Time Management and Procrastination
An integrated approach.
Posted Apr 09, 2019
Get to care enough. Many people struggle with time management because they don’t care enough to manage time well.
Some of those people don’t sufficiently care because, deep down, they believe that a person need only be as productive as needed to survive. In contrast, people who care enough to manage time well generally believe that being as productive as possible, as defined by good time management, is important to the life well-led. To me at least, it seems clear that the person who is highly productive in and outside of work is living a more worthy life than is the hedonist who is minimally productive so s/he can watch TV, play sports, and regularly vape their way into inertia.
Other people don’t care enough to manage their time well because their life is in such disarray that they feel that time management won’t help much. Yet, the path forward—clichéd though it may be—is to take baby step after baby step toward a better life, whether it be to clean one corner of their living room, write a resume that reminds you that you do bring something to the table, or reach out to that long-ignored friend who brings out the best in you.
Identify and focus on your priorities. Many people claim that their time is swallowed by exigencies, that there’s too little time for discretionary priorities. We all have exigencies but, in our discretionary time, good time managers ever ask themselves, “Is this central? What activity would better serve one of my core goals?” I’ve been asked why I write so much, more than 1,350 articles in Psychology Today alone. It’s simply because I care about helping people with life’s practicalities, and without it being too hard for me, I’m able to write publishable work.
So what’s your core goal or three, the things you care most about? Should you spend more of your discretionary time on one of those?
Of course, even highly productive people fritter some time: They may play sports, watch TV, play video games, go to their second cousin’s third wedding in Kalamazoo. But productive people, on a case by case basis, carefully decide whether or not to work on their core priorities. They’re, for example, able to say no to time-consuming requests when they believe their time could be more wisely spent, for example, saying no to that relative who, again, wants you to listen to them complain.
Use The Voice. Too many people wonder where the hour, the year, even their life went. They may wonder why they get so much less done in a day than does their officemate. Of course, some of the cause may be intelligence and drive, but less discussed is The Voice: Good time managers are ever asking themselves not just whether they should do a task, but, if so, how can it be done efficiently?
If an efficient person wonders if there might be a more time-effective way but doesn't know what it is, s/he might ask someone. Or s/he might invoke the gas-pedal metaphor: “Can I do this task as quickly as possible (pedal to the metal) or need I do it slowly and carefully?” (barely pressing the pedal.) For example, the efficient surgeon works slowly when there’s a risk of cutting a nerve but doesn’t worry unduly when sewing up the patient that the stitches be precisely even. Then, speed trumps precision.
Use a simple record-keeping system. Especially if you have difficulty with time management, your system need be simple. For example, for scheduled appointments, use your computer or phone’s calendar app, or a paper week-at-a-glance engagement calendar. Write your not-time-determined activities on a memo cube that sits prominently on your desk. Check both throughout the day.
Sponge up dead time. Keep a book or simply an idea to ponder with you for times you’re waiting: in line, at a doctor’s office, the DMV, etc. When driving, especially in the ever more likely gridlock, have handy an audiobook or phone calls to make.
Get help? If you sense that you get less done than do most people but don't know why, perhaps discuss your typical day or week with an efficient coworker or friend. You might even ask him or her to shadow you for an hour to identify ways you could manage your time better.
During a talk to college presidents, I asked them to raise their hand if they consider themselves a procrastinator. About 15 percent did. In contrast, when I asked that of an audience of unemployed people, 90 percent did. Procrastination is a career devastator and often a personal life devastator.
There’s no magic pill and, indeed, a respected twin study found that impulsivity, which is nearly perfectly correlated with procrastination, is 50 percent under genetic control. Let’s hope that a genetic component isn’t prerequisite to being able to procrastinate less. If it is, just as tuning up a VW won't enable it to beat a Porsche, all the tuning-up of your anti-procrastination tactics won’t sufficiently reduce your procrastination But let's err on the side of optimism, that tactics matter.
