Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How To Prevent Procrastination

Strategies for getting things done

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I'm among the most disciplined people I know, but when it comes to avoiding procrastination I know one person who's even better than I: my wife. She delays nothing. Even when it seems like she might be, it's only because she's getting a long series of other things done first. She's been gifted (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with an inability to leave any open items floating around in her brain. I'm far more tolerant of open items, so not quite as fast to close them as she. As a result, I sometimes have to rely on specific strategies to complete tasks, where she need only rely on a powerful inner drive to clear her "mental inbox."

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When discussing procrastination, of course, we're only talking about tasks we don't want to complete. Tasks we enjoy doing are in fact often hard not to do. (We don't struggle with ourselves to do them because we like doing them, so those tasks aren't the ones for which we need anti-procrastination strategies.) But regarding tasks we don't really want to do, we need to establish a set of rules that we follow automatically—as habits rather than conscious choices (allowing ourselves to choose whether or not to follow a rule requires willpower, which actually turns out to be a far less powerful mental force than the force of habit):

  1. Leverage the tasks you want to do by withholding them until your more odious tasks are completed first. That way, desirable tasks become a motivating reward.
  2. Make lists on paper of all the tasks you need to accomplish and the dates by which they need to be done. This will help us parse our time so that we aren't forced to choose between completing one task or another. We need to order our tasks into groups so that tasks upon which other tasks depend are listed—and therefore done—first. Then we need to place the most burdensome tasks first. Whether it's answering an email, calling someone, reading a report, or writing a paper, our goal should always be to dispense with our most difficult tasks first.
  3. Eliminate distractions. Distractions used to be far less of a problem—but now are ubiquitous. Especially when we want to be distracted (as when facing an odious task), we will be. So shut off the push notification on your smartphone, switch your email "send/receive" to manual, keep your web browser closed (some software programs will even prevent you from using it at intervals you set if you find you can't resist it), and forward all calls to voice mail. Batch those distractions only once you've accomplished a predetermined number of tasks.
  4. Ensure you have adequate energy. Get enough sleep (few of us do). If you're depressed, get help.
  5. Understand all the reasons you don't want to complete a task. You very well may not know them. Perhaps you're actually afraid to talk to a particular person. Maybe you think that what you have to say about the topic on which you need to write is banal. The reasons we do things—and don't do things—may seem obvious to our conscious minds, but our conscious minds are champion storytellers.  They come up with reasonable explanations that are far from proven and then accept them completely even though they're often dead wrong. Keep asking yourself: Why don't you want to make that condolence call? Why don't you want to write that book report? Why don't you want to go to that meeting? Whatever the true reasons, when you apprehend them, they'll lose some of their power to induce procrastination.
  6. Remind yourself why a task is important. Follow through in your mind to the worst consequences possible of not completing it. That way you can positively—
  7. —leverage anxiety. Too much anxiety is paralyzing. But a little anxiety is motivating (nothing like the fear of failing a test to motivate you to study for it). Learn to gauge your anxiety level. If it's too high, and you're procrastinating because you're simply overwhelmed by it, get professional help to manage it.
  8. Make a plan first thing in the morning (or even last thing at night). Decide what tasks you're going to accomplish and actively anticipate doing so as you approach the time you've planned to begin tackling them. Like a professional skier mentally rehearsing each and every twist and turn of a ski run, you're more likely to succeed if you succeed first in your mind.
  9. Plan rewards for yourself. Looking forward to a reward for completing a task eventually creates a craving that can be highly motivating—even if the rewards are small (ten minutes of reading for pleasure, for example). If you jump to the reward before you've earned it, stop yourself, and return to the task at hand.

I use these strategies all the time and find they mostly work. When they don't, I ask myself if perhaps I've simply lost my drive. We all have days like that. Sometimes, in fact, I need to allow myself to procrastinate to regain my energy and enthusiasm. Especially when driving myself hard many days or weeks in row, I often need a break. If so, I take it with a promise to myself to return to my important tasks once I'm refreshed. I have an enormous capacity for hard work, but if I don't recognize when I'm getting burned out and take a long enough break to re-energize, I don't just get tired. I get resentful. And that's just not a good place to be. It is, in fact, a major procrastination inducer.

 

Dr. Lickerman's book The Undefeated Mind will be published in late 2012.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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