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Overcoming Chronic Procrastination: Part II - What We Can Do About It

Updated on May 16, 2013

Productivity is being able to do things that you were never able to do before.
- Franz Kafka

In Part I of this series, we explored why people get stuck in chronic procrastination. Common reasons include self-defeating attitudes, choice "overwhelm", mental health issues, and physical illness. Check out Part I here.

Now that you understand some of the common causes and realize that procrastination is often much more than simple "laziness", let's talk about what us procrastinators can do about our condition.

In this Hub, I'll show you some effective, practical ways to deal with chronic procrastination.

Reduce Overall Stress Levels

Sometimes procrastination is simply a result of being overextended and over-stressed by a "to-do" list that's WAY too long! Productivity requires energy - physical energy. High stress reduces your overall energy levels and leads to depression, which is basically productivity Kryptonite.

De-stress your life and body by:

  • Getting adequate sleep: I've suffered from insomnia most of my life, and I can't tell you how important getting proper rest is for overcoming procrastination. My sleep has gotten better over the years and my productivity has gone way up as a result.
  • Exercising regularly: I know, I know! This is the one everybody hates hearing about (again!), but regulating stress without exercise is like trying to quit drinking in a bar. It just doesn't work.

    God knows I've been as guilty of skipping exercise as anyone, but not only does it decrease stress, it INCREASES the quality of sleep, which reduces stress even more.

    Find some kind of moderate exercise you enjoy that you can do regularly. Mine is walking the dog and doing 20 minutes of yoga per day. It's NOT about getting in tip-top, fantastic shape. It's about providing your body with a baseline of maintenance-level movement.

    Our bodies are made to move. It causes all kinds of problems when they don't. Moderate and consistent is far better than intense and sporadic.
  • Finding SOME kind of balance between work and play: Believe it or not, people who devote their entire lives to work are less productive than those who don't. True, they put in a lot more hours...and get far less accomplished.

    I think many chronic procrastinators (myself included) secretly believe the key to being productive is to become a workaholic. Sounds like a real drag, doesn't it? That's because it is!

    It's a proven fact that effective, productive people know how to relax and take it easy. Rest and fun are crucial to recharging our minds, bodies, and spirits. Our desire for downtime is a perfectly legitimate need.

    The way I look at it, what's more important? Feeling morally superior because I put in a crap ton of hours, or actually getting stuff done? No one cares how long it took me to do "X" as long as "X" gets done...with reasonably good results. Click here for an interesting article about this concept.
  • Cultivating a support network: I believe being part of an emotionally supportive community is essential to stress management. We're not built to exist alone and apart from others. Make time for friends, family, church, group activities...anything that helps you feel part of the larger human world. There are also numerous online support communities. Click here to read a blog post I wrote about online support groups for anxiety.


Do Something You're Passionate About

Make time in your life for something you really, truly care about. It doesn't have to be work or school related, but spend time doing something you feel deep passion for. Chronic procrastination can be a sign you spend too much time doing things you hate. Everyone can withstand a certain amount of mind-numbing tedium, but there have to be limits.

For example, take my own career. I've been in the IT profession going on 13 years now. Information technology is basically about bolting various computer systems together into a kind of Frankenstein's monster that helps people execute business functions. It's a lot more fun if you enjoy technology, especially NEW technology.

And here's the sad truth: I stopped caring about technology around 3 years ago. You can take your handhelds, iPods, tablets, AJAX, JQuery and smart phone apps and go bury them in the nearest landfill for all I care.

But understanding (and keeping UP with) that stuff is what I get paid for. It's my job.

I'm over technology, so I've moved into Internet marketing as a supplemental source of income. What I love most is that it's about communication, connection, and helping others. Helping people overcome driving anxiety is something I really care about, and it makes the technology part of my job much more tolerable.


Granularity: How to Break Tasks Into Small, Manageable Chunks

There's a concept in computer software called "granularity." It's a way of describing how to break something very complex into smaller, simpler pieces. The more "granular" it is, the more control you have over each component piece of the entire program.

Know that feeling of being so overwhelmed by a task that you don't even know where to begin? Maybe it's a research paper, a project at work, even cleaning the bathroom. Whatever it is, that feeling of having no idea how to approach it is very familiar to anyone suffering from chronic procrastination. And it generally ends with accomplishing nothing by simply giving up in defeat.

