I procrastinate horribly — not about everything, just about phone calls. Sometimes I put off making dinner reservations until all I can get is a 10 p.m. slot at my third-favorite restaurant. I regularly run out of prescriptions because I can't manage to phone the pharmacy for refills. I dial my mother so rarely that, when I do, she thinks someone died. For no reason I can understand, the prospect of making even a mundane phone call leaves me overwhelmed. Procrastinating over such a simple task seems crazy — but research shows that most of us are busily not doing things every day.
In a five-year study of procrastination (that took 10 years, so who are they to call the kettle black?), psychologist Piers Steel, Ph.D., at the University of Calgary found that 95% of us report having postponement problems. We put off jobs we find tedious, as well as things that inspire fear of failure, of not living up to our own expectations, of never finishing — insecurities that threaten our very identities. My phone phobia is probably due to some combination of finding the calling process tiresome and a dread of the call mushrooming into more projects (my mom might insist I come visit; I'll have to pick up that prescription). Yes, I know it's absurd and counterproductive to delay, but I do it anyway, even though there's a price.
As we all learned in grade school, procrastination is the thief of time — but studies show that that's just the beginning. Putting off tax filing, for example, costs Americans a cumulative $400 million a year, because once we start rushing, we make mistakes. Delaying routine medical tests results in dangerously late detection of otherwise treatable illnesses. "People who procrastinate tend to be less healthy, less wealthy, and less happy," reports Steel. Ready to repent? Here is the latest research on how you can reclaim your time and finally start making things happen.
Step 1: Replace the Finish Line with the Starting Line
When a big, unpleasant task is looming, its sheer enormity can make even the most enterprising woman decide she'd be better off plucking her eyebrows. Instead of thinking about how far you are from the finish line, says psychologist Neil Fiore, Ph.D., author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play, concentrate on starting. And if you do begin a lengthy, boring project — say, organizing the pantry — only to soon find yourself browsing Depression glass on eBay, don't get upset or throw in the towel. Just ask, "When can I start again?"
The point of staying focused on beginning: to avoid getting intimidated by all the fears that surround finishing. What if I do a lousy job? What if I flat-out can't do it? Such concerns can seem silly in the context of a simple cleaning job, but they often arise out of perfectionism, says Fiore. To move ahead, don't criticize yourself for your garage-cleaning skills (or lack thereof). "To get things done — and done well — you have to keep your sense of worth as a person separate from whether every task you do turns out perfectly," he says. Think of big projects as a series of beginnings — and remember that no failure is final.
Step 2: Run a Dash
For just five minutes, do nothing but work on the task that had you stalled — then quit. "That's why it's a dash. By committing to a ridiculously short amount of time, you ensure that you will meet your goal without getting stressed out," explains Merlin Mann, founder and editor of the personal productivity site 43folders.com.
"Start by asking, 'What's the simplest step I can take to get things in motion?'" Mann advises. If you've got to clean out the attic, aim for five minutes of packing up old toys, and stop when the timer buzzes. By building in a light at the end of the tunnel, the dash gets you to begin, which is often the hardest part. "Many procrastinators just don't know how to take the first step," says Mann. If you do nothing more than a short dash, at least you'll have begun, which is better than Googling hints on attic reorganizing.
Furthermore, you may be surprised at what can happen in five minutes. Emptying the dishwasher was the daily job Amy Mayer, 49, of Charlotte, NC, most dreaded. But then she timed it. "It only takes five minutes!" she discovered. "After I realized that, I was able to walk up to it much more easily." And once you've actually started, you may find that it's hard to stop as you gain momentum, make progress, and maybe even start to enjoy jobs like sorting through your teen's old baby toys.
Step 3: Skip Grandiose Goals
Faced with an intimidating task like "start exercising," who wouldn't procrastinate? Ambitious to-do lists can be a form of self-sabotage that sets us up for failure. Making the list can even become a project unto itself. "We trick ourselves into thinking our planning is actually doing, but it's really just part of the procrastination," says Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychologist at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. "Planning substitutes for real action."
