There are a lot of things I teach that I am not necessarily an expert at in my own life. This is not one of those topics.
This is something I am really good at. Trust me, and use my tricks.
In grad school I finished my master’s thesis in record time, then got it published. I finished my dissertation more than a year ahead of schedule and received a perfect score from each faculty member on my committee, then got it published.
In my classes I would work through the syllabus at my own pace and finish all the required assignments in an average of two weeks per class. While my classmates were pulling all-nighters during finals week, I was enjoying date nights with my wife and staying up late watching movies.
This became a running joke between me and my classmates. They even invented a new term for me. Pre-crastination.
I’m not saying this to brag. I’m saying it to get your attention. Get good at time management and your life can become really fun. I know from experience.
I’m going to tell you exactly how I did it. And, believe me, it’s not that hard. I promise you…you can do it too. Here are 10 steps to get you going:
1. Stop joking about procrastination. Seriously. It’s a common human trait to look for humor in things that make us uncomfortable. It’s especially popular to make jokes about things that make life harder like ADHD, social anxiety, compulsive tendencies, and…yes…procrastination. But the first step to kicking this bad habit is to stop claiming the title for yourself. Stop self-diagnosing. And for heaven’s sake, don’t make your bad habits into a joke. And… this should go without saying… don’t go around claiming that you “work better under pressure”. While it may be true that having a deadline helps you to focus, using this to make you feel better about bad time management skills should not be a source of pride. Don’t glorify procrastination.
2. Look at deadlines as “worst-case scenario”. One of my favorite ways of dealing with anxiety is to clearly state the worst-case scenario of a given situation. Then go to the opposite extreme and describe what the best-case scenario would be. Then acknowledge that few things in life fall into either of those extremes. Take some time to explore the wide middle ground between best- and worst-case scenario, and make an honest guess about what is most likely to occur. Treat your task deadlines the same way. Most of the time, the official deadline for a project represents the worst-case scenario. How fast you can complete the project if it was the only thing on your plate is best-case scenario. Take a look at all the responsibilities you are juggling, and make an estimation about when you can most likely see the task finished. Let that be your target.
3. Well begun is half done. Call me hokey. I don’t care. Mary Poppins had the secret sauce. Check out the opening lines to the song A Spoonful of Sugar.
Poppins: “Shall we begin?”
Jane: “It is a game isn’t it, Mary Poppins?”
Poppins: “Well, it depends on your point of view. You see, in every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and, snap, the jobs a game. And every task you undertake becomes a piece of cake.”
This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where the magic happens. Assign yourself the least amount of work that still counts as “getting started”. Need to clean the house? Set the goal of plugging in the vacuum cleaner. Need to fold a mountain of laundry? The goal should be to fold five pieces. Need to finish a report for your boss? The goal is to open a blank word document and write three sentences. As soon as you can, identify a starting goal, and execute it. Much of the remaining task is a downhill slope. The secret? Once you start, you sometimes realize that there is something satisfying about the task and you don’t want to stop. Before you know it, you’re a quarter of the way through the job. Blink again and you’re already halfway home. This may sound like a psychological trick, and you’re right. It is. But it’s a trick we should all be happy to fall for because it makes life so much easier. (And at times fun.)
4. Set small goals. This is more of a repackaging of the previous point, but it’s worth repeating. Set small goals for yourself. Focus on bricks, not walls. Feel overwhelmed by the big picture? Do ten percent then stop. Or set a timer for five or ten minutes, and stop when the timer goes off. Do the same thing the next day. Before long there’s only a tiny bit left. Small accomplishments add up fast.
5. Follow the fun. Again, this is a variation on a previous theme, but it’s really important. If you’ve ever been amazed at somebody’s productivity, chances are, you are witnessing the byproduct of somebody having fun. That’s not the same as “doing what you love.” You don’t have to love a task in order to have fun with it. Make a game out of an annoying job and it will be done a lot sooner. You will be a lot less miserable. (And people will likely admire what you’ve accomplished.)
6. Under-promise and over-deliver. Always hedge your bets when communicating about a timeline. Remember worst-case and best-case scenario? Place your bet somewhere in between, then work hard to execute it on a shorter timeline. Your success will impress your colleagues and give you a boost of confidence.
7. Be a pragmatist, not a perfectionist. I remember a fable where two groups were assigned the task of making clay pitchers. One group was told to make one perfect pitcher. The other group was told to make as many as possible. Group one spent hours trying to get everything right and ended up with an embarrassing mess. The other started cranking out pitchers, honed their process with each iteration, and ended up with multiple masterpieces. The moral of the story? The war between quality and quantity is not universal. Sometimes they go hand in hand. Be judicious about what needs to be perfect and what doesn’t. Do you really need an “A” in every class? Does every report for your boss need to make you a Pulitzer candidate? Know the threshold of “good enough” and just make sure you cross it.
8. Use circuit training. You can get a lot out of a 15-minute workout if you exercise one muscle group while another one is resting. The work-oriented equivalent is knowing when to switch tasks. Certain types of paperwork drain my energy and attention fast. But that doesn’t mean I work for fifteen minutes then noodle around for thirty minutes. Use the thirty minutes to do a task that requires a different type of energy, then get back to the hard stuff. Use the timer on your phone to signal when to switch tasks. (Hint: You can do the same thing with location. If your work allows it, take your laptop to a café. When you hit a wall, move to a library. When you hit the wall again, go back to your office desk. This can keep your energy fresh throughout the day.)
9. Take breaks. The laws of diminishing returns can be strict at times. When you realize your thoughts aren’t coming as quickly as usual or if you start noticing careless mistakes, stop and take a break. Set a timer. Then get back to work.
10. Track your results. This is where we come full circle. Instead of bragging about how bad you are at procrastinating, start telling yourself (and others) a different story. When you make note of your successes, they tend to grow. Build your confidence that pre-crastination is something you can learn to do. And reward yourself for your hard work. When others are in panic mode, you’ll be able to relax, go out for dinner, and maybe catch a movie.