6 ways to stop procrastinating (even if you’re really good at it)

procrastination people

The other month I realised I was developing a procrastination habit. It was creeping in, slowly (much like that innocent toast-crumb covered plate and knife on the sink can morph into a crockery pile of “did we have 20 guests over yesterday and just not notice?!” proportions).

That one’s not just me, is it? You’ve been there with creeping crockery, right? RIGHT? Ahem.

Anyway, that’s how my procrastination started. Slowly. At first it was hardly something I noticed. One slipped project timeline here, one day where that “important” stuff got put on the backburner – “never mind, it’s just one day ha ha!” – …and then a week whooshed by.

Being a former chronic procrastinator I noticed the signs and swung into action (using the 6 steps below).  You see while it starts small, I know from experience that left unchecked procrastination creep has a big impact. For one thing, it can turn you from someone who’s so full of potential… to someone who’s secretly spinning in circles with that one thing that’s so important to you in your life just not moving forward anymore.

Even if you’re reading this and thinking “er, has Marianne been sneaking into my head again?” let me assure you, there is a way out. But it might not look the way you expect it to.

 

Why conventional ‘procrastination advice’ might not always work for you

Here’s the thing.

Most procrastination busting advice focuses on tactics. Like “turn off your Facebook notifications!” or “check email once a day!”. Don’t get me wrong, these are great pieces of advice – so why don’t they always work? Simply, because when you’re a smart and creative person (which you are) these “naughty child” approaches are so easy to get out of.

Don’t check Facebook? Sure thing! Oops, there goes 3 hours on another site instead.

(see, I do live inside your head don’t I? Freaky…).

And that’s the point. You are a smart person, not a naughty child. So rather than diving into a range of ‘be a good boy/girl now’ tactics that stick for about 10 minutes, let’s treat you as an adult by starting with your ‘big picture’ (hint: this will give you a heap more control over things).

Only after these first big picture tips will we dive into some on-the-ground tactics to help you see things through for real.

 

6 smart steps to stop procrastinating (and start living)

 

1. Distinguish between the urgent and the important

Procrastination is often misunderstood as being a thing you do when you don’t go ‘anything’. But being in the grip of procrastination does not mean you don’t get things done. It just means you’re focusing on things outside of your ‘important’ list.

After all, procrastination can be a busy thing: we clever folk can always find something urgent to do instead – and urgent is not the same as important.

Which begs the question: what’s important to you, honey?

And is the time you are spending on that honouring its importance to you?

Remember if the two don’t match up this isn’t about blame or telling yourself you’ve been ‘naughty’. It’s about what you do with it from here. And what I suggest you do? Is honour the heck out of your answer.

One way to do that is to ask the question “how does this serve me?”

For example I use this when I’m in the middle of ‘not doing very much’. In procrastination mode I typically justify my ‘not much’ with a line like “I’m just getting ready for the day” but with this in mind I’ll ask: “does this serve my future self?”. And answer it honestly.

Try it yourself: when you are about to do (or not do) something ask this simple question: how does this serve me?  (Or does this serve my future self?) 

At the start of every thing, I ask myself this ‘why’ question. Sometimes it means keeping going with that task, sometimes it means doing it for a shorter amount of time, and sometimes it means closing it the heck down because it doesn’t serve my future self nearly as much as the thing I’m not doing because of it.

Tip: When you ask yourself this question, honour your future self with the answer. This isn’t about justifying one thing or another. There’s no one grading you on your life. There is no right or wrong, only what’s moving you toward the person you want to step into, and what is not.

(If you haven’t spent much time getting clear on what is most important to you and how that’s fitting into you life,  I’ve put together a simple exercise to get you thinking: click here to download it)

 

2. Install Momentum on your computer (seriously, now you can  download your own momentum. I love the internet)

Momentum is a free Google Chrome browser app that I’ve fallen in love with.

At the start of the day you are asked “what is your focus for today” and you plug in your answer:

Every time you open a new tab in your browser this page comes up, but this time with your one line reminder there in bold. A friendly hello from this morning’s you, if you will. (So you don’t get bored, it comes with a fresh new background photo every day too).

To get the most from your Momentum page, think of the MAIN THING you would be proud of (or disappointed if you didn’t do) at the end of that day and put that, and only that, down.

For example it can be something specific like “complete introduction of new course” or a theme to fulfill on for the day like “relax with family”. You may have more on your list for the day but you know that if you got THAT done you are serving the person you want to be.

This is the power of the one line format: you get a few minutes at the start of each day to think about what you would really value by the end, and have that pop up at you as you go throughout your day.

You can download Momentum here for free: http://frh.me/chromemomentumapp (note this only works on Chrome, not other browsers).

 

3. Distinguish between fake work and real work

This is a way of checking in on yourself and getting more done (while feeling like you’re working less).