To make sure your to-dos actually get done, try what Mann calls pebbling: Break off tiny pieces of the mountainous job, writing down only tasks that you can accomplish in 24 hours. Instead of jotting, "File my taxes," a job that can easily take days, write, "Get my receipts out and put them on the table." Instead of "Buy a new car," try, "Call the car dealership and set up a meeting for Friday." By addressing pebbles, not mountains, you are much likelier to meet your goals, which in turn inspires the confidence to climb future mountains — one pebble at a time.
Step 4: Keep Distraction at a Distance
"The U.S. gross national product would probably rise by $50 billion if that 'new e-mail' notification sound were to suddenly disappear," estimates Steel. If you're starting to get something done, and then hear that ding, you may only spend four seconds reading the e-mail — but next thing you know, you're organizing your inbox or looking up that recipe for Cornish game hen. The task at hand? A distant memory.
"We have so many distractions now that are instantly available — and they're toxic to motivation," says Steel. "It's never been easier to procrastinate." The answer? If you need to get something done, turn off the e-mail sound or icon — heck, if you're at home, unplug the WiFi connection altogether. Or take a tip from Stephanie Gabriel Boyden, 33, of Tucson, AZ, who increases her efficiency by scheduling a daily "electronics-free hour — no phone or e-mail for 60 solid minutes."
Eliminating distractions works off-line, too. "I tend to get distracted easily when I'm doing a chore I hate," says Catherine Boyd, 49, from Charlottesville, VA. "I'll start thinking of other things that are important, like checking the furnace valve, or calling the vet. I'd never let myself quit working to watch TV — but who could feel guilty about setting up the cat's yearly veterinary checkup? So now I keep a small pad handy and write down all those other tasks as they pop up in my head. Having that list removes the temptation to escape from the thing I really hate by doing other things I hate slightly less."
Step 5: Schedule Fun First
"One of the most devastating consequences of procrastination is that it can lead you to put off living," says Fiore. In his research with graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, he found that the people who made time to play sports, hang out with friends, and enjoy themselves were the ones who actually got work done faster. "The procrastinators were always worrying, as if suffering were a superstitious offering to the gods," Fiore noted. "They were, in a sense, saying, 'See, I'm not having any fun — isn't that almost as good as doing the work?'"
Rather than allowing that procrastination-induced cloud of guilt to overshadow your life, Fiore counsels setting aside leisure hours first — before you schedule time to work. A night out with a friend, for example, becomes your reward for doing something less palatable, like covering the school board meeting for the PTA. That way, even while listening to hour three of the budget discussion, you'll remember that life is not all Excel sheets. Rather than feeling like Cinderella forever, you'll know you'll soon be having a ball again. Leigh Anderson, 34, of New York City, adds another twist. She hates cleaning house, so "I invite friends over every Thursday night. It gives me something to look forward to, and makes me tidy up pronto!"
Step 6: Defang Your Fear
Much of procrastination is rooted in our fears about ourselves and our abilities, and confronting those concerns can help us get past mental roadblocks. When procrastinating over a scary task, ask yourself, "What's the most catastrophic thing that could happen?" suggests Fiore, and then figure out how you'd cope if that scenario were realized. Say you're afraid that you can't pull off writing that big presentation for your boss. OK, suppose you fail to deliver the project. Then what? Your boss will be disappointed, even angry and you'll never get promoted. OK, so what will you do next? Keep going and figure out a plan for the unlikely chance that your worst fears come to pass. If you answer truthfully, you'll come to see that no matter what happens — if you get fired, if the cupcakes you make for the class are inedible, if you don't lose 10 pounds before your daughter's wedding — your life won't be over, so don't beat yourself up about it. By facing your fear, you allow yourself to stop worrying and start working — which makes it less likely that your worst-case scenario will come to pass.
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