How can I change my time-wasting ways and transform myself into a super-efficient super human?
October 5, 2005 4:49 PM   Subscribe

How can I break out of my 27-year-long habit of procrastination? I'm looking for tips to help me mentally as well as specific tools or methods that will help me manage my time better -- especially at work.

I have always been a procrastinator.

In middle/high school, I was doing my homework for morning classes during the bus ride in and my homework for afternoon classes during the lunch hour. In college, I'd write A papers but get C's when the lateness deduction was taken off. From teachers, I got a lot of "Crouton, you're so bright. Why don't you live up to your potential?"

Today I got my annual evaluation, and I did very well on every mark except time management. My boss thinks I take on too many responsibilities, but I know that's not it. I really just waste a lot of time surfing the web and then rush frantically when deadlines approach.

More than anything else in my life, I feel like procrastination is holding me back from really excelling on the job.

I have a creative job with long-term and short term deadlines and pretty much absolute autonomy when it comes to managing my time.

I always do a great job with the short-term projects. I dive in, do the work, and within a day I have put together a high-quality final product.

I find it nearly impossible to handle multi-week or multi-month projects well at all, though. Sometimes I can plot out all the steps I need to take to define the project. I may even begin the process with gusto. But then a vast cloud of lethargy descends, and all I can make myself do is work on more short-term stuff or waste time. Finally, when there are only a few days until the deadline, I get a great burst of energy and start pulling things together. The result: I have to put off short-term projects to get the bigger projects done, the final product is shallower and shoddier than I'd like, occasionally I have to ask for more time, and frequently I stress my boss out.

While I'm procrastinating, I never feel like I'm wasting time. Being well informed is an important part of my job, so I can tell myself I'm justified when suddenly I want to read every Washington Post and New York Times story posted online today. And then maybe see how the BBC and Le Monde present their views of world news differently. But the truth is, I am using my time poorly.

I've always been a big believer in office supplies as my salvation, but no fancy filing system or pretty new organizer has ever broken me of my habits.

I've heard a bit about "Getting Things Done," but I have two concerns about this system: 1) It seems cultlike, 2) everyone who falls in love with GTD seems to have already been better time managers before they start the new project than I have ever been.

Are there mental games I can play to snap out of my life-long procrastination trap? Skills I can develop to better manage my time? Testimonials from ask-me-ers about their own successes? I need to do something
posted by croutonsupafreak to Work & Money (35 answers total) 55 users marked this as a favorite
Crouton, you're so bright. Why don't you live up to your potential.

I, too, am a a chornic procrastinator. Nothing has been able to cure this character trait. I've tried — with only moderate success — the "Getting Things Done" thing. (My approach here.) Still, moderate success is better than no success. It gives me a target at which to aim.

At least read "Getting Things Done". The book itself is merely an organizational system, and what Allen says makes sense. It's only the implementation that, at times, becomes cult-like.

Other than that, I have no advice, but look forward to the tips and tricks others leave. I could use them.
posted by jdroth at 5:02 PM on October 5, 2005

Your description sounds a lot like me.

One thing I like to do is make a daily checklist. I get a real sense of satisfaction from ticking off the boxes on my tasks, so I break down jobs into their components and do them in the order I have written them on the sheet.

I can not only track my progress this way, but see how much more I have to do. If I make a point of not starting another task before I finish the current one, I seem to be able to methodically work through what needs to be done.
posted by tomble at 5:04 PM on October 5, 2005

It sounds like deadlines are the only thing which currently work for you. Maybe you could increase the number of them by reporting on your progress more frequently to someone you're accountable to. I know that my productivity jumped when I started sending weekly emails to my manager about what I did that week and what I planned to do the following week.

(This way, you procrastinate for half a week and work like hell for half a week, but it beats procrastinating for a month at a time.)
posted by callmejay at 5:08 PM on October 5, 2005

I am a terrible procrastinator too. The explanation of procrastination that rings most true is one I read ages ago, that it stems from a fear of failure, and inoculates people against failure by providing an out. This applies only to pretty bright or academic procrastinators, i think. The mind-game goes like this:

"Well, I got a B on this paper"
"Which is not that bad considering that I wrote it on the bus ont he way to school"


"I got 79% on the exam"
'Which is ok because I didn't study until after breakfast the day of.."

In other words, if you studied for weeks and got 79%, a perfectionist might be crushed that was an accurate assessment. Procrastination allows one to believe that one's baseline is perfection, 100%, by giving an excuse for sub-optimal performance.

And of course, YMMV....

(and honestly, very little works for me -- I only don't procrastinate when there is a public speaking angle, or, when I ahve committed to voluntary group work. Something about exposure and/or feeling social pressure, in those situations. being a "permanent student" (read: professor) means I have very few real-world deadlines and no one breathing down my back, which is a recipe for unfettered procrastination. I could do so much better -- yet, I am not doing too bad for a chronic procrastinator.......
posted by Rumple at 5:19 PM on October 5, 2005

I second the checklist. When you have a task, write it down. When you're done, cross it out (paper is better - you can see what you've accomplished rather than just deleting it from a PDA or text document).

Which brings us to rewards. Seeing your accomplishments can be rewarding, but it's such a small one. Treat yourself when you've had a particularly productive day or something. After a while it (non-procrastination) gets to be a habit which you may eventually come to hate.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:21 PM on October 5, 2005

Best answer: Lots of people who've benefitted from GTD like to recommend it. But no one thinks David Allen's the messiah; no one's going to try to talk you into moving into a compound, cutting off all your ties with non-believers, or giving Allen all your money (well, ok, some people might suggest shelling out a substantial sum for a seminar.) I recommend reading the book and trying it. But, remember, the goal of the system is to build the infrastructure that allows you to relax knowing nothing's falling through the cracks. It's not a system you can gain much of anything from if you apply it intermittently and haphazardly.

You sound like you may have ADD. You might like to research that. (I am not any kind of mental health professional, and no one could diagnose from a short self-description, anyway.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 5:26 PM on October 5, 2005

I have this problem too, constantly. Sometimes it helps to remind myself that it feels good to finish things and move on, but I think behind it all I'm always worried I won't have anything to do after. It's not true and it hasn't ever been, but I think that's what's going on at the core of it. I've discovered, oddly enough, that giving myself more to do means I get more done; maybe that would work for you.

I do keep meaning to look into that GTD book. ^_^

Post back and let us know if you find anything that works.
posted by Tuwa at 6:02 PM on October 5, 2005

Check out the book The Now Habit. It's written by a psychologist who has treated a lot of graduate students trying to finish dissertations, so I think it would be helpful for creative-intellectual types like you. I found it very helpful.

And here's something I've discovered for myself that I suspect is true for a lot of people: the computer gives me ADD. I have to have my computer and web browser open all day, and I frequently have to use the web to look up work related things, then switch back to my word processing, then to email. I discovered that it's the very act of switching tasks on the computer that leaves me vulnerable to losing my focus and starting to procrastinate by web surfing. I found this out by starting a writing/research project, then noting on a little piece of paper every single time I got the urge to flip over web surfing, and what I was doing at that moment. It turned out that I got the urge to surf every 3-10 minutes! The urge was precipitated in every case by one of two things: reaching a tough point in my research, or switching between tasks on my computer.

Once I figured that out, I learned how to be on the lookout for that urge and cut it off. Now, I know what it "feels" like to focus on a project and what it feels like just before I lose focus, and so it's easier not to get distracted.

Also, I recently started paying myself $5 for every day I felt like I hadn't procrastinated. A crude method, but it helps!
posted by footnote at 6:05 PM on October 5, 2005 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It is really quite simple and exquisitely difficult--you have to practice the desired behavior--I am struck by the number of questions that start how do I ...... (quit this, start that, do more of, do less)--more surprising are the number of responses that suggest an understanding or insight into the issue may lead to behavior change--doubtful--if that were true most of us would be free of our dreadful habits--if you are serious see a therapist (preferably a CBT or behavior therapist) who will work with you to develop a specific program of practice and reward--Actually, ADD may be a possibility--good luck and as Nike says "just do it"--do it again and again and again
posted by rmhsinc at 6:07 PM on October 5, 2005

Try the 40/20 approach if you're having a slow day.

Spend 40 minutes working hard before allowing yourself 20 minutes to do fun stuff.

This limits your procrastination to 1/3 of the day. This technique is sort of a compromise between screwing around and getting things done.

If this works for you, you can gradually shorten your breaks, but for real mental workouts, don't kid yourself, you're going to need at least 5 minutes relaxing every hour.
posted by onalark at 6:08 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I second the Now Habit.

and I still write lists because they make me feel good. Let me tell ya, it's almost 7pm now, and I'm looking at a list of crossed-out items that just makes me smile.

and, I've learned to deal with procrastination by starting drafts. It doesn't have to be perfect - it's a draft! - but I am in awe of how close I am to the final version in that very first attempt to writing a document.

Geesh, that's almost like writing on the midnight oil... without it being midnight, stressing out, or burning any oil.

So one more cheer for the Now Habit.
posted by seawallrunner at 6:46 PM on October 5, 2005

For me, the most effective way to avoid goofing off is to work closely with somebody else - preferably somebody else who I think would probably also be goofing off if left to their own devices. Working together, we keep each other on track, and there are also really good knock-on skills-exchange benefits.

And don't let any other bastard make you feel guilty for "not living up to your potential". Just because you're twice as bright as them doesn't mean it's fair to expect you to achieve twice as much.
posted by flabdablet at 8:34 PM on October 5, 2005" is an online workshop that may help . You can register and they charge a fee ~ 50 Canadian , but it looks impessive. I'm just putting off doing it for a bit.
posted by Agamenticus at 8:50 PM on October 5, 2005

I also found this site helpful in moving the mental crap out of the way.
posted by Agamenticus at 8:53 PM on October 5, 2005
posted by Agamenticus at 8:57 PM on October 5, 2005 [1 favorite]

I plan on implementing The Dash---eventually.
posted by sourwookie at 9:06 PM on October 5, 2005

You might find this article by Steve Pavlina interesting. I believe I found it on awhile back... bookmarked, skimmed, but never quite got around to finishing it (hah!). It has some good points, though.
posted by chimmyc at 9:11 PM on October 5, 2005

Definitely try making lists. I make one every working day.

Lists are responsible for my transformation from corporate slacker to extremely productive Project Manager.

A couple hints: Write down everything you need to do. Even the stupid stuff. When you're in a funk, get the easy tasks done. A couple easy tasks later- You are on to the bigger items. If you perform a task not on the list, write it down and cross it off immediately.. it is strangely rewarding.
posted by vaportrail at 10:12 PM on October 5, 2005

Talk to a clinical psychologist. You may be able to medicate away your procrastination, with Strattera or something.
posted by delmoi at 10:44 PM on October 5, 2005

I'm a procrastinator. I'm exactly like you - gimme something short and sweet and I'll knock it over like lightning. For longer projects I very quickly run out of steam. I've turned my life around with GTD. The biggest change for me was the 'Next Action' concept.

I'd always have 'to-do' lists, but they were things like "Write report on X"" or "Do audit of Y". I'd look at it and go "you know, I bet there's been another AskMeFi question posted since I checked a minute and a half ago".

With 'Next Action', I always have a list of simple 2-minute-or-less stuff I can get on with. A nibble here, a nibble there, and all of a sudden I've knocked over a forest of major projects.

My Director has noticed that I'm much more specific about what I've done and what I'm doing next. He seems to get a lot more out of me reading my Next Actions list than me saying "Well, you know, I've got that thing with the thing...".

I also got a lot out of these Techniques to Manage Procrastination.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 11:18 PM on October 5, 2005

A sort of cult has sprung up around Getting Things Done, but there's nothing inherently cultish in the book or the method. It's worth checking out and you can always pick and choose, what you like, what you'd rather not bother with.

As for sustaining energy on longer projects, I find I can get an incredible surge of energy from discussing something with other people. If at all possible, I'll try to get other folks involved in a tough project (even if only as advisors) then schedule meetings on certain dates or milestones. Gives you an intermediate deadline (get as much done before the meeting as possible) and a real burst of energy after discussing the progress so far.
posted by zanni at 12:43 AM on October 6, 2005

three lifestyle changes helped me procrastinate less:

Started working out - I exercise daily (at lunchtime) I feel this makes me more motivated, impresses upon me to use my time wisely, gives a sense of purpose to a task. This approach is brought to all tasks and makes you do them.

Worked a manual hard-working job - I worked in a hotel for 6 months as a room cleaner/waiter/dogsbody - hard work but fun, but when i came out of it, i compared it to cleaning poo of toilets, and thought - at least im not doing that. so it cant be that.

Smoked the reefer less!
posted by jwhittlestone at 4:44 AM on October 6, 2005

Slight overlap with some of the advice above, but worth repeating:

Make physical lists of actionable tasks. No task on your list should take more than 15 minutes. Break larger tasks down into smaller tasks. Cross them out when they're done.

Just get started. Realise that the first draft of anything won't be perfect. Give yourself 5 minutes to sketch out the structure of a report. 10 minutes to research an answer to an email. Then leave it if you want, but at least you've started.

And, if that fails, let technology be your master: Temptation Blocker. Win only.
posted by blag at 5:04 AM on October 6, 2005

Coffee. I am a terrible procrastinator but I find that when I'm hyped up on caffeine I'm a little better at getting things done.
posted by sveskemus at 6:04 AM on October 6, 2005

If it makes you feel any better I bought a copy of "Getting things done" before the summer. Haven't gotten around to reading it yet.
posted by phearlez at 6:20 AM on October 6, 2005

Ah, you and me both CSF....

I'd suggest something similar to what callmejay says.

Rather than failing at long-term tasks, you're succeeding at short-term tasks. This is how you work best. Believe it or not, there are some people who can't do this, and who absolutely must work on long-term projects. You can do what they can't. Maybe you shouldn't try to be all things for all people?

It's just a suggestion, but how about taking the Zen, path-of-least-resistance type of approach, and go with what's in your nature. Try to get more short-term projects. If you can have someone manage your time for you, maybe that would work: it might feel more like a series of short-term tasks, rather than one long project. Rather than tackle your weaknesses, learn to live with them. That doesn't mean ignore them. Far from it. But it also doesn't mean that you have to fix them all by yourself.

Draw up a project plan, hand it to your boss, and arrange 10 minute meetings every 2 days. S/he assesses your progress, and tells you what task you'll be doing next. You may procrastinate for the first day in every 2, but you'll work like a demon the 2nd day :-)

It is, of course, important how you present this. Depending on your relationship you may want to be honest and say you just can't manage your own time. But that's probably not the best solution. So sell it differently. Say you want to keep everyone informed. Maybe expand the meeting to include other interested parties. If you have project managers, ask for one.

You only mention your work. How does this affect your personal life? It's my personal life that suffers most. I always blame work. So I've broken things down into a (geeky) checklist that I tick off at the end of every day. Things like "Phone a friend", "Phone a family member", "Go to the gym", etc. Maybe you'll find this inspirational, maybe distressing, maybe you have too many lists.... It seems to have improved things for me.

Maybe this won't work for you. But I think it's soul-destroying for someone to change how they fundamentally feel and act. That's not to say that productivity can't be improved; it can, but you may have to be creative about achieving this.
posted by ajp at 6:27 AM on October 6, 2005 [1 favorite]

Did my wife put you up to this?
posted by Pressed Rat at 7:07 AM on October 6, 2005

Saw this question yesterday, but didn't get around to posting until now.

Is it really that big of a problem? I've developed highly effective procrastinating skills as a matter of survival. For example, my boss will come up with 20 terrific ideas. I put them off, start a few, stall, and do the regular, important work. Eventually, 19 of those great ideas fall off the list, to be replaced by 20 more.

Getting things done promptly is highly overrated.
posted by cptnrandy at 8:18 AM on October 6, 2005

analyzing why I procrastinate has relly helped me procrastinate more...but I am really bad when it comes to household chores, work projects that I dont care for (which is why I am trying to get another job)--sometimes I do think that I am just lazy and/or have ADD---I have a long list of things that I need to do and it just overwhelms me weather they are long or short projects--Heck I don't need a list for thinkgs that I like to do.
Sure it doesn't take long to dust/vacum the family room, load the diswasher, or fold the clothes-- but I just don't wanna do it--hey, but it gets done--can't live in filth ya know
posted by sandra194 at 8:45 AM on October 6, 2005

jdroth, thanks for the link to your post about implementing the Getting Things Done program. I've printed it out, read it and reread it and am planning on getting my own implementation underway tomorrow at work and on Sunday at home.

