How do I avoid procrastinating on tasks that have “fallen off the radar” / are less urgent?
September 26, 2012 8:14 PM   Subscribe

How do I avoid procrastinating on tasks that have “fallen off the radar” / are less urgent?

I have seen a lot of smart threads on here productivity and recommendations for tools and systems and books to improve it (GTD, etc). I’ve bookmarked a bunch of them and think they contain a bunch of resources that may help me. I have what I think might be a specific variant on the problem of procrastination (or it may not be specific or unique at all, I don’t know), and would like to tap into the wisdom of the Hive for their thoughts on this.

I am a horrible procrastinator. You know how gives you 365 days to return anything? I once waited 364 to return a pair of shoes (even though I could tell the day they arrived that they didn’t fit). In college I was the type to start writing papers 24 hours or less before they were due, which resulted in a lot all-nighters and a lot of anxiety and stress. (In grad school, though, I actually had a much better handle on my schoolwork and rarely had to do all-nighters.)

Now unfortunately I am struggling a lot with productivity at work, both in terms of keeping on track of long-term products, and wasting too much time browsing the Internet when I should be working.

I think a lot of my procrastination, whether it’s work tasks or life tasks, follows a similar pattern, though: once I’ve put something off for a little while, it becomes monumentally difficult to go back and actually do it. Part of it, I think, is dealing with the shame of having not already done that task, and I want to avoid those feelings, so I get into a vicious cycle so I put it off even longer and build greater shame. That might have been at play in the shoe example, as silly as it sounds. And maybe you could say- you’re fine, you returned the shoes on time, what’s the problem? But carrying around that undone thing on my to-do list for so long causes me a lot of anxiety even if I eventually get it done “on time.”

I also think that sometimes tasks simply fall off my radar when they aren’t things that were assigned to me that day or week, or they don’t seem important. The thing is, these generally aren’t things that I really can or should simply not do. They’re important tasks, just not ones with dire immediate consequences of not doing them. It’s like, at work if I’m told on Monday, “Do xyz by Wednesday” I’ll generally get it done. But if I’m given a long-term project that we’d like you to get done in the next 2 months but if it takes 3 that’s not really a problem…. Then I will procrastinate on it.

You could simply say: do stuff right away… but I don’t think that’s always possible or even most productive (if you’re working on something else), and even when it is sometimes you fall down and let things slide and you have to pick them back up…. But how?

I bought Getting Things Done 3 years ago and have only paged through it (yes, I know). Should I (finally) read it and maybe try to implement some of it? I think there’s a lot of psychological stuff going on with me that I’m not sure if those kinds of books address, though.

I have been seeing a therapist for the past year, but we’ve been focusing more on relationship issues I was dealing with and my ongoing struggle with depression (I also take anti-depressants). I tried a stimulant (I think I generic version of Ritalin but I can’t remember), but it just made me feel like I was on speed in a way that was not conducive to productivity.

Appreciate any advice or stories of dealing with and/or overcoming similar struggles. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
I'd read The Now Habit, as it better deals with the why of procrastination. I don't think you need a productivity system, you just need to figure out why you're avoiding getting started - the book will help, I think.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:45 PM on September 26, 2012 [5 favorites]

I am very familiar with the Curse of the Ill-Fitting Zappos Shoes and the procrastination-shame-anxiety-procrastination spiral. I can't say I've gotten this problem completely under control. (There's a pair of ill-fitting Zappos shoes that's been sitting in my living room for a couple months now.) But once every couple of months, when I find myself with a free Saturday, I sit down in the morning (or even the previous evening) and write out a list of stuff that I know needs to get done: return shoes, schedule car maintenance appointment, donate old clothes, etc. I keep the list manageable—just the five or six most urgent of the tasks I've been avoiding. Then I devote the entire day to knocking out as many of the tasks as I can. If I can't complete a task (whoops, the UPS store closed already, guess I can't ship those shoes back!) I try to do enough preparations that it'll be easier to do later (box up the shoes, slap on the return label, leave the box near the front door). The productivity burst feels good.
posted by Orinda at 8:53 PM on September 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

