Chronic procrastination is ruining my career plans. How can I change?
I paid a bitter price to procrastination early in my career as well. At age 17 I had a business idea that would have made me rich. I was making a good living selling the product I had created, and to take it to the next level all I had to do was prepare some documentation for it. And I never did. Two years later I watched an inferior product make the millions that I could have. I never forgot that lesson.
Years later, a conversation with my VitalSmarts co-founder, Kerry Patterson, reminded me of this painful lesson. We were talking about a book we hoped to write. We had been yakking about it for a couple of years but had made no progress. Let me be more honest: I had made no progress. Kerry seemed to show up with reams of fascinating ideas written out in polished prose while I had a stained airplane napkin with crayon drawings on it. I would mutter an apology for my paltry contribution but point to the 20 days I had been on the road the previous month. After many of these exchanges, Kerry looked at me and said, “Joseph, writers write.”
His point hit me in the gut. It was clear that my career as a consultant would involve lots of travel and I had a choice about what I was going to do with that time. Since then I have co-authored or authored seven books, hundreds of papers and articles, and developed dozens of bestselling training courses—all while I traveled over 100 days a year. One of the books has great ideas about overcoming procrastination as well!
I learned that the key to being productive was to think of myself in the third person, as someone I need to carefully and deliberately influence. I found there are things I could do that would reliably get me off my keister and up to the keyboard. In fact, I used a number of these to get myself to write this very article! Whether these ideas work perfectly for you or not, I urge you to find your own versions of these kinds of hacks to put yourself into action.
Make Appointments with Yourself
Behavioral economists have shown that making good choices is easy if you don’t have to act on them now. (Here’s one such study on employee saving.) For example, if you ask me for a lunch order for next week I’m likely to pick healthier choices than if I’m drooling over choices I’ll eat now. The phenomenon is referred to as hyperbolic discounting—the tendency to overvalue rewards now and undervalue them later. This cognitive bias works in my favor when I trick myself into making commitments now that I will keep at a set time in the future. I am faithful to my calendar; if it says I am supposed to do something, I tend to do it. So I look ahead to uncommitted blocs of time and plug in a commitment to focus on a particular task. For example, Monday morning was open on my schedule. This morning I opened my calendar and saw an entry I imposed on myself last week. From 9am-10am the schedule demanded that I “Respond to a Crucial Skills reader question.” So here I am.
Stop Before You’re Done
When I have long tasks to complete—ones that will require multiple work sessions—I’m careful to stop my work at a place that makes it easier (and more pleasant) for me to pick it back up later. For example, if I am in a groove and have a story going that I am enjoying writing, I intentionally stop before I finish it so I can look forward to jumping back in. I used that motivational trick this morning as well. Last week I had outlined the main points of my response to you. I find that this is the piece I procrastinate most on. But once I finish an outline, I savor fleshing out pieces of it. So, I limited my appointment to finish the hard part so that I’d feel enthusiastic about picking it up again later. I was positively enthusiastic this morning to get started because I knew exactly where I was going.
Create Satisfying Episodes
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has shown that your motivation is a finite resource. I find this to be especially true in the grind of tasks that are hard to enjoy. If I think of myself in the first person, I tend to be merciless, beating myself up for not getting anything done. But when I think of myself in the third person, I tend to be more sympathetic of this limited resource. I ask, “How can I maximize Joseph’s motivation?” Rather than forcing Joseph into a writing death march on Monday, I focus on some amount of a task that would feel meaningful and satisfying to complete. For example, I have four articles to write, but last week I scheduled only two of them into my calendar for this week. Design your work episodes to maximize your satisfaction, not grind you into depletion. As I write this I am offering a retroactive thanks to myself for giving me a satisfyingly manageable chunk to do. And I’m getting it done!
Feel the Endorphins
Busy people tend not to savor the endorphins that come with having completed a task. Develop a habit of stopping and feeling the earned satisfaction from getting a block of work finished. When I finish here in a few minutes I plan to sit back, re-read some of the paragraphs, and take in the joy of having completed something worthwhile. This creates new neural connections that associate productivity with pleasure rather than resentment.
Use the Power of the Notepad
Much of my writing happens on the road. The window of time when I first enter a hotel room is crucial for me. For years I noticed that my ritual was to find the TV remote and turn on the news. Then I would set up my laptop and access the hotel WiFi. While an avalanche of emails downloaded, I would begin moving into my closet and bathroom. Every time I followed this ritual I would get sucked into something on the TV or my inbox that would sap my productivity. These days I use another trick on myself. I get an embarrassing amount of gratification out of putting a check in a box. Upon entering a hotel room, I grab the free pad of paper on the desk and make a list of the five things I want to get done before dinner. Then I draw a little empty box next to each. That way I feel compelled to get them done. Also, don’t turn on the TV!
Reward and Renew Yourself
One of the reasons people lose their enthusiasm for being efficient and productive is that it can feel like a relentless grind—there’s always more to do. Don’t burn yourself out. If I have a lot to get done, I’ll make some reasonable commitments to get things done but I also allow time for renewal before diving back into work. Also, treat yourself as you would a valued employee—give lots of praise and encouragement for the great stuff you get done.
Business travel has been a boon to me over the past 30 years—a time when I’ve done some of my best work. It wouldn’t have ended up that way, however, had Kerry not drawn to my attention the fact that I was using travel as an excuse rather than an opportunity. Procrastination isn’t insurmountable. Find ways to influence yourself and you’ll turn productivity into joy rather than misery.