That's a feeling I'm intimately familiar with, and I've learned it's an indicator that my approach is lacking in granularity.

Next time you feel overwhelmed by something on your "to-do" list, break that task into a series of smaller tasks, then do those tasks one at a time.

Here's some example lists of how I broke writing this Hub into discreet chunks I could do one by one. Notice how each list is progressively more granular (there are more chunks), but each chunk is easier:

LIST # 1

Part II Hub tasks:

  • Write Part II Hub about overcoming chronic procrastination (UGH!)

LIST # 2

Part II Hub tasks:

  • Write Hub intro
  • Write Hub body
  • Write Hub conclusion


Part II Hub tasks:

Write Hub intro

  • Briefly summarize Part I & link to it

Write Hub body

  • Write section about stress reduction

Write Hub conclusion


Part II Hub tasks:

Write Hub intro

  • Open with quote about productivity
  • Briefly summarize Part I & link to it
  • Tell readers what Part II Hub is about

Write Hub body

  • Write section about stress reduction
  • Write section about doing things you're passionate about
  • Write section about granularity

Write Hub conclusion

I could keep going but I think you get the idea. I just kept making lists with smaller chunks until I couldn't break any of the list items into smaller pieces. Then I had a place to start and a way to proceed forward.

My strategy for "task overwhelm" is to break it into the smallest pieces possible, or at least break it down until I can easily get my head around each piece. Find your own comfort level with this concept. Break complex tasks into simple ones until each one feels manageable. It really helps!

Timeboxing reward system
Timeboxing reward system | Source

Use "Timeboxing" to Boost Productivity

Timeboxing is a method to overcome the inertia of get started on a project.

Here's how it works:

  • Start by selecting a small piece of a task you can work on for just 30 minutes (see the section on granularity above if you need help figuring out where to start).
  • Choose a reward that you WILL give yourself as soon as your 30 minutes are up. Getting the reward is guaranteed if you simply put in the time. It's not dependent on any meaningful accomplishment, just that you put in 30 minutes.
  • Examples of rewards you can give yourself include watching TV, movies, enjoying your favorite snack, going for a walk, taking a bath, etc. It's allowing yourself to do anything you find pleasurable.
  • No matter how unpleasant the task, there's almost nothing you can't endure for just 30 minutes, provided you have a big enough reward waiting for you at the end. Because the amount of time you'll be working on the task is so short, your focus will shift to the impending pleasure of the reward instead of the difficulty of the task.

With timeboxing, you'll probably discover that something interesting happens: you end up working much longer than 30 minutes. You may get so involved with a task, even if it's a difficult one, that you actually just keep going.

You'll realize you've put in an hour or even several hours without planning it. The certainty of your reward is still there. You know you can enjoy it whenever you're ready to stop. Taking action in this way shifts your attention away from worrying about how hard the task is and toward finishing the current piece which has your full attention.

Claim and enjoy your reward when you do decide to stop working. Then schedule another 30-minute period for working on the task with another reward. You'll associate more and more pleasure with the task when you know that you will always be immediately rewarded for your effort.

Immediate, short-term rewards are much more motivating than distant and uncertain long-term ones. By rewarding yourself for simply putting in the time instead of for any specific achievement, you'll find yourself eager to work on your task again and again until you finish it.

Other Things to Consider

Procrastinators tend to be perfectionists. Perfectionism is an inordinate fear of making mistakes, of not having something turn out exactly as planned. Remember that NO human endeavour will ever be perfect, seeing as how perfection is beyond human capability. An imperfect job done today is always better than a perfect job delayed indefinitely.

Realistic Priorities
Sometimes putting something off is an indicator that is doesn't need to be done at all. Perfectionist procrastinators often have a skewed sense of priorities: we tend to put great emphasis on things that don't really matter. Ask yourself if something you're procrastinating about is actually important. What would happen if you simply decided not to do it at all?

Getting Professional Help
It may be that you need counselling or other professional help to break the chains of your procrastination. It's a serious problem for many, MANY people, and it's perfectly legitimate to seek help for it. Don't be ashamed to ask for that help if you need it.

Chronic procrastination can be very debilitating, but it doesn't have to be. There are real, workable solutions for overcoming it. I hope you've found these suggestions helpful, and, as always, I love hearing your comments.


Greg Weber


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