Take ten minutes every morning, or every time you notice yourself at loose ends, to figure out what you should work on right now. Try to imagine how cool it will be if you surprise your manager or co-workers by having X project done when they haven't even hassled you about it.
posted by Lady Li at 9:54 PM on September 26, 2012

Oh man I sooooo know how you're feeling. You described my horrible procrastination habits to a T. Replying to emails promptly is probably my weakest spot :(

Recently I decided to try a new system. I'll just use emails as an example but it could probably work for any task you need to accomplish. I set aside one day of the week as my email-reply day (aka my "taking-care-of-messages"/TCM day). So if an email comes in on Monday and it's not so urgent that I have to reply immediately, I'll just glance at it and then leave it until Thursday, my TCM day. I can procrastinate without guilt because I KNOW I have to reply to it later, and a few days lag is definitely better than a few months. Also, I don't always end up replying to everything on TCM day-- but even if I slip up it having the system in place kind of acts as a reminder and I usually catch up a few days late.

I'm thinking of implementing a Cleaning touch-up Day and Call family/friends day, too. **guilt**
posted by sprezzy at 10:29 PM on September 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would definitely recommend you to read GTD and try to implement it. What happened for me was that once I had all the "surface" actions out in front of me I started to be much more pro-active about them, but then after a while of doing that something quite interesting happened: because I was no longer thrashing through those actions, I started to become much more aware of longer term projects and what I needed to do now to move them forward. It is psychological, but it works in quite a subtle way - if you really try to use it as a system it clears a space where you could take on more, and so it makes the reasons you are not doing that much clearer.
posted by crocomancer at 1:23 AM on September 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I write everything down, from the mundane to the important. I have a really good memory, but with school + three part time jobs, things just slip off.

I have a small weekly planner. For 2 of the jobs, I just note when I'm doing them. For the other (b/c I have at-home responsibilities), I add the tasks to my planner. For school, I have my schedule (written out through the semester) and all the exams, reading, and homework I have by due date. I note down my exercise time. I note down plans I make with friends. I cross everything off when its done. For the current + next day, I add all the additional tasks: chem lab prep, dishes, change fish water,etc.

It helps me not procrastine in 3 ways: first, I look at it and SEE all the shit I have to get done. It makes me feel like I've accomplished something when I cross it off (even if its just "work job A, 6-10," I've done something I planned on doing. Last, it helps keep things on my radar.

For less important tasks, I'll usually put them at the top of the week, above Monday, and carry forward any undone items to the next week. I get more done because they take up space and I get sick of rewriting things.

I still procrastinate, just like 3% of what I could be doing. I have a week to return pair of shoes to DSW. I'm on my phone right now instead of getting up to make breakfast.

And for the one job that I have more independent tasks, I write everything down there, on daily and weekly lists of targets. My weekly is more general, for all the tasks I'm working on and specific tasks I don't want to forget. I derive my daily list from that. It helps me prioritize and helps me put pressure on myself to work hard because I always feel like I have so much to get done, I don't have time to waste.

The place my system does suffer is at home, because that is "time to relax from my busy day" in my mind. I keep sort of on top of things because I'm visual and can see all the cleaning etc that needs to be done and dislike a messy home, but it always looks...lived in.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:24 AM on September 27, 2012

I'll second DoubleLune - I've always been a pretty bad procrastinator but to do lists really help in that department.

My biggest problem is getting started on the bigger tasks that are somewhat overwhelming - if there is a big project that I've encountered some type of roadblock with I will push it off forever, made even worse if nobody is specifically checking in on progress. My general strategy now that has helped me combat this tendency is to break the big project up into small easy action items. The end goal may be "implement the new xyz system," but all I have to do today is "call john about components" and "send email about parts list," then I can mix these in with the routine items I don't usually procrastinate on and before you know it xyz is up and running.
posted by cccp47 at 5:53 AM on September 27, 2012

Do it Tomorrow deals with this exactly. To the letter!

Caveat as you're in therapy - this is the practical toolbox, and you also need ways to feel emotionally okay enough to use the tools. If you read it straight off without the latter it might feel a bit like getting hit over the head with a coal-scuttle.

For reference, my current OK-ness routine has Headspace, medication, using and responding to HALT (am I hungry? angry? lonely? tired?), and paying down spare energy into more cleanliness than I used to manage as for me this reduces both fatigue and shame. In fact all of them have that effect, now that I think about it.

It's a two-sided coin: emotional stability and productivity are interwoven in a way that both means a) a productivity system (something which usually isn't designed to take the more painful side of the human condition into account) won't stick if it keeps getting disrupted by the tides of life, feeling and response, yet also b) once you are reliably productive on a scale noticeable to yourself - you set the parameters - your sense of mastery and autonomy really gets rolling and it does get easier; you get happier.

I've read a lot around this subject, and Do it Tomorrow still brought me new information I could build on straight away - things that were either missing in other approaches or that I'd forgotten. It's short (I read it yesterday!), addresses your practical questions, integrates the 'why's and gives solutions. You can definitely disagree with or tweak these solutions, as long as you try something out and check on how it's working, and keep going.

(I've also just read Stop Talking, Start Doing which may be influencing my thinking right now!)
posted by lokta at 7:53 AM on September 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

I'm not a really organized GTD disciple, but one facet of it (assuming I understand it correctly) that might be helpful to you is - write everything that needs to be done to a list which has dates assigned to everything, and/or has some simple flagging scheme that sorts them into things that should be done at a certain time or place. For example, personal work SHOULD be done on nights or weekends - so if I've promised a friend I'd help them sell some stuff online, I've simply put it on my to-do list for Saturday

Another principle of GTD that I probably barely understand but I'm gonna speak to anyway - breaking stuff down. Take the shoes to be returned. I could see that sitting on my list a while if I worked at a place with no practical access to a UPS store or otherwise a good way to put them INTO THE RETURN POST. Or maybe I've got the shoes, a box, a return label, but no packaging tape. So as I keep thinking about those !@#%#%# shoes, the real problem is - I need tape. You need to add the tape to your shopping list, or set an errand to go to the store on your lunch break and get it. But as long as "return the shoes" is sitting on my to-do list and I mainly look at that list while I'm either at work and can't run out and get tape or to a UPS store or perhaps on my iPad when I'm home at night and dead tired, those shoes are going NOWHERE.

TL;DR - spend some time thinking about tasks you know you should do but aren't getting done. Break it down: WHAT ARE THE REAL ROADBLOCKS?

This can be amazingly difficult, BTW, if you work or live in an environment with constant distractions. There's almost a subconscious resistance to breaking out what the roadblocks/resources needed to doing something that's a bit off the beaten path. That's why a person who would think nothing of reinstalling Windows 7 on a home computer if it starts acting up one weekend will live with a dripping faucet for a year, or v/v. It has to do with what you know how to do versus what you've got to line up resources for.
posted by randomkeystrike at 8:14 AM on September 27, 2012

Google Tasks with pop up reminders have been a great way for me to handle this. You can set up multiple reminders in different formats, either email or pop up. I got a simple App on my tablet/phone that links in too so I can access it anywhere.

Now as for actually getting small annoying jobs like returning the shoes done that don't have a set date they have to be done by. I keep a separate list for those I set aside 15 minutes a day, I set a timer and I do those jobs, honestly it's the only way I get those annoying little jobs done. When the timer goes off I finish the job I'm on and that's it until tomorrow. I can forget about it and stop stressing as I know I will get all the jobs done eventually. I have found it an amazing way to let go of that constant low level worry I am going to miss something. If you have more things to do then set aside 2 or 3 15 minute sessions a day and hammer out those jobs.

You can even steal from ideas like the pomodoro or flylady methods where you work for x minutes and then faff around online for y minutes, using a timer to keep you on track so if nothing else you are always making forward progress. Heck if it wasn't for my timer I'd get nothing done in a day.
posted by wwax at 9:28 AM on September 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I struggle with that cycle too. What helps me is to keep a to-do list with due dates, and to NOT PRIORITIZE the list. Obviously if something needs to be done immediately, I do that, but otherwise I just pick whatever off the list I feel like doing. That lessens the anxiety of feeling like I have to do it all at once or all in a particular order, so if I put off #1 then it pushes back #2. My rule is to DO SOMETHING. Doing something is better than doing nothing. It doesn't matter what it is.

I also read GTD, and various books on that theme, and I think it's useful to read those and try out the ideas. Ultimately I think you have to try out various ideas until you find one that makes sense for you.
posted by chickenmagazine at 9:54 AM on September 27, 2012

I found the book "Eat That Frog" really helpful in this arena.

But in a broader context, so what? You are clearly a very deadline-driven person. And honestly, there is nothing wrong with that in the abstract.

Zappos gives you 365 days to return things. That means that you can return something on the 364th day just as easily as you can return it on the 3rd.

One way to look at this is simply to embrace your deadline-driven orientation. Thus your task becomes one of making sure that you set reasonable deadlines.

For example, if you know that you will return those shoes on the 364th day, you can say to yourself, "I will need to get all the shipping supplies together on the 363rd day, so that I can be ready to take the shoes to the post office on the 364th day."

The other approach is that you know that you need to set deadlines for low-level, no-deadline tasks. Make a list, and make some deadlines, and find out a way to make those deadlines legit. This may involve writing them on a calendar, emailing a "productivity buddy" who can help keep you honest, or being firm with yourself regarding punishment/reward strategies.

You basically have to start acting as your own Project Manager. Let's say you decide you need to finish reading GTD within the next 4 weeks. Now work backwards from that date. This means you'll need to read 1/4th of the book each week. Next, find some places in your schedule where you can slot in the task of "read 1/4th of GTD."

And don't beat yourself up too badly. Deadlines are a great basic filter for what needs to be done versus what doesn't. A task with a deadline is more important than one that is, thus it has to take priority. Only so many hours in a day, after all.
posted by ErikaB at 4:21 PM on September 27, 2012

I have donated shoes to Goodwill after the 365 days expired. If I schedule a task by putting it in my calendar, it's much more likely to be accomplished. I keep a ToDo list in EverNote, and review it weekly at least. I make an effort not to overtask myself, to be realistic about what really needs to get done.
posted by theora55 at 7:07 AM on September 29, 2012

I second lokta's reference to Mark Forster.
I have not read his book, but I use his Final Version and it's getting spectacular results.
Forster also has a blog and a newsletter, and there's a great forum. You might find useful previous versions of his system on the blog.
GTD did not help me get things done, but it gave me a useful vocabulary and a basic framework for thinking about this issue.
The great thing about the Final Version is that, although he does support it with some psychology and philosophy, you don't need to read that part (just one more thing to do, right?). Just start right in. You can be up and running in as short a time as it takes you to understand it (10 minutes max?). There are no categories, software, etc. There are only two items: your master list and today's list.
And . . . you get a new start every day, if you use it the way I do. That is, if you screwed up yesterday (didn't get anything done or finished or whatever), you can start with a fresh slate every day. It doesn't accumulate if you don't want it to. You don't have to finish anything either: just work on it for a minimum (self-defined) amount of time. And it's based on the simple principle that you are always doing what you want to do. It's guilt-free. And free.
posted by feelinggood at 8:25 AM on September 29, 2012

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