However many time-management apps, to-do lists and timer widgets we have, and however organised our life and workload, we can all procrastinate if we want to. We can ignore that alarm that tells us our break is over, it’s time to get up, our project deadline is looming… if we want to procrastinate, we will find a way to do it, regardless of the measures we’ve put in place to try and ‘treat’ the problem.
But this is probably because we’re failing to look at the other side of the procrastination equation. What triggers our procrastination? Discover that, and we might be better placed to prevent it.
Tiredness, Hunger and Thirst
We all know that tasks we sometimes breeze through in minutes can drag on for ages if we’re tired or distracted by our need for the basics of life. Keep a drink nearby and plan sensible breaks that fit in with when you get hungry, thirsty or tired – which may not be conventional times.
For instance, I’m sometimes unaccountably ravenous by 11.15 in the morning. I get far more done if I stop and address my growling stomach and go back to work later, than if I ignore it.
This is partly related to the point above, but our body has other rhythms and requirements too – times when we feel more alert or energetic and other times where we’re on autopilot (or prepared to do anything as long as we can do it sitting down).
Take the time to observe how you feel at different times of the day (and of the week and the month), and how it feels to attempt different types of tasks at these times. Although it’s not always possible to tackle tasks at the ideal time, at least you’ll have an idea of the best times to complete mundane tasks (like filing) and when to focus on tasks that require more energy, concentration or creativity.
At one time, I had the house to myself most days, and could work on freelance projects on a schedule that suited me, fitting it around my set teaching hours, domestic duties and family commitments etc. But for the past couple of years, my grown-up daughter has often been around too, freelancing, studying and working, and that’s changed my work/life rhythm. I’ve had to explain that if I’m working downstairs and already in the zone, I’m prepared to say good morning, but won’t welcome an hour-long discussion about the news of the day.
Soon, my husband’s job will relocate and he will work from home two days a week (which two, currently unknown). Once again, my work/life rhythm will change. Should I ask him to avoid working at home on Wednesdays, when I don’t teach and normally write all day? Will he be a distraction? It will take some thinking about.
You need to be aware of – and realistic about – your work/life rhythm too. What else occurs in your working week? Are some working days cut short by other activities, do mealtimes vary, and could some work days potentially be lengthened? If you work from home, consider who else is around. There may be times when it’s just not realistic to get complex work done; that 50-minute gap between the end of school and leaving for your son’s swimming lesson, for instance. Change your schedule, or change the type of tasks you do when time is limited and distractions are many!
Literally Not Knowing Where to Start
This problem normally stems from:
Taking on Too Much
Deep down, you know that there’s no way you’re getting all this work done on time, short of going without food breaks and sleep for the next fortnight. Part of you fears that making a start on any of it will just make this knowledge sink in deeper, so you put it off.Firstly, try to make sure you never put yourself in this position again by being realistic about how time-consuming and involved projects will be. Secondly, look at your list of tasks and consider which projects, if any, may be able to be pushed back a little if you contact the client. If they can’t, focus on the project that means the most to your future success; consider pay, regularity of work, and the profile of the project and the client. Then get stuck in and try to get as much done as possible without losing consciousness!
Failure to Prioritise
Indecision is the BFF of procrastination. They spend most of their free time together (they have a lot of that, obviously). Being unsure of what you should be working on next cannot only be a big procrastination factor but can also distract you when you do start work – because you’re wondering if you’re doing the right thing!Realistically assess the work and time involved for your projects and keep track of deadlines. Once you’re in the habit of doing this, it will become easier to see what you should be working on next. When you’ve made the decision, put your head down and work on that highest priority task, without worrying about the others, for at least half the day. You can always reassess at that stage.
Setting Yourself Giant Tasks
Writing down a huge project as one short, snappy item on your to-do list sets you up for failure. It’s not specific enough, doesn’t tell you what to work on first and will overwhelm you with its sheer size.Break it down into smaller steps and set milestones – sub-deadlines – for them. I’ve written more about this here. This will make the project feel much more manageable (if it doesn’t, or worse, stuns you with a fresh realisation of how huge the project is, you’ve Taken on Too Much. See above).
Your Inner Voice
It may be that you’re just not working on the projects that inspire you. While most of us at some point have to take less-than-desirable jobs to earn money, if every day is a hard or boring slog, then procrastination will be an ongoing problem.
Maybe it’s time to be honest about how you feel about the work you’re doing – the projects you’re taking on, the hours you’re working, the industry you’re working within and the freelance life. What changes can you make to turn the situation around?
Whether it’s worries, your phone, social media, background noise or activity, domestic chores or any of the other many things that can grab our attention, chances are, you know what distracts you. Be honest with yourself and think about how you can tackle the problem.
If you work from home, try setting aside some time for domestic chores so that you know they’ll get done – if it helps, get urgent ones out the way first thing in the morning (but have a firm cut-off point, when it’s time to put your freelance hat on). Answer-phones, ignoring the landline and only taking calls on your mobile, apps that turn off the internet or social media, changing your workplace – all these things can help.
So next time you feel procrastination worming its way into your working day, stop and think about if you’ve actually invited it in – and how you can stop it coming back. Prevention is better than cure!
About the Author: