When Bad Habits Happen to Godo People: How to Rid Yourself of Procrastination and Other Work Related Vices

by Margaret Spencer Dixon, Esq.

I. Introduction

A definition of procrastination: "Postponing something that you know in your heart should be done now instead of later. If you postpone a task in order to do something that really has greater importance and urgency, you can't accuse yourself of procrastination."1

Another definition of procrastination: "Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision."2

Some causes of procrastination: fear of failure, fear of success, perfectionism, indecisiveness, low tolerance for unpleasantness, ineffective goal-setting, imbalance between work and play, fatigue.

II. Revising the Procrastination Mindset

Procrastination is wily; only you can tell when you're really procrastinating. For serious procrastination, try adjusting your thinking along one or more of these points:

III. Thirty-One Ways to Attack Procrastination

1. Start anywhere. Most work projects have many places to start, each of which is about as good as the other. Yet frequently we deter ourselves from starting at all because we can't decide on the best place to start, and lose sight of the fact that just starting anywhere is better than not starting at all.

2. Start even if you're not in the mood. You don't have to be inspired before you start on something. If you wait for inspiration, you run the risk that it might never show up at all. It's more reliable to train yourself to start to work at a specific time and place, then see if the ideas start to flow.

3. Start imperfectly. The early stage of a project is not the time to worry about getting everything right. If you start in plenty of time, you'll be able to edit, rewrite, and double-check facts and citations. To defeat the paralysis of perfectionism, start with an obvious error, which you will edit out later.

4. Realize that unpleasant tasks don't get any easier over time. If anything, unpleasant tasks become more so when we put them off. Even worse, the worrying and agonizing about not working on a project take at least as much energy as just getting on with the task.

5. Realize that the only way to quell the anxiety associated with procrastination is to start working on the project. All other methods merely sugar-coat the anxiety.

6. Work no more than fifteen minutes at a time. Set a timer - a wristwatch alarm is a discreet alternative - and decide to work full blast on the project for the next fifteen minutes. When the timer goes off, decide immediately whether to stop at that moment, or to reset the timer and work for another fifteen minutes.

7. Schedule a "Hell Day." Every month or so, set aside a day devoted entirely to those small tasks you have been putting off.

8. The "drive yourself crazy by doing nothing" approach. Assemble all the materials for the project, arrange them in front of you on your desk, and then sit at your desk and do nothing for seven minutes (by the clock). Don't even write down any of the ideas that are sure to come to you during this period. By the end of the seven minutes, you'll be itching to start. (Incidentally, the reason for the seven minutes is to make sure you sit there for seven actual minutes. "Five minutes" or "10 minutes" tend to become concepts rather than actual time periods.)

9. Ways to deal with writer's block:

  • Begin in the middle.
  • Outline after you draft.
  • Write out your analysis stream-of-consciousness style, then organize it.
  • The letter-writing approach: "Dear Mom: Here I am in the office struggling to write this brief. These are the facts of the case: ...."

10. Make a detailed to-do list of all the different subdivisions of your project. See if there are subtasks that don't sound too horrible - there may even be some that are fun - and start with those.

11. Don't try to do it all at once. See how much you can accomplish by chipping away at a project for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time. Appreciate the cumulative value of small chunks of time: fifteen minutes every working day adds up to about 55 hours over the course of a year. This simple math can help us see the value of putting even small amounts of time to good use on a daily basis.

12. Begin with an "instant task" that takes no more than five minutes, but moves you along the path towards completion of a larger project. Examples: finding a file, determining people to contact, looking up telephone numbers, arranging a meeting.

13. The "cut the salami" technique. Cut huge projects down into manageable pieces, then do a little at a time. "The beauty of this kind of approach is that not only are the individual steps easy, but each one actually generates the next."3

14. Start your day with your most difficult task. After that, everything will be a breeze.

15. Anticipate the pleasure of getting the project done on time. "Once I started using the salami technique, I discovered the amazing serenity and relief that comes from early preparation. There I'd be three days before the deadline and all I'd have to do is tie up a few loose ends. Since then I've learned to conjure up that feeling whenever I'm looking at a project. I let myself think of how good I will feel if I get an early start - and how pathetically miserable I'll be if I don't. It's a little behavior modification in the hands of an amateur but it has worked beautifully."4

16. Establish an environment conducive to action. Invest the time to have the necessary materials and tools on hand, and to maintain them in an organized fashion.

17. Give routine matters only the time they deserve. Resist the temptation of trying to finish all those little tasks before turning to your important project. Allow yourself only a predetermined amount of time - say, 30 to 60 minutes - to focus on routine matters each day.

18. Ask yourself if you REALLY need to do a particular task. Can you delegate it? Streamline it? Hire a professional to do it? What's the worst that can happen if the task never gets done, or gets done infrequently? Would you prefer dealing with the consequences of not doing the task?

19. Search for - and then enjoy - the pleasure in the task. Make tasks as enjoyable as possible: use colorful folders to organize your papers; make your work environment as inviting as possible; make a game out of seeing how quickly and efficiently you can complete routine tasks; listen to music, interesting talk-radio, or books-on-tape while doing household tasks.

20. Do a cost-benefit analysis. Write down the benefits of doing a particular task, as well as the consequences of not doing the task, and decide whether you prefer to enjoy the benefits or deal with the consequences. Picture the benefits as clearly and vividly as you can. Review your list of benefits whenever you need to improve your motivation on the project.

21. Make it a game to see how much you can accomplish in exactly one hour.

22. Don't assume a task will take as long as you think it will.

23. Keep a log of your excuses/reasons for procrastinating. Soon you'll discover that "it's always something" - that you're endlessly creative in coming up with some reason or another for not doing what you know you should be doing. Strive to become as creative in getting down to work as you are about procrastinating.

24. Keep a list of your enjoyable procrastination techniques, (reading the newspaper, having another cup of coffee, doing "fun" work) and indulge in them as rewards for having finished a segment of your primary project.

25. Develop the compulsion to completion. Stick with one task long enough to finish it, or to come to a natural stopping point, instead of turning to a new task as soon as it catches your eye.

26. Develop decisiveness in decisionmaking. Realize that beyond a certain point, the time you take to make a decision does not improve the chances that the decision will be correct. Accept the fact despite your best efforts, a certain percentage of your decisions will turn out to be wrong. Give decisions only the time they are worth. Realize that procrastinating on a decision "should be viewed as a decision by default. It's a decision not to decide."5

27. Make a commitment to yourself to stop working at 6:00 p.m. Consider it no longer acceptable to stay late in order to catch up on tasks you procrastinated on during the day. See how creative you can become at getting things done before quitting time.

28. Honor your leisure time. Paradoxical though it may sound, making sure you have a reasonable amount of time for rest, relaxation, and just plain fun is one of the best ways to deal with procrastination. It's all too easy to adopt the mindset that we will let ourselves play only after we have finished all our work. However, "work before play" is best applied in a daily or weekly context, not over the course of months or years. Forcing yourself to work all of your waking hours for weeks on end - or feeling as if you should be keeping up that pace - leads to inefficiency, stress, depression, and burnout. You can be more productive over the long run if you treat your worklife as a marathon rather than a sprint, and pace yourself accordingly. Knowing that you have only a limited amount of time to work, as well as having something fun to look forward to, will help you to be more efficient during the time you have allotted to work. (Remember how much you managed to get done on the day before your last vacation?)

29. Attain and maintain a high energy level by investing the time to take care of yourself by following the timeless principles of good health (nutrition, exercise, rest).

30. Set SMART goals:

  • Specific - know exactly what you want to accomplish
  • Measurable - so you can tell for sure when you've reached your goal
  • Activity-oriented - focus on what you can do, rather than on external circumstances
  • Reasonable - your goals should encourage you, not overwhelm you
  • Time-limited - since work tends to expand to fill the time available.

31. Use an Unschedule to plan all non-work activities, and to record after-the-fact the time you spend actually working on your primary project (i.e., the project you're procrastinating on). (Use one of the weekly blueprints in the Goal/Activity/ Time Tool attached to this handout.) Some guidelines: (1) fill in your unschedule only after you have completed at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted work on your primary project; (2) take a reward break after each work period; (3) keep track of the number of hours you worked on your primary project; (4) be sure to schedule enough time for rest, recreation, and life maintenance activities; and (5) shoot for 30 quality minutes of work before heading off to a recreational or social event.

IV. Suggestions for Further Reading

Bliss, Edwin C., Doing It Now: A Twelve-Step Program for Curing Procrastination and Achieving Your Goals (New York: Bantam Books, 1984)

Burka, Jane B. and Lenora M. Yuen, Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1983)

Ellis, Albert and William J. Knaus, Overcoming Procrastination, or How to Think and Act Rationally in Spite of Life's Inevitable Hassles (New York: Penguin Books, 1977)

Knaus, William J., Do It Now: How to Stop Procrastinating (New York: Prentice Hall Press, 1979)

Porat, Frieda, Creative Procrastination: Organizing Your Own Life (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980)

Roberts, M. Susan, Living Without Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing Your Life (Oakland, California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 1995)

Reprinted with permission by the author, Margaret Spencer Dixon. Margaret Spencer Dixon presented a program on this topic at The Missouri Bar's recent Solo and Small Firm Conference.

Margaret Spencer Dixon is the president of Spencer Consulting in Washington, D.C. She designs and presents customized seminars on personal productivity and time and stress management for lawyers, government agencies, corporations and professional associations.

Endnotes

1 Bliss, Edwin C., Doing It Now (New York: Bantam Books, 1983), p. 2.

2 Fiore, Neil, The Now Habit (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1989), p. xv.

3 White, Kate, Why Good Girls Don't Get Ahead . . . But Gutsy Girls Do (New York: Warner Books, 1995), p. 100.

4 Id. at 101.

5 Mackenzie, R. Alec, The Time Trap: How to Get More Done in Less Time (New York: AMACOM, 1972), p. 116.


Unhelpful Mindset
"I must..."
"I have to finish."
"This project is huge."
"I have to be perfect."
"I'll have time for rest, fun, and relaxation when this project is done."

Helpful Mindset
"I choose to..."
"When can I start?"
"I'll do one small task."
"I can be human."
"I must make time for rest and relaxation no matter how busy I am."


When inspiration does not come to me, I go halfway to meet it.
- Sigmund Freud


I could never have done what I have done without the habits of punctuality, order and diligence, without the determination to concentrate myself on one subject at a time.
- Charles Dickens


I once worked with a group of highly educated, bright, young, service technicians from a large company in Denmark. I went to one of their desks and noticed a large machine on the corner and asked about it. "That's a bit of bad conscience. I received it from a customer a month ago to repair . . . It could take me two days to fix it, and my schedule is so tight I haven't been able to devote the time to it."

I said, "Do it now."

"I can't do it now," he argued. "I have a meeting at 2:00 o'clock."

"Okay, just do it now, and let's see how far you get," I suggested.

Well, off he went into the repair area with the machine, muttering to himself. Fifteen minutes later he came back.

"Oh, no," I thought, "this could be trouble."

He looked at me and said, "It's done."

"Done?" I echoed.

"Yes, done," he said. "But it could have taken two days."

- Kerry Gleeson


B.F. Skinner, the founder of modern behaviorism, had a time clock connected to his chair. Whenever he sat down to work, he "punched in." Whenever he left his chair the clock stopped, as if he were "punching out." This very prolific writer used a time clock! He maintained flow charts that amounted to giving himself a gold star every time he completed a small segment of work! This amazed me. I said to myself, "If B.F. Skinner has to use a system, then so do I."

- Neil Fiore