Getting out of the procrastination hole
March 26, 2007 9:48 AM   Subscribe

When the deadline for all of your projects was two weeks ago, everything is at priority #1, and stress levels are at an all time high, how do you step back, get things in order, and progress so you can catch up and get back on top of your life?

I'm woefully behind in work, in school, and outside projects. While there have been outside factors that have made this a doozy of a semester, for the most part it's all because of my procrastination. This has happened more times than I can count and usually ends with me stressing out, shutting down, pretending my responsibilities don't exist and failing utterly. I would prefer this not happen this time.

I need some way to organize all these tasks in my life so I can get on top of them (in a better fashion than a top-down list). Something more visual than the GTD method--if I try to pick only one task to finish at a time I usually shut down anyway because all tasks feel like they have to be done now. And I need a way to calm my brain down so it doesn't short out and prevent me from doing anything. I started a workout program a week ago but haven't enjoyed the beneficial endorphins yet, since during it all I can think of is how I should be spending this time on something else. But if I don't work out, I feel like I should be to keep me running smoothly.

Also, if there are any more holistic, I guess, suggestions for how to just motivate myself on track but not go so far overdrive that I crash again that would be awesome. I really have never pulled myself out of this kind of procrastination hole before so if I could do it at least this once it would be amazing. Thank you!
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total)
I'm sure there will be lots of organizational suggestions, and I will leave those to people more organized than me. As to coping mentally and emotionally with a huge list of No.1 Priorities, I use the following two principles:

1) Accept that Good Enough is better than Not Done, and recognize situations when Good Enough is the best you can aim for (hint: this is one of them).

2) When the panic starts to rise and/or the procrastination is a result of feeling immobilized, repeat the mantra "Make positive effort for the good," where "the good" is everything you want to get done. Pick one thing, anything, that you can do that will make positive effort towards the good. Repeat. (In other words, make the effort your goal, rather than the fastest possible completion of all tasks your goal. Effort is much easier and more manageable).
posted by carmen at 9:58 AM on March 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

I'd start by not biting off more than I could chew in the first place. Work, school, outside projects - could you pare some of these down?
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:00 AM on March 26, 2007

Wow. Are you me? I do the same thing ("stressing out, shutting down, pretending my responsibilities don't exist and failing utterly") more often than I'd like to admit. In fact, I'm actively on the "pretending my responsibilities don't exist" phase right now.

Something that has helped me in the past, and I know it sounds crazy, but if you can get by with it, it really may help. When I get this way, I take a whole day off. I don't do anything that I don't want to do for an entire 24 hours. Somehow it helps build me back up and motivate me, and for the next several days, I work really hard and get a bunch of the high-priority stuff behind me.

Whatever you decide try, I wish you the best of luck. I know it is difficult to deal with procrastination overload.
posted by susiepie at 10:01 AM on March 26, 2007

Something > Nothing

Just try to shit out some progress on the things, knowing that you will need to revise. Ignore the fact that the revision sucks. Ignore structure, and formatting and all of that.

Then come back, after you've done a round of that, and do some clean up.

I do this whenever I find some task particularly difficult (usually because I am trying to get it too perfect in the first pass.)
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:02 AM on March 26, 2007

Oh, and if you really don't have enough time, accept that a few of the priorities are going to fail. Pick which ones will probably fail, and alert the relevant parties that they should expect problems on that project.

Then be pleasantly surprised when you don't actually fail.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:03 AM on March 26, 2007

In college I often used my own wall-of-Post-its method instead of a list. I would write individual tasks down on individual post-its. Make them as specific as possible: instead of "write history paper" go for "get books from library" "read library books" "take notes/write outline" "type paper" "Proofread/print paper". I would then put all the post its (in some semblance of order, whatever categories you want to divide into) on the back of my door. I would scan the post-its, find one i felt like doing right now, and take that post-it, put it on the desk, open the door, so i couldn't see the rest of the crap i had to do (out of sight, out of mind, at least a little, anyway). When that task is done, you get to crumple up the post-it, take a break, and then go onto whatever other tasks seems worth doing at that time.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 10:04 AM on March 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

that, and I also did a lot of deep breaths and repeating "i can't do everything but i can do something"
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 10:06 AM on March 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

This is to save yourself from mental anguish, not to necessarily do things in the most "right" order:

Make a list of everything that needs to be done. Next to each item, estimate how long each task will take to complete. Next that, rate each item in importance.

1. Do the most important quick-to-accomplish tasks first.
2. Complete a lengthier but very-important task.
3. Evaluate your list. If all of your long-time-to-finish tasks take a day or longer to complete, but you have several short but not-so-important tasks, maybe you should do all of the short tasks, just so you can feel that you have accomplished a larger number of goals. Or, you could try to complete a lengthy but very important goal so you feel you have less to worry about.
4. If your tasks are too big for you to wrap your mind around, divide each one up into sub-tasks, and then repeat these steps.

This might seem super anal, and it probably is, but I've survived many, many weeks and months where I thought I would suffocate under the weight of my deadlines, and I ALWAYS feel much better after just completing Step 1.

Good luck!
posted by gatorae at 10:10 AM on March 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

For a more "holistic" approach, I've actually found the book "The Now Habit" pretty helpful. Oddly, the main takeaway is that the best long-term work habits basically require lowering your expectations. You acknowledge that there is only so much you can do in one day (usually about 5 hours of focused, brain-intensive work at the most), and not beat yourself up when you don't get more done than that. That may mean setting lower page limits for yourself if you're writing papers - if you pace yourself well, 1-3 decent pages per day will get you very far (a page a day for a year is 365 pages!). Acknowledging that you can't work all the time frees you up to do other things without stressing that you really should be working. In my experience, it's the constant stressing - not the constant working - that kills me.

Another helpful hint from that book is when you just can't bring yourself to start, make yourself do one task - any task - for only 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes. That can help jumpstart your work. Or just write about why you feel you can't start working. Sometimes if you get it down on paper, it minimizes your fears and makes you realize that starting really wouldn't be as bad as you think it would be.

But really, the main thing is lowering your expectations about the quantity, if not always the quality, of your work. I recently spoke to a well-published academic about what I thought was a slow writing pace - 3 pages a day. He said "3 pages is a lot! I have successful colleagues who consider themselves lucky if they write a page a day." The point, cliche but true, is that slow but steady wins the race. And can help salvage your sanity.

Finally, talking to your school's counseling office and/or trying therapy can't hurt and could help.
posted by walla at 10:14 AM on March 26, 2007

I'll leave the advice on organizing to the organized people above, but as far as "calming your brain down" I suggest finding a friend with a cat or a dog or some other friendly furry pet and just playing for 30 minutes or so.
posted by Dizzy at 10:19 AM on March 26, 2007

I separate stuff and break it down on my day planner. I procrastinated on a few things this semester and they are all picking up speed now 'cause they're due soon. Argh.

Anyway, as an example, I assign different tasks to different days (or different parts of the day, but day-by-day works better for me). So for example, Wednesday I have an interview scheduled in the afternoon, and that evening I'm going to work on that particular project - and allow myself to not think about my other project in the least. And then Thursday I have scheduled to do some work on the other project and I will not do any work on the first one. Somehow I find this to be comforting, as it feels like everything isn't crashing upon me at once.

When I was an undergrad and had a million things due at the end of the semester I would literally schedule every hour of every day as devoted to something. (I even scheduled sleep). That way I could look at my schedule and see, "OK, I will work on Paper 1 from noon to 2 p.m., have a half hour break for a snack and then work on Paper 2 from 2:30 to 4 p.m." I just had to focus on the immediate task without thinking about all the other stuff I had to do, and it really relieved the stress.

This sometimes has to vary because you never know when urgent stuff is going to come up, but it has served me well during school. Heavily scheduling myself and compartmentalizing everything means I am only focusing on one thing at a time and thus saving my sanity.
posted by sutel at 10:20 AM on March 26, 2007

I would really question your story about "All tasks are priority 1," since it seems like a big part of what is keeping you stuck right now.

It isn't true that everything is equally important, if only because it is physically and temporally impossible for you to do everything at once.

I would schedule time with a campus counselor or a trusted friend -- someone with a clear and logical mind -- to listen to your huge overwhelming list and help you write it all down. Then go through and break each area into component tasks, and figure out which need to be done soonest.

It sounds like you need help in managing the stress you feel about Everything while doing One Thing. Because that stress -- the inner static that arises and distracts you from the task at hand, be it exercise or anything else -- is totally keeping you stuck here.

It may sound like a helpful internal voice, reminding you of Very Important Stuff, but really, it is coming from the Enemy -- the part of yourself that is comfortable with the situation you're in now and wants to keep on recreating it.

Once you have decided what you're working on, be very firm with yourself about thoughts about other tasks. Say internally, "That's not helpful, please be quiet." You might even try rubberband-snapping, or saying it out loud. Just as you would if someone got up in your face, joggling your elbow and distracting you while you were working on an important task. Because that's exactly what is happening.

Oh, and another mantra: "Keep doing the next right thing."
posted by ottereroticist at 10:26 AM on March 26, 2007

Everybody above has given you good advice, those are all helpful. The common denominator is that time spent worrying is time WASTED, whereas time spent actually completing something is positive.

(If no matter what you try, you cannot quit worrying and get to work on something, you have issues that need to be addressed. Counselling will help)

I've always been a procrastinator, but I've sorta come to grips with it. The steps:

- I know I'm a procrastinator, and I have a lousy attention span. So I try hard to limit the number of things i take on (eg, I won't work as a manager)

- I push back if some new task has a significant risk of not being completed on time, or will impact my other tasks. It doesn't always endear me to the bosses, but keeps me out of some crunches, and helps build my reputation as someone who will complete what I commit to.

- if I ever get panicky, i list out the top 3 or 4 priorities, and the top 3 or 4 individual deliverables for each. This usually gives me enough of a reality check to determine whether I can still meet expectations. And seeing the workload as a series of small well-defined jobs calms me down.

- I then pick a job to do - hopefully the most important, but anything on the list will do. I then close the office door, shut off email, ignore the phone, put the headphones on with a favourite CD, and get to it.

Caveat - university for me was um 25 years ago, and i didn't graduate, but I did build a decent career without it.
posted by Artful Codger at 10:38 AM on March 26, 2007

A procrastinating friend of mine recently said to me, "This semester is so much better than last! I made a To Do list, but what I did this time, I separated it out by due date! So I used one piece of paper for March, and I wrote down everything that was due in chronological order. Then I used another piece of paper for April, and I wrote down everything that was due in that month in chronological order."


"You mean," I said, "like a calendar?"

"No!" Beat. "Like pieces of paper, with dates on them! In order." Longer beat. "Well, ok, yes, a calendar. But it was homemade!"

It hadn't occurred to me that anyone could be putting together To Do lists without paying attention to what order, chronologically, the finished products were due, but this was a highly intelligent, highly educated friend who's always always always behind on his work, and always running around like madman (seriously, this conversation with him made so many weird interactions I've had with him make sense). So maybe his insight will help: When choosing what projects to work on, it's often helpful to start working on those projects that are due sooner, rather than just randomly choosing something. :)
posted by occhiblu at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2007

GTD is a little large for myself, but it does have some great ideas in it. I'd recommend (when you have time!) to take a look at the book. I really like the idea of writing it all down, and the idea of actionable tasks. At the point you have a task that is a physical action, doing it is simply rote work rather than planning. Separating out the planning step from the doing step makes the doing much much easier.

Short term: come up with a list of projects, first decide which projects aren't going to get done, if any. Base this on amount of work, and consequences of not-finishing. Second, make a list of the first 2-3 steps for each of those projects and write them down. Make them action verbs ('write', 'pick up', 'call') and then, do them. When you finish with the actions on a given project, make more, evaluate where you are on the project and eventually get it to the 'good enough' stage and be done with it.
posted by cschneid at 10:47 AM on March 26, 2007

Whiteboard or pages on a wall - one page for each major thing that has to be done, with bullet points underneath for all of the components of what has to be done.

Learn to start saying no to those things that you can say no to. Be choosy with what you commit to do.
posted by davey_darling at 11:01 AM on March 26, 2007

Breaking big tasks down into much smaller ones helps me a lot when I get overwhelmed by my to-do list. Like others have said, maybe I feel that I can't can't can't finish this giant project, but I can find some sources to research from. And then I can read one of them, and then another. And then I can brainstorm some ideas for how to complete the project, maybe make an outline. I take it in tiny steps, and pretty soon it's done.

The other thing that helps, that I haven't seen mentioned yet, is to look at the to-do list and figure out why I so badly don't want to take on whatever's next. Typically it's because (a) I'm afraid I won't do a good enough job, (b) I don't have enough information to do the project, or (c) I don't know where to start. Once I know WHY I'm avoiding the project, I can take steps to remove that reason.

