I’m sitting at a very messy desk, trying to get this blog post written. I feel like I “should” clear off my desk because everyone knows you can think better when there’s no clutter around.
I also know that if it were easy to clean off the desk, I would have done it already. So do I really want to take the time to do that and put off writing the blog? Honestly? I don’t want to do either of those things.
What I really want is a piece of chocolate.
Should I go get up and get a piece? Or better, bring some right by my side and reward myself: a piece of chocolate for every paragraph written.
Okay: I think I’ve made my first point: yes, I have been known to procrastinate.
Why is this important to you? I hope it helps you knowing that I have first-hand knowledge.
Read on to learn:
- Why we procrastinate, and
- Valuable tips to help you when you’re having trouble getting a task done (or started!)
There are three issues that may be going on when you find yourself procrastinating:
- You don’t know what step to take next.
- There is a worry or fear holding you back.
- You are trying to figure out which of several tasks to attend to.
Let’s take my messy desk as an example.
1. What step to take next?
Perhaps I haven’t started cleaning my desk because I don’t know where to begin. Perhaps there’s so much clutter, I’m paralyzed to start because I don’t know which pile to attack first: the bills? The things I want to read? The pile with the rubber band around it? The pile of to-do lists that never got thrown away because there were one or two items to do on them? The pile that I’m not sure what it even is – aka pile of unknown origin?
Since I don’t have a strategy, I just look at the whole pile of papers and get overwhelmed. But by articulating the nature of the beast, I can start to strategize: do the bills, go through the to-do lists and cull them down to one new list, check the rubber band pile and the pile of unknown origin to make sure there’s nothing urgent in there, and then re-strategize. This is enough to give me a place to start.
2. What worries or fears might be holding me back?
Some common, related fears are:
- I won’t be able to do it right.
- I’ll make so many mistakes it won’t even be worth it.
And then we’re up against that procrastination / perfectionism ogre:
- I can’t do it perfectly, so why bother?
However, that’s only the surface. The real fears go even deeper:
- There is something wrong with me that I can’t figure this out.
- If people know this about me, they’ll see me for the mess I am.
- They will leave me and I’ll be all alone.
Let’s look at my desk again to see how this might play out.
And, this part can get tricky – and personal! What fears or worries might be holding me back? I might be afraid that I’ll miss an important bill, and then I’ll have to pay a penalty, or that a policy might be canceled. Is that the only fear? No, then I’m worried that I was irresponsible and if I’m not careful, I’m going to end up losing everything I have, which I probably deserve for not keeping better track of things. (How quickly one can move from I made a mistake to shame – from “I goofed” to “I’m a bad person.”)
Or – maybe I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it “right.” I’ll get to certain papers and I’ll have no idea what to do with them. Is that it? No, then I’m worried that I’ll never get the desk cleared off because it’s going to take me too long to make all those decisions and pretty soon it will expand to the floor, and then the hallway, and then into other rooms, and then it will be such a horrible mess I’ll never dig out and I’ll never be able to have anyone over again. (Whoa – how quickly one can move from “I may have trouble figuring this out” to “My office is going to become overrun with papers and I’m never going to get to the important and fun things in life because I will have to spend every free minute just to keep it from exploding further.)
When we really take the time to look at why we’re procrastinating, we may uncover deeper fears. Often, just articulating them is enough to realize that they are real fears of ours, but facing them straight on can make them less daunting.
And – if we see the same fears cropping up, no matter what the task, we realize some of the fears at the core of our psyches. Sometimes, if these seem overwhelming or frightening or make us very anxious, it might be helpful to talk to a coach or therapist to explore their root and/or ways to defuse them.
And, importantly, we need to be gentle with ourselves. We all have fears. It’s part of the human condition. We want to be able to manage them so they don’t hold us back from doing what we need – or want – to do.
3. Which of several tasks should I attend to right now?
The Steven Covey model of urgency vs. importance bears repeating. Most of us tend to focus on what’s urgent, whether it’s important or not. The problem arises when there are important tasks requiring attention, but they’re not urgent.
How might this apply to cleaning my desk? In the scheme of things, cleaning off the desk isn’t urgent (except for the bills!), but it is important to my sanity. This leads me to conclude: getting the bills done is important, but it feels okay to me to focus on the other urgent and important things before me (like writing this blog post) before digging into the desk. I know I have a deadline for getting the desk cleared off because someone is coming to my office next week. If I can clear a bit of space for now so I have a place for whatever I’m working on, I know that I’ll get to the rest of it by the end of the week. This is enough to give me gentle permission to let it go for now.
Our lives can be so busy: we can’t handle everything that comes up the minute it presents itself. We need to learn to be gentle with ourselves. And – we also need to be honest in assessing the importance of tasks, and seeing that the important ones are getting done.
Procrastinating? What can you do about it?
Here are three tips that approach procrastination from 3 different fronts.
Tip 1: Reinforcement.
You can try positive reinforcement (once the task is done, I’m getting a piece of chocolate), or negative reinforcement (if I don’t get the task done by the end of the day, I’m throwing out my stash of chocolate.)
Reinforcement sometimes works, but frequently it takes a firmer, more aware approach.
Tip 2: Set a timer.
I discovered this when my daughter was young and didn’t want to clean her room. (Do we see a theme here??) I would tell her: I’m setting the timer for 5 minutes. You don’t have to clean your whole room – just do 5 minutes and see how far you get. Often, by the time the buzzer went off, she had seen enough progress that she wanted to keep going.
This ties back to the fact that many of us don’t start on a project because we don’t know where to begin. Sometimes just beginning is good enough. As a friend once said: at a stadium, there are many gates but they all lead to the same playing field.
Tip 3: A way to get at “why”.
Herein lies my personal favorite tip for moving past the procrastination beast:
- Ask yourself: why am I having trouble getting started?
- Journal for a few minutes – why am I having so much trouble doing “x”?
It’s very useful seeing what emerges. I usually get a good idea of all 3 points: what’s the next step, why does it feel so daunting, and is it truly procrastination – or task juggling?
Putting it all together
Taking this awareness, and combining it with a good dose of “gentle,” may be all it takes to get you moving on that task you’ve been dreading.
And once you’ve gotten it done? Celebrate: not only that you got it done, but that you figured out a way to overcome the obstacles in front of you. Take note of what worked. This may prove fruitful next time procrastination weighs you down.
PS – in the time I wrote this blog, I consumed 7 pieces of chocolate. (I’m not telling how big the pieces were.)