To some, I may appear productive. But like many, I’m a horrible procrastinator.
I try to think about my weakness in positive terms, e.g., “I work better under pressure.” That is true—I believe there’s nothing like a deadline to force you to be creative (one reason why I love blogging!). However, for some projects, I know that if I had budgeted my time better, I could’ve produced superior work, rather than passable or “good” work.
Recently, I’ve devised a system that has all but ended my horrible procrastination. I’d like to share it because I know I’m not unique, and most procrastinators enjoy discovering new “cures” to experiment with.
Warning: This solution does require the use of lists, which I know some people hate. (I’m looking at you, Christina!)
Step 1: Start with a master list.
You probably have a master to-do list. If you don’t, create one. Here’s a form I created that limits your to-dos to one week. If you have to-dos that stretch out further than a week, it can become overwhelming and meaningless. In the case of to-do lists, it’s best to stay in the moment as much as possible, to guide your most immediate work.
That said, if you need a reminder about a future project or deadline, put that on a different list or create a reminder/alarm. On my own worksheet, I have something called the “parking lot” that is exactly for those things too far out for me to attend to. Writing them down helps free my mental energy, so I can focus on other things.
Don’t put anything on your list that sounds like this:
- Finish my novel
- Work on XYZ project
- Build a website
You’ve just listed massive projects that need smaller action steps. For big projects, create a separate project list that breaks everything down into small action steps. This is really important! If you don’t have a specific next task you can easily tackle, you will procrastinate because you feel overwhelmed. It will induce paralysis. Repeat after me: Break down each project into its smallest possible components.
Step 2: Using Post-It notes, break up the week’s tasks by day.
Two critical points here:
- Post-It notes are small enough to prevent you from adding too many tasks to your day, but big enough to give you an overview of 2-3 days at a time. I list the days across the top, then draw a vertical line between them. (See below.)
- Breaking up the tasks by day prevents you from saying, “Oh, I’ll get to that tomorrow.” This is important! I used to work off a master to-do list that was never-ending. Often I felt paralyzed by the amount of work I could select from; I didn’t know what to tackle first, so I delayed and did nothing. I waited for the nearest deadline to compel me to action. But when you have the whole week outlined, and you’ve strategically master-minded everything on Sunday or Monday, with all the tasks segmented by day, you feel you have things under control. You budget your time better. You get into a rhythm.
- Hint: I used to create one-day lists, not one-week lists. Once I switched to the one-week view, I became FAR more productive. Why? With one-day views, it was VERY easy for me to say, “Oh, that’ll get done tomorrow.” When I have a set of NEW tasks already outlined for the next day, I’m far less likely to make excuses. I need the week’s big-picture to keep me motivated and focused.
- For tasks that are more time-consuming, break them up into Parts 1, 2, 3 (etc), and schedule them over the course of the week. This gives you permission to jump around your to-do list, keep things interesting, and make the difficult tasks more manageable and approachable.
- If you have tons of stuff happening on a particular day, you may never get to your to-do list. Give yourself light task days whenever you have tons of meetings, errands, etc.
- When I worked in publishing, my to-do list was often dictated, to the minute, by incoming e-mails and social media blips. It didn’t allow me to focus on higher level tasks. This can be a tough problem to solve. Eventually I had to make a tough decision that I sometimes still enforce: No checking of e-mail until after 4 p.m. (or some other specified hour), or until certain tasks are complete. Your life will not be your own if you’re constantly getting whipped around by your inbox.
- If you’re not strategic about which day you schedule tasks, you could still end up procrastinating. For more time-consuming tasks, I break them up into parts (as suggested above), and start the process early in the week. That way, if things take longer than anticipated, I can adjust the schedule before it’s too late.
- Your to-do list is only as good as your ability to keep track of important deadlines and to prioritize. For me, the issue has never been one of awareness or prioritization. It’s been focus, direction, and motivation (especially to tackle more daunting projects, or those I’m avoiding).
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.