If I'm afraid of not doing a good enough job, I remind myself that perfection isn't necessary, and that doing an adequate job is infinitely better than never getting around to doing a perfect job. If I don't have enough information to do the project, the next step is obvious: make a list of what questions I need answered to feel properly prepared, and then get the answers. And if I don't know where to start, then I begin breaking down the giant project into smaller and smaller tasks, until I've got a first task that sounds manageable.
posted by vytae at 11:28 AM on March 26, 2007 [2 favorites]

"alert the relevant parties that they should expect problems on that project."

Also known as renegotiating, something I often fail to do, preferring instinctively to panic like you in the situation you're in.

Make a list of the people who care about the things that will be late, and call each of them. Find out (if you don't already know) what the consequences of lateness will be for each item, and negotiate new dates if possible.

Worst thing about this, is that it creates a gap where you can actually pause and take a breath. Don't fall into the trap of then browsing metafilter all day, just because the pressure's off... :)
posted by blue_wardrobe at 11:51 AM on March 26, 2007

I am in the exact same boat. A few things I've found mildly helpful:

a) Instead of working into the wee hours, I cut off working at a certain point to get a decent amount of sleep. This way I'm not additionally stressed by exhaustion and my inability to focus on the tasks before me. Being sleep deprived will only give you another reason to procrastinate.

b) Instead of just a running to-do list, I wake up as early as possible each morning and make a to-do list for the day, broken into very small, doable tasks. Sometimes these tasks can be as mundane as "write one page of evaluation paper by 2 p.m." The satisfaction of crossing these small tasks off keeps me going and makes me feel like I am moving forward.

c) Prioritize the unprioritizable. Meaning, which projects are you going to get into the most trouble for not having done tomorrow? Do those first.

d) Get out of the house. Go to a cafe, library or street corner--preferably one far enough away so that you will feel a fool if you attempt to leave in a short time. Work there until you are getting dirty looks from the wait staff, reference desk attendees or fellow street corner inhabiters. While there? Turn off your Internet and cell phone.

e) I second the suggestion to just take a day off, which seems ridiculous but works. Stay in bed, cry, and eat peanut butter from the jar with a spoon. Then, feeling a bit renewed, just...keep...going.

Good luck.
posted by grateram at 12:50 PM on March 26, 2007

Whatever tasks you can complete the fastest, do first. The sense of accomplishment and "I'm finally getting through this stack of shit-to-do"-ness will encourage you and keep you motivated.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 2:09 PM on March 26, 2007

Make a list of consequences of not doing the things on your list. Everything might seem #1 priority, but it isn't really. Accept that everything has different short-term and long-term consequences and people you will let down if you don't do it. Then pick the worst set of consequences, and start on that task.
posted by reklaw at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2007

(Maybe that wasn't clear enough - I mean, it's not possible for everything to be top priority, because priorities are relative by definition. Even if your tasks for today were 1. End world hunger and 2. Save Earth from asteroid collision, you'd still have to prioritise one over the other - probably the asteroid, really.)
posted by reklaw at 2:35 PM on March 26, 2007

Lots of good advice here.
1. Be sure you continue to eat enough and sleep enough. If you don't do these things, you won't be able to keep working at the level you need to. Eating better enables you to work better and feel better. Same with really sleeping, in 6+ hour units, rather than just napping.

2. If you have a list of 6 projects that are all top priority and all of exactly equal importance, number them and roll a die to decide which one you will start on right now. Just pick one. Do an hour worth of work on it. Then take a short walk and think about ways you can make that project go faster. Do another hour worth of work on it. And so on.

3. Projects for school: Find out what the penalty will be for late work - this should be in the syllabus. If you know that you can't finish by the deadline, contact the professor now and ask "Is there any way I can get an extension over the weekend?" Often we can grant extensions if students ask before the due date.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:06 PM on March 26, 2007

When I am in this situation, I follow Merlin Mann's advice.

1. I make a list of everything I have to do.
2. I go over the list and star the things I don't want to do most.
3. If there's more than one (likely), I go over the list again and give additional stars to the things I really don't want to do.
4. I repeat step three until there is one thing with more stars than the others.
5. I do the thing with the most stars.

I promise, promise, promise you after you get that one thing done, doing the next thing will be easier, and the next easier, and you will then be on a roll.
posted by 10ch at 5:34 AM on March 27, 2007 [8 favorites]

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