And thanks, croutonsupafreak, for the AskMe. Its been extremely useful. Now I've gotta go back through and read all the additional comments.
posted by fenriq at 10:53 AM on October 6, 2005

I second blag. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received was from a boss that I didn't particularty like. He said "Sometimes, you just have to start". And even though it sound simplistic, it works. Remove any thoughts of how large the task is, what think you need to have in place, etc. etc. Just start! Write that first sentence, draw that first line, clean than first pan.
posted by jasondigitized at 6:39 AM on October 7, 2005

Someone wrote "Make physical lists of actionable tasks. No task on your list should take more than 15 minutes."

I say, write a list of physical actions and then do those actions. It can be "go fetch a pencil", "write one sentence about getting off a speeding horse" or "stick your finger in the mouth and then up in the air to find out the direction of the wind" but it HAS to be physical and straightforward.
That means you have to divide a task or goal into many many many small actions and that is the biggest hurdle when trying to get something done. You know how to do a task when you can write a list of physical actions that will give the desired result. Once you know how to do the task you can start grouping actions together and write abstractions like "Write blog article" or "Learn to ride like the wind".
posted by kabanossen at 8:45 AM on October 7, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks for everyone's comments.

I'll go check out Getting Things Done and The Now Habit from the library.

I'm pretty confident that I don't have ADD based on my encounters with people who really do have it. It's more that I'm lazy -- it's a character flaw, not a chemical imbalance. I've thought about getting myself diagnosed for ADD just to get pills that will help me be more productive, but the idea makes me too uneasy to go through with.

I've got today off, and I'm going to spend some time outlining specific actions I need to take to get my big projects done, then breaking them down into week-by-week to do lists -- sort of using a mix of callmejay's and kabanossen's advice.

I like onalark 's suggestion that I schedule down time into my day.

jwhittlestone maybe be on to something too, but I've had this problem with and without the reefer so I dunno.

I can't help wonder if getting past procrastination is kind of like getting over depression. I did that, but I'm not entirely sure how it worked. Therapy failed. Drugs failed. In the end, I think it came down to being sick of being depressed, starting with a few small changes, and going from there. Will power. Hmmm, we'll see if a tiger really can change her stripes.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:10 AM on October 7, 2005

late to the party as always...

first thing to remember is that spending time figuring out how not to procrastinate can be a guilt-free way to procrastinate. so be careful. ultimately it's about making sure you really want to be doing what you're doing, and then doing it with discipline.

the single most useful tactic i've ever employed - and apparently something the 43folders dude is calling "the dash" - is make yourself work on something for five minutes. if you don't want to work any more when the 5mins are up, ok, stop. at least you did 5mins of work as opposed to zero. but i find that i'll usually want to keep going so i can do it right.

part of my procrastination is that i'm self-employed... no one looking over my shoulder. so, sometimes i give someone a look over my shoulder. tell someone involved when you're going to have something done, even if they didn't ask. to not have it done by that point (be reasonable about the deadline) would then make you seem unprofessional. it works for me.

beyond that, listen to your body. caffeine is great for some, but it destroys my focus. same for sugar. are you eating right? eating enough? sleeping enough? sleeping too much? exercising enough? exercising too much? might you have any allergies? chronic pains you're only partially aware of? any emotional stuff in your life you're not dealing with?

and, most important of all... do you really want to be doing what you're doing? i don't mean the task, i mean the job. if not, and you have a choice... choose.
posted by poweredbybeard at 11:19 AM on October 7, 2005

Response by poster: Thanks, poweredbybeard. I love love love love love my job. Ironically, when I had a job I hated I always kept perfect to-do lists and checked items off one at a time to help pass the time and make my days moderately more bearable. Now that I'm somewhere where I'm pursuing my passion and surrounded by people who treat me right, I don't have that same level of discipline.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 11:56 AM on October 7, 2005

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