Maybe you’re dealing with zero-productivity workdays, so you spend Sunday nights scrambling to drain your overflowing email in-box. Or your home is beginning to look less cluttered and more, shall we say, hoarder-ish. Or, most seriously, you put off making necessary health appointments, turning that niggling issue into a potential scare.
No matter what your red flags might be, it’s helpful to first understand why you’re procrastinating in the first place.
“Procrastination is often linked with perfectionism and the fear of failure,” says psychologist Crystal Lee, Ph.D., owner of LA Concierge Psychologist. “There is such anxiety around getting something done perfectly and successfully that the anxiety hinders people’s ability to actually work on the project until the last minute.”
We may also prioritize other people’s needs first, she adds, which leaves little time for getting to our own must-do tasks.
Ready to ditch the “I’ll get to it sometime” mentality? Then learn from some experts — in the form of people who are super busy, and yet manage to get everything done anyway. Take their tips to heart, and make 2018 the year you finally get stuff done.
Seems so retro, and yet it works for Karl Sun, CEO and cofounder of Lucid Software. He says he’s most productive when he gets up from his desk and talks to people instead of using email. Keep in mind that this is a guy who got a masters in engineering from MIT and a law degree from Harvard at the same time.
You connect with people better by talking to them in person, he believes. If you’re unable to connect with people and communicate your point clearly, you’re often left with an unclear direction on how to proceed with the task at hand. So, you procrastinate.
“I like to listen and remember details about my coworkers,” Sun says. “I ask how their kids are, how’s the new house, how is Ethan adjusting at school? You can’t get those details in an email, it’s awkward and inauthentic. It’s the same with work topics, you can’t get to the root of a problem in an email. You have to go talk to people.”
Some procrastination vehicles are obvious—sorry, Reddit. But the really insidious procrastination is staying busy, but working on the wrong things, believes Taylor Jacobson, founder and CEO of Focusmate, a productivity software maker.
“We delude ourselves into thinking there’s time for everything, and we can get to that big, hairy project later,” he says. So we start with the small tasks first, which makes us feel good when we complete them.
But putting out all those little fires — especially the ones that aren’t vital — means you won’t have the time or energy for finally getting to the big stuff. Jacobson has embraced the art of letting all those minor tasks burn while keeping an eye on what he calls “the biggest rock.”
“Every day, I identify the most important item on my to-do list, since that helps visually orient me around that task,” he says. “Each time I return to my desk, I open that to-do list and my eye is drawn back to my biggest rock for the day.”
Procrastination can sometimes come from perfectionism or feeling overwhelmed, but it can also happen simply because you have too much to remember. To prevent that, Guitar Center’s Chief Customer Officer Jeannine D’Addario keeps a small notebook with her at all times and jots down notes throughout the day.
“This could be something someone said, an idea, a follow-up, or data,” she says. “The act of writing it down helps me remember it.” Plus, having a tangible record of what’s on her docket for the day makes it stick at the forefront of her mind—meaning she knows she has to devote time to it.
Also, she reviews those notes at the end of the day, and that allows her to clear the to-do list she’s created in the morning.
Imagine it: an email inbox that’s in the single digits, or even zeroed out. An impossible dream? It’s something that Dan Black, global recruiting leader for Ernst & Young, does every day.
“I try to ‘touch’ an email in my inbox only once, and then apply the four Ds: delete, do, delegate, or defer,” he says. If it’s the last, he punts those emails into a folder that he checks once a week.
With this method, he can go through a full day’s inbox in about 30 minutes instead of constantly putting things off and handling them later—or not at all.
Whatever you need to do, commit to 15 minutes, advises Jillian Michaels, fitness guru and creator of My Fitness by Jillian Michaels app. For example, when she feels like procrastinating, she promises herself that she’ll exercise for just 15 minutes.
“After that time period, if I’m still not feeling it, I’ll call it a day,” she says. “That makes it more palatable and less daunting. That said, nine times out of 10, once I get started, I’ll feel much better and end up completing another 15 minutes.”
It’s also helpful to give up the notion of perfection happening within that timeframe, she adds. “The key is to keep yourself moving,” she says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect.” That means that leisurely walk around your neighborhood is just fine, especially if the alternative was staying parked on your couch.
MIT researchers suggest that your brain creates a loop whenever it develops a new habit, and that process consists of a cue, a routine or behavior, and a reward. With procrastination, your cue or trigger might be spending too long on email, or daydreaming in the afternoon.
To break your triggers, it’s helpful to physically move to a new spot, suggests Mike Dow, Psy.D., Ph.D., author of upcoming book Heal Your Drained Brain. This can also create a new cue that makes you more productive.
“When I can’t start a task, I simply take my computer down to a coffee shop that’s a block away,” he says. “The change in location helps me get started. In my brain, I’ve paired this coffee shop and writing books, so it’s always a great cue to just go.”
Distractions are a part of every workday, and it’s important to be realistic, believes Chris O’Neill, CEO of Evernote. But that doesn’t mean spending every second dealing with all those texts, Slack messages, and emails.
O’Neill sets time aside every week for deep work, which are projects that are the most cognitively demanding and require complex skill. Scheduling time for deep work, rather than trying to fit it into everyday tasks, helps O’Neill to get it done far more effectively—and he’s much less likely to put it off, since he knows it’s accounted for on his schedule.
“Deep work means zero distractions, so I don’t respond to emails or anything else that will cut my focus,” he says. “The human mind naturally wanders and affects our attention spans. This tactic helps to control this, so I’m able to get things done.”
Matt Wright, a conservationist and TV personality—his new series Monster Croc Wrangler debuts in January—knows how to keep focus and stay in the moment. After all, the guy literally wrangles beasts for a living. His advice is to clear your most dreaded task first, so you don’t procrastinate around it.
“If I’ve got a pile of things to do that are building up, I do the worst task first thing in the morning when I’m fresh,” he says. “I find that if I don’t do this, I end up stewing over the worst task all day long, which affects my productivity in other areas and means I’m not completely present with anything else.”