if you put it aside and pick it up again later you'll question everything that's been done previously.

6. Celebrate
When you finish your task early, take some time to enjoy the fact that you do not have to waste time and energy being caught up in the drama of a last minute rush to complete. You have earned it!

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