As with salary negotiation, most of the work in avoiding procrastination need be done before attempting to tackle the task:
Should you do the task? Sometimes, your “procrastination” is your wise brain saying you needn’t do the task now or perhaps ever. For example, let’s say you’re a psychotherapist and get an email pitching a continuing education course on neo-Freudianism. Your first reaction is to take it because you need to take a CE course and you know little about that topic. But the email sits in your inbox, with you feeling guilty that you’re procrastinating enrolling. Yet, if you slow down to reflect, you might realize that for all the time and money, you’re unlikely to derive material that will sufficiently change the way you’re practicing, let alone yield better outcomes for your patients. So your “procrastinating” enrolling was actually your subconscious brain wisely calculating that you have better things to do with your time.
But more often, if you consider the likely benefits and liabilities of a prospective task compared with what you otherwise might be doing with your time, you’ll decide it’s wise to do the task. Indeed, keeping top-of-mind those benefits of doing it and the liabilities of not, can motivate you to get started on the task and to push yourself through the hard parts.
Decide if you should do it now or later. It’s possible that you’ll be more likely do the task some other time, for example, Saturday morning, when you’re fresh, caffeinated, and your kid is out playing. But more often, putting off the task represents an irrational unwillingness to accept the short-term pain for the long-term gain. You may rationalize, “I’ll be in a better mood to do the task tomorrow" but fact is, you probably won't. In fact, if you’re in a bad mood now, tackling the task now may distract you from your malaise and when you get it done, make you feel better.
If needed, reduce stress around the task, for example, with deep breaths, a walk around the block, and perhaps realizing that you can get help with your project, and almost certainly, that you can survive failure.
Ritualize. For a task that need be repeated, like exercise, working on your taxes, or on that long report, link it to a desired activity. For example, before lunch or going to bed each night, promise yourself that you’ll put it at least a half hour on the unpleasant task.
Use peer pressure? Some people are more likely to get tasks done if they team up, for example, with a study buddy or running partner. Another way to use peers is to post on your Facebook that you’ll finish The Task by, say, 5:00 or you promise to donate $50 to the political party you least like.
Reduce distractions. So now we’ve arrived at the time to begin the task. But, for example, if your computer’s open to your favorite shopping or social media site, it’s a mere click from the unpleasant task to a pleasant activity. So shut down your computer or at least the tempting sites—Make it easy to do what you should do. harder to do what you shouldn’t.
Is there an easier or more pleasant way? This was mentioned in the time-management part of this article but it deserves separate mention here. Procrastinators are particularly helped by taking a moment to ask yourself, “Is there an easier or more fun way to do this task?” For example, it might be to set up a tight deadline: Can I reach this milestone before I have to pick up my kid from soccer?” Or while working, for example, on your taxes, should you listen to your favorite music?
Starting and staying with the task
Stay vigilant for the Moment of Truth. There's a moment when you're deciding to or not to do the task. Too often, the decision is made unconsciously and, before you know it, you're alphabetizing your spice rack or mp3 playlist. Think back to how much happier and more successful you'll be if you do the task— and, now, force, yes force yourself, to get started.
The one-second task. Most people say that the hardest part is getting started. My clients have found useful the one-second task: What’s the project’s first one-second task? Staying with psychotherapist examples, if you have billing paperwork to complete, your first one-second task might be to open a file. Your next might be to type the payer’s address. The term “baby steps” has become cliché because it so often helps.
The one-minute struggle. People are also tempted to procrastinate when reaching a hard part. To address that, my clients find the one-minute struggle helpful. Generally, if you haven’t made progress in a minute, you’re unlikely to. At that point, decide whether to keep struggling, get help (if only through a Google search) or that you can complete the project without conquering that roadblock.
Few things make a person feel better about their work and personal life, and to be more contributory, than to manage time well, with minimum procrastination. I hope this post helps.