Diving back to the big picture for a moment, what happens after you remind yourself of your important and start on it? Well, you’ll get started. But it’s possible you will get distracted after a while, right?

You might spend ages on formatting a document in a way that no one really notices… or find yourself ending up down a google rabbit hole until you look up and think “oh my, is it bed time already?”– fake work vs real work how you can end the day saying “I worked hard!” but not feeling like you got anywhere.

You don’t get paid for face time (or fake time) in free range land. The worst outcome for a free ranger or free range fledgling is to feel like you have no free time and are exhausted but actually have just procrastinated the heck out of your evening or day. 

The secret to getting around this is to be ruthlessly honest about fake work and real work.

Solution? The second you see you’re doing fake work, get the actual heck up and leave the scene.

How to do this: when it’s fake work – shut down. Close off the laptop, or move out of the room, whichever is appropriate for you. Leave the scene and do something different.

You’ll learn to get honest with yourself: if you know that you’re just not on this and are going to spend 2 hours faffing, then spend 30 minutes doing something you love AWAY from the work scene. Walk, hoop, eat, call a friend, do something for you.

Warning: at first this will feel indulgent (and you will probably tell yourself it’s not allowed).

“I don’t have time!”

“Do things for ME? That’s selfish”

“No, I need to focus”

But it is allowed. It’s not selfish. And you’re not actually focusing in that time anyway.

After all, if you think about it there’s no outcome difference doing something that’s an indulgence for you vs messing around doing fake work….

Well, no difference except the fact that you’ll come back refreshed, and possibly more creative.

No difference except that your day won’t feel like a blur anymore.

No difference except that at the end of the day you may look back and go “wow, I thought I was working hard all day, but a huge chunk was fake work.”

And from that place you’ll have the power to either change how you spend that time in terms of working better OR you’ll take time off consciously, actually enjoy it… and spend your now limited time so much more focused.

Sounds like a pretty good outcome to me.

You might just find your life open up and your relationships improve with this one tiny question. And all it takes is being conscious and honest about what’s going on in that moment.

 

4. Morning matters

This is our first pure ‘tactic’.

Simply: do the most important thing, first thing.

Spend 30 minutes or one hour on your one main priority for the day (or that one important project that keeps being put on the backburner…) before doing anything else in the morning.

Hit that timer button, do not log into anything or check anything (turn notifications off the previous day if they are going to bother you) and go.

I know, I know, you’re not a morning person: but hear me out. There’s are several reasons why this works (and why it’s used by many successful people).

Firstly when you wake up your mind isn’t yet cluttered by the minutiae of the day: that first email you read, that first news story you see, that first conversation sets the tone for your day and your thoughts start spiraling in another direction. When you wake up you’re ‘clean’ and you get to set the agenda for that next hour (best of all once you do this you’ll often find the rest of your day goes more smoothly too).

Secondly, the closer you are to sleep state, the better (no, really). When you’re waking up your conscious mind isn’t rattling around like a pissed off bag of jellybeans – your unconscious, where creativity comes from is far more strongly activated. You know that way your best ideas come to you on a walk or in the shower? That’s the sort of space your mind is most likely to be in first thing (even if you’re not a ‘morning person’).

I had a reference here for a study that backs up this second point based on what’s going on in the brain first thing in the morning… but, er, I lost it. (*shakes head at self*). If you know the study I’m talking about drop me a line in the comments so I can link to it here!

Note: this ‘first thing in the morning’ advice might well be one you’ve heard before so this time my challenge to you is to do it. It really does work – and doesn’t require any ‘willpower’, just an alarm clock and a chunk of time spent even before your day kicks off. It is honestly the quickest win you can get in getting things done land.

 

5. Time chunk

Got a project or ‘should do’ that’s been built up in your mind so much that it now seems like an Everest?

Answer: chunk it.

You can’t do that project in one sitting (I’m guessing!), but you can start rolling in 15 minutes.

I know, I know, doing just 15 minutes at a time can seem like a waste of time (that’s why it’s tempting to read this advice and then think “well not for me, for me I’m going to wait until I can dedicate a full 3 hours to it. But not this week, I’m snowed under this week”).

These 15 minutes aren’t about doing all the things. They are simply intended to open up that closed door and set things gently rolling.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Set a clear outcome for what you want to do in that time (make sure this is do-able).
  2. Now put that in the diary, as firmly as an appointment with someone hard-to-reach…
  3. Show up for it, exactly as you would if it was an appointment with that person you admire who is only in town once every 10 years.
  4. At the end, congratulate yourself, and schedule your next round for longer if you like.

Yes, this sounds  too simple, right? Yet doing that small chunk breaks the ‘impossible’ into the steps that it actually takes. This is how real life momentum begins.

Hint: before you start your time chunk, turn your internet off unless directly related to what you need to do in that moment. Have to send an email? Write it offline. When I do this I am amazed at the time my browser will suddenly be in front of me with “no internet connection” written on it. Eh? I think. Browser? I don’t even remember clicking that thing! HOW DOES THIS HAPPEN?

In short:  be honest about your mind wander reflexes and set yourself up for them in advance. For many of us the internet is a distraction so turn it (and any notifications) off for your time chunk: the world will still be there when you log back on but this time it will be a world where you don’t have that thing hanging over your head 😉

 

6. Productive procrastination

If you’ve been in free range land a while you will be familiar with this one. If not, take a look at my productive procrastination post and video here (yes you can productively procrastinate!).

 

“Ok I know there’s not a secret sauce to bring this all together… but if there was what would it be?”

My best shot at this one?

Stay honest with yourself.

These tips aren’t about finding a magic button, they are ways for you to honour that thing that matters to you and your future self (over and above the call of the other shiny moments).

After all, procrastination isn’t (always) a state where you are getting nothing at all done, it’s often a state where you aren’t getting that thing that really matters to you done.

So an experienced procrastinator can often list out all the many things they ‘did’ in the last week, and beautifully justify every one….

But your life is not graded.

This isn’t about justification or approval: yes what you did instead was a necessary and reasonable: tick! or tut tut, you’re wasting time. This is not about being “naughty” or “good”. It’s about taking that care you show to others and showing that same respect to yourself.

So do your future self a favour, and don’t cheat on yourself today. You know what’s important to you (if you aren’t clear on it, go back and do the exercise in step 1 above) and these tips are here to pave your way .

Now it’s over to you. Which are you going to put into play today?

 

Like this post? In fact, like LOTS of things?

Drop your name here for my free audio on "How To Create Your Perfect Career... When No One Idea Ticks The Boxes":

  • Lucinda

    I installed the self control app a while ago to block Facebook while I tried to work – and started using FB on my phone instead. Oops. So much for trying to “trick” myself into working. For me at the moment there are a lot of changes going on so I’m up at the start of the list here trying to re-identify and reconnect with what’s important and what are the outcomes I’m after.

  • Claire

    Oh how I loved today’s Friday Love Letter. Procrastination, closely followed by its old friend frustration, is my current state… Mixed in with a little bit of sheet panic and self-doubt. Panic as I’ve handed in my notice; procrastination as I don’t know what to focus on and wildly bounce between things… I don’t really see my fr business idea as a real business so spending time on it seems silly. And frustration because I’m making myself giddy going round in circles….Arghhh! Why doesn’t this stuff come with an A BC plan? Thanks for today’s post – at last a bit of light in the darkness. Have a great day one & all xx

  • Nicola Cameron

    Awesome advice (as always!), Marianne. I am a chronically “busy” procrastinator: always moving, always knackered, always at the mercy of a massive to-do list but not moving forward on my big goals. I call it “always striving, never arriving” and it frustrates the hell out of me! I’ve tried all sorts of advice on overcoming procrastination in the past and whilst some of the tips have been helpful, they don’t really stick long term. I am going to implement your recommendations (I particularly love the idea of getting your important work done before the day really gets going – and I love the idea of my conscious mind “rattling round like a pissed off bag of jellybeans” – that should be on a t-shirt!) and I’m optimistic of seeing fabulous results. Here’s to achieving our free range goals!

    Nicola x

  • http://www.webtechwonderwoman.com/ Jenny “Webtech Wonder Woman” J

    YES!! I’m hugely guilty of “fake work” but I’ve learned to catch myself doing it. I realise I’m at the PC and not actually doing anything useful. So I DO shut down and walk off for a coffee, and just let my brain wander. I did it this week – had a coffee, and then came up with two ideas that I then went and implemented right away.

    Also on the doing the most important thing first, I do that too, but sometimes I find I need a little warm up task first, so sometimes I’ll do the second most important thing and then the first right away. Doing the second one warms me up and really helps :)

  • Dana

    Marianne, you are absolutely brilliant! (And what *have* you been doing inside my brain?!) Thank you for sharing these ideas!

    I’ve really been struggling with procrastination the last few weeks, and eight days ago implemented the ‘do the most important thing first’ idea: I now get up and write from 4.30-6.30 in the morning, even though I am SO not a morning person. It works really well!!

    Originally I was going to go back to bed after writing, or take a nap later in the day, because I am very much a night owl. However, since my brain is usually in gear by the time I’m finished, or it’s time for the next thing on the schedule, neither napping nor earlier to bed have been happening. This is becoming a problem, because the last three days writing start time has slipped from 4.30 to 5.30 or even 6 (by the time I make coffee). So later today I will be brainstorming ideas for getting more sleep – I’m an 8-9 hour girl and have only been getting 6 or 7 – and set the alarm back to 4.30 for tomorrow morning’s session.

