StockLite/Shutterstock
Source: StockLite/Shutterstock

After an all-nighter or a missed deadline, many procrastinators promise themselves that they’ll never go through that again. But how can we make things be different next time? We might hope for a magic switch to make us inspired, timely, and productive. But in the real world, we’re not sure how to go about doing things differently.

The techniques below (in combination with understanding the reasons for your procrastination, which I addressed in Part I of this blog) may help you take control of your time. The following anti-perfectionist techniques were designed specifically for procrastinators—and they work, if you don’t put off using them ...

1. Define your goal in specific, observable terms.

  • NOT: “I’m going to get organized!”
  • INSTEAD: “I’m going to spend 30 minutes filing the papers on my desk.”

Procrastinators tend to think in vague, global terms that are anti-motivating. A grand goal sets an impossible standard that is likely to leave you feeling disappointed and ready to give up. A vaguely defined goal is not exactly a goal at all; it’s more like wishful thinking. Try to identify a goal that is concrete and, most importantly, doable.

2. Break your goal down into small steps.

  • NOT: “I will clean the garage.”
  • INSTEAD: “I will start by making one trip to Goodwill with some things I don’t need.”

Procrastinators are likely to focus on the end result, but not what it takes to get there. Every project, no matter how large or complex, is accomplished one step at a time. Spread the steps out, instead of rushing through them in one magnificent last-minute burst.

3. Use small amounts of time.

  • NOT: “I’ll build the fence this weekend.”
  • INSTEAD: “This weekend, before I watch the game, I’ll measure the yard to see how much lumber I’ll need for the fence.”

Unfortunately, procrastinators may not trust themselves to keep going. So they don’t acknowledge the contribution that small amounts of time can make toward accomplishing a goal. They tend to dismiss the idea of working a little at a time and wait to start a project until they have all the time they need to finish it—but how often does that happen?

4. Spend 15 minutes and just get started!

  • NOT: “I will write my quarterly report.”
  • INSTEAD: “I will send an email to my staff asking for their numbers for this quarter.”

Procrastination reflects dread about getting started. But you are likely to feel relief when you actually begin. And, if getting started is not so bad, you are more likely go keep going. So choose one little thing you can do in just 15 minutes.

5. Learn how to tell time.

  • NOT: “I have plenty of time to clear my emails this afternoon.”
  • INSTEAD: “I’ll be through with these emails in an hour.”

Write down your estimate, look at the clock, and then record how long the task actually took. You could be surprised (one way or the other).

Procrastinators have an idiosyncratic relationship with time. They either overestimate how much time they need and wait until they have a large chunk of free time (which hardly ever happens), or they underestimate how long a task will take and then don’t allow enough time to do it well.

6. Fill in your calendar.

  • NOT: “I’ll spend all weekend doing my taxes.”
  • INSTEAD: “I don’t have all weekend to work on my taxes!”

You probably have commitments over the weekend, like kids’ games, laundry, grocery shopping, and cooking. Even if you don’t, you are not likely to spend every minute working on something odious. Fill in your calendar with commitments you know you already have, including work, travel time, plans with friends and family, and recurring errands. The time you have left over is the maximum time available to work on something else.

When procrastinators finally focus on getting a project done, they imagine themselves plowing through relentlessly. It’s tempting to forget previous commitments you’ve already made, or that ordinary life events will take up your time. If you count on having more time than you actually have, you are setting yourself up to be disappointed and discouraged.

7. Reward progress.

  • NOT: “I didn’t accomplish much today; I suck.”
  • INSTEAD: “I put in 45 minutes on my project. I’m going to go out for coffee.”

Identify small rewards, like surfing the Internet after you have made progress (not before), or texting a friend, or watching a show on your laptop. The very activities you use to procrastinate can serve as rewards if you do them after you make some headway.

Procrastinators feel so anxious and guilty when they have put off getting started that they think they don’t deserve any reward until they get all the way to the end of a project. But each step is an accomplishment that can be rewarded, and feeling rewarded is motivating to keep going.

8. Expect obstacles and setbacks.

  • NOT: “My printer died at the last minute and made me late with my paper.”
  • INSTEAD: “If something can go wrong, it probably will, so I’d better allow time for disaster.”

Once procrastinators finally get going, they expect everything else to fall into place. The relief of moving forward leads to the belief that the road will be smooth. But sometimes the dog does eat your homework! If you wait until the very last minute, an obstacle can become a blockade.

Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, used with permission
Source: Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, used with permission

Some people find that these techniques help them make progress toward their goals and feel better about themselves. You might begin with just one new approach and see if it helps. If you put off using these suggestions, you can refer back to the blog that encourages you to think about the reasons behind your procrastination. Overcoming procrastination usually requires both understanding and new behavior.

Jane Burka, Ph.D. and Lenora Yuen, Ph.D., are co-authors of Procrastination: Why You Do It; What To Do About It NOW, (Da Capo, 2008). In print since 1983, the book was updated for a 25th anniversary edition. Burka and Yuen have been featured in The New York Times and People Magazine, and on Oprah and 20/20. Burka is a psychologist and psychoanalyst practicing in Oakland, CA and a Personal and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California. Yuen is in private practice in Palo Alto, CA. and is a member of the Adjunct Clinical Faculty of the Department of Psychiatry, Stanford University School of Medicine.

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