I can be a pretty bad procrastinator.
In school, I put off writing essays until the day before they were due. At home, the dishes pile up and out of the sink more often than I'd like. Putting things off can be a real problem in my life and I know I’m not alone.
I’ve talked to other procrastinators of all types—from slacker students to fearful entrepreneurs to creatives who religiously refuse to start a project until there’s a deadline staring them in the face. And the one thing I’ve learned is that procrastinators never learn.
For entrepreneurs, especially, procrastination can become a regular hurdle, making it necessary to take certain steps to ensure it doesn’t stand in the way of you getting your idea off the ground.
But the first step on the road to recovery is to understand why it is we put things off.
Why do we procrastinate?
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessarily because we’re lazy.
According to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, there are three main breeds among procrastinators:
- The Thrill Seeker procrastinates to experience the last minute rush, like they’ve just defused a bomb with only seconds to spare.
- The Avoider procrastinates because they’re afraid of being judged, of the consequences of failure or, believe it or not, success.
- The Indecisive procrastinates as a byproduct of perfectionism, feeling it necessary to seize every second they have to do the best job they can.
Most of us probably fall into certain categories for different things.
And every now and then we resolve to get organized, to do things in advance, but it’s only a matter of time until we relapse. The only way to beat procrastination is to be conscious of it in our lives and to develop ways to work around it.
So, if you have the tendency to put things off and are looking for a way to change, here are some proven strategies you can adopt.
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Create last-minute panic in the present
One of the reasons we procrastinate is to experience the thrill of racing against the clock. Somehow we’ve conditioned ourselves to think we do our best work during those final moments leading up to a deadline.
These “near deadline experiences” force us to make decisions that we would otherwise put off and to work at peak efficiency. Because, well, we have no other choice.
One way to induce last minute panic months in advance is to set due dates well before your actual deadline to deceive yourself into completing tasks earlier.
If false deadlines don’t work, break your workload down into smaller tasks and set a timer as you attempt to finish each one. Racing against the clock is a good way to create pressure when there is none.
1-Click Timer is a simple chrome extension that pits you against a timer to get things done.
Any timer will work, but the point here is to help yourself stay focused on the task at hand and simulate the pressure of cutting it close. If something “should only take an hour”, this is one way to ensure it does.
Write down your plans (preferably in pencil)
Many procrastinators put things off because they like to keep their options open and let life (or a lack of time) force them into making decisions and finishing what they started.
For procrastinators, calendars are poorly maintained and To Do lists become To-Morrow lists. It’s important for chronic procrastinators to organize themselves in a way that accommodates flexibility, improvisation and the inevitable chaos of life.
This is why I recommend Trello— it gives you full control over the way you manage tasks, your team, a project or an entire business venture. And it’s free.
Try this Trello board template, based on the system I currently use to keep my life together, if you need a place to start.
Simply create your board, add tasks as cards to different lists, assign due dates if necessary, or even make your cards slowly fade into nothingness if you ignore a task for too long. Trello even comes with a calendar view to give you an outline of what's ahead that lets you move due dates around with a simple drag-and-drop.
Tip: Start every item on your To Do list with a verb to paint a specific picture of each task. We do actions (“Write product description”), not nouns (“Product description”).
Choose productive ways to procrastinate
Procrastinators typically favor instant gratification. Everything else is a problem for another day.
Naturally, one way to battle procrastination—especially when it comes to mundane tasks like scheduling social media posts—is to find a way to pair what you need to do with something you’d rather be doing.
Listen to music or a podcast, watch your favorite movie on Netflix, do something else that doesn’t require your full attention. Find some way to whistle while you work.
Another strategy is to practice structured procrastination: embracing procrastination and opting for a productive alternative to whatever it is you're putting off.
Just because it’s not “what you’re supposed to be doing”, doesn’t mean it's not productive—like reading a blog post to learn a new skill instead of doing the dishes, or building your ecommerce empire instead of finishing that report for your boss. But, whenever possible, limit yourself to tasks that contribute to the same goal as the thing you're putting off.
Instead of staring at a blank screen trying to come up with a name or tagline for your business idea, why not use that time to do something else that'll bring you closer to your goal? Like shopping around for the perfect theme for your online store?
Ride out the momentum of “starting”
“Starting” is oftentimes a procrastinator’s kryptonite: The mere thought of it makes us weak. But once we climb that mountain and get in our zone, stopping is just as hard as starting.
Everyone’s got a different ritual for getting into their zone, whether it means relocating to a specific spot in your house or waking up at 5 am to get some work done.
A useful trick that works for a lot of people (including myself) is to listen to the same song on repeat to encourage a state of intense focus. Just try to keep it light on the lyrics.
Ryan Holiday, along with other successful entrepreneurs, is an advocate of this strategy:
Melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state—while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings.
Adopt a ship-it mentality
Procrastination is often attributed to laziness. But even obsessive workaholics put things off too, though for a different reason.
Many an entrepreneur has been paralyzed by the pursuit of “perfect”. And it can be a real time-waster trying to get everything exactly right.
Get used to going live without all the kinks worked out, especially if it’s something you can easily revisit later after soliciting feedback or leveraging data to make more informed improvements.
Prioritize tasks and make a plan of attack based on what should get out the door ASAP, what you have to wait on, and what you need to do before you can move on.
Sending emails is an example of a low effort, often essential task that’s easy to put off. Waiting on a reply has the potential to become a bottleneck. Keep these things in mind and fight through the desire to put it off.
Conquer procrastination (now rather than later)
Procrastinators are typically flexible people, good under pressure, and know how to improvise in the face of chaos. After all, they put themselves in tight situations on a daily basis.
But there’s an ugly side to it too. The quality of your work might suffer and the compounding effect of unnecessary stress can negatively impact your health. So it’s an important problem to address while you can.
The desire to put things off will inevitably rear its ugly head throughout your life. But the next time it does, stare it down and tell it, “Not today”. Because the best way to invest in your future is always in the present.
If you've got other tips for kicking procrastination to the curb, I'd love to hear them in the comments.