    Also, as we all know, the internet is fatal! So I will be turning off my wireless (after I send this) and doing any online research outside of Writing Time from now on.

    We can do it, fellow Free Rangers!
    Dana

  • Abhishek Pathak

    Started with the exercise in the first step. It was awakening. I have read so many articles on procrastination but this is by far the best and the only one which called me into action immediately.

  • Catherine McAtier

    Already downloaded momentum and in the spirit of keeping it going put my first 15 min action date in my diary. Great advice – is it bad that I was procrastinating when I found it? Cx

  • Andrew

    I am thinking about putting in place number 4 – MORNING MATTERS.

    I want to give my passion the best most productive hours of my day (I still work a 9-5). So I think waking up earlier and getting 1-2hrs work done on my true passion before my work day would make me feel happier and more at ease. Rather than waiting till 5pm to even get started.

    Another thing I found useful is planning MIT’s (most important tasks) for the next day the night before. This way you know what you are doing the next day from the get go and don’t have to waste time/energy thinking about it. I usually plan to complete these MIT’s in a couple of 100 minute blocks at set times during my day. During these 100m blocks I put my phone on Aeroplane mode and give my tasks intense focus……that’s just what works for me! :)

    Andrew

  • Jennifer Cornbleet

    Thank you so much, Marianne–this is the best post on procrastination I’ve ever read! I definitely get into the pattern of being constantly busy and exhausted, but by focusing on the trivial things or the urgent things, rather than the important ones. So a couple of days ago, I took a look at my massive to-do list and wrote an “I” next to the truly important items. I defined important using your question “would I be happy if I did this today and disappointed if I didn’t”. Turns out that out of 40 plus items on my to-do list only 3 were actually important!

    I then resolved to spend the first hour of my day as soon as I woke up doing only the most important things–so only one of those three things. It took some discipline, since I have some fear around those things, and they aren’t “urgent” they way all the other piddly stuff on my todo is is.

    Wow! After a couple of days of doing this, I feel better about myself than I have in a long time. By 9 am, I already feel great about the day. And then paradoxically, all the piddly stuff somehow gets done later, or if not, it wasn’t that important anyway.

    In the past, I’d always used the morning to do self-care things like meditate, exercise, etc. Now I’m still doing that, but just after I spend an hour or so on the other important things. This one change has really helped me break my procrastination pattern! (Along with defining what’s really important and seeing how little of my time I was actually spending on important things).

  • SandraLeeSchubert, Get heard.

    OK I just love this phrase> “waking up your conscious mind isn’t rattling around like a pissed off bag of jellybeans” I am better later in the day- BUT I have to set the tone for the day to get to that better place.

  • Dragan Ruzic

    It’s been several days since you wrote this, and I put myself to work with each of the 6 steps.

    Great article, as usual you’re like a sharp needle pointing in the center of a problem. Then you give solutions being highly supportive to your audience. I like your approach very much.

    To the procrastination thing and after reading what you wrote, I’ve found it liberating when I first distinguished what’s fake work and then what’s real work, and decided to try to do the _real_ work in chunks.
    An example.
    If I’m at hard work for a while and get stuck, the earlier “me” would procrastinate to ease it for a while. Facebook, other pointless web surf etc, but now I’m prepared.
    I’ve chosen the project priorities and grouped the ones with deadlines following each other, so as soon as I loose the focus (and can’t get it back no matter what I do), I go over to the next project “in line” and look at my annotated next step (all according to GTD).
    If I can’t do that either because of being in the wrong contexts or for some other reason, I’ll go to the third one and so on.

    I do have 4-5 projects with deadlines during this summer and fall, so what I need to discipline myself with is to let go, and truly relax for a while.
    That’s what you’re also pointing at in your article so I’m inspired by both parts.
    Thanks!

  • Arndis

    I’ve read about a thousand articles about how to stop procrastinating and they all say the same things that somehow just make things worse (trying to get rid of distractions that aren’t the real problem and you just come up with new ones, creating deadlines that you won’t reach anyway and your guilt just worsens etc.). This article gets to the core of the problem (asking ourselves what is truly important to us) and gives practical long-term solutions, both for a change of attitude and quick tips and tricks to get started right away. Thank you!

  • Tanya

    Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve started to recognise when my procrastination starts and opted to do something fun instead. In my case going for a run, which means I get some guilt-free nourishing outdoors and nature time instead of feeling frustrated that I just can’t stop reading the internet!

    The notion of fake work also really resonates and I think I’m going to start asking the “how does this serve me” question whenever I’m in at my 9-5 job to see if I can cut down on urgent but unimportant tasks.

  • Mohd Mujahed
  • FreeSteamKeys

    The only effective method that worked for me was using procrastination bulldozer method.

Previous post:

Next post: