My Secret for Battling Procrastination

by Emilie Ogez / Flickr

by Emilie Ogez / Flickr

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.
It’s best to have your Post-Its in the center of wherever your work. I put mine right on my laptop.

Laptop To-Do

When and how could this system fall apart?
  • 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).
What secrets do you have for overcoming procrastination? Share in the comments!

 

Posted in Creativity + Inspiration, Work-Life.
Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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82 Comments on "My Secret for Battling Procrastination"

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Allison

Hi Jane,

I was struggling with my current task list, as it has become obvious that I am not getting anything done in a timely manner. 😀 I think I suffer from the illness of “put everything on the list at once.”  Thank you for this worksheet and tips. I can’t wait to try it out.

Andrée

Thanks Jane, 
This was very helpful. I am an inverterate list maker. But sometimes I get overwhelmed by those lists and end up like a whirling dervish — lots of energy expended little accomplished. 

Ashley Prince

I love lists! I keep a small notebook with me where ever I go. I have a white board in my apartment with many colored dry erase markers. I also have sticky notes on my laptop. 

With all of this, I still procrastinate. =/ I am going to try and take your advice and only make week long plans. 

Thanks for a great post, Jane. 

Martin Lake

I like this system, particularly the bit about what might affect my ability to get things done.  (I’ll resist the temptation to say ‘life’).

I’ve taken the liberty of downloading your sheet to see if it would work with me.  It may be the most timely of things as we are moving from England to France.  It could be a life-safer.

Martin Lake

Jan Romes

When I worked full-time at the electric company, I was very organized with my time and paperwork. Now that I’m a full-time writer, my organizations skills have slowly gained rust. Thank you for rehydrating the things that used to keep my life running like a well-oiled machine. I definitely need to navigate back to time-management. It would make my life so much easier. Thanks for sharing your ideas 🙂

Hallie Sawyer

You are speaking my language here, Jane. Too much to do causes me to freeze rather than try to sort it all out.  Thanks for sharing the worksheet and post-it ideas. I’ll give it a shot! 

Elisabeth

I’m going to try this with the post its on the laptop. Thanks!

Anonymous

This is helpful, especially 2 points:

1. The single biggest distinction in effective planning is the difference between projects and actions. “Build a website” is a project that calls for many small, physical, visible actions (“to-do’s”). Keeping a separate list of projects gives you the big picture of your life.

2. View your to-do’s by the week. I just keep a list of all to-do items and boldface the items to complete in the upcoming week—different than your system, but based on the same idea.

P.S. You are so prolific, it’s still hard for me to believe that you procrastinate.

Nadine Feldman

I use a series of lists for another reason: they keep me from overestimating what I can do in a day. I may make a list and then say, “Hmm, that looks like too much. What can I move to another day?” I get less overwhelmed this way. I also will put time slots next to my daily tasks so that I make sure I don’t waste time or get carried away on one project at the expense of another. At the end of the day I usually feel tired, but satisfied.

D.G.Smeall

Jane,

You really gave me a savvy work tool here! I am going to start laying out my first week of tasks today, as this is my light day for work around the home.  NOW maybe I will complete my National Novel Writing Month challenge this year!
Thanks for sharing this today.  I really was struggling and looking for a solid way to organize myself!  

DG Smeall

Greg Ioannou
Ha! It took me over an hour to get around to commenting on this. It would take me until forever to prepare a master to-do list, convert it into post-its, and cross things off it. When I’ve prepared to-do lists in the past, I get distracted from them by urgent tasks that grab my attention. When I look at the to-do list a week or two later, I’ve done about half the items on it, and the other half have been done by someone else or they just don’t seem all that urgent any more. I find that management-by-distraction can… Read more »
Carolyn Branch
Hi Jane, Thanks for sharing your method. Procrastination is a constant battle for me. I’ve tried lists before and they do help when I make them. But there are so many days when I  never get around to making the list in the first place. I met you at MidWest Writers in July. You seem so together and so confident, no one would guess that you are anything less than totally organized. At that July conference one of the agents asked me to send the first 50 pages of my memoir. I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t done it yet.… Read more »
Margaret Telsch-Williams
Margaret Telsch-Williams

I love this idea. The number of projects that seem to get stuck up there in the ol’ noggin can make it all very overwhelming. I’m a huge weekly “to do” list person anyway, but this helps break it down and organize it a step further. Thanks, I’ll be sharing this!

Margaret Telsch-Williams

I love this idea. The number of projects that seem to get stuck up there in the ol’ noggin can make it all very overwhelming. I’m a huge weekly “to do” list person anyway, but this helps break it down and organize it a step further. Thanks, I’ll be sharing this!     

Cindylorieplatt

My secret to procrastinating is working with Sean Platt, but not everyone has that tool.I love Step 2 and the post its on the lap top. Genius and so obvious. There are so many great take aways in this post, but the visual made me say AHA! out loud. Thanks Jane. I am learning a lot from you.

Ana Quillinan

So helpful and it’s something that with a decent dose of self-discipline is totally doable. My lists are also on post-its sometimes. Setting a simple yet effective system is what I’m committed to do! Thank you for sharing your system, Jane!

Vanessa Wieland

I have a pretty close variant to your system. I use my calendar function in my email (with a hard copy on my wall) to help schedule and “clear out” those further deadlines; it helps to see that I have breathing room for some things. The weekly master list I do could use some tweaking and breaking down, but oddly, sometimes a task is less overwhelming when it’s bundled on the master list and broken down into a checklist. Having lots of lists seems crazy, but it really is the key. 

CC Havens

Great post. I’m writing this comment right now and not putting it off until later. 

For tasks I’ve been avoiding or don’t really want to do like…organizing my taxes, I set a timer for 20 or 30 minutes and give myself permission to stop when it rings.  Sometimes I stop but most of the time I’m in a groove and keep going.  It helps.

Steven Potter
Jane, I enjoyed your article. Here are my suggestions for how to take it to the next level: 1. Check out David Allen’s excellent method of organizing ideas, requests, tasks, projects etc. Good summary on the Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done I really enjoyed his book and now use one of the electronic “list makers” he recommends: (for iPhone, iPad, etc) http://www.omnigroup.com/products/omnifocus 2. Another very interesting and practical support for procrastinators is The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo. Free download here: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com (See Apple store for an authentic, ticking version of the mechanical wind-up timer) Together these systems help me to organize… Read more »
Roberta

This was very helpful. The idea of breaking things down into smaller
tasks is smart. You are right, it is so easy to become overwhelmed and
do nothing. I thing this is what happens to me most. I have good
intentions but little follow through. 

Irving Podolsky
Hi again Jane, Just read your post and all of the comments. I’d like to add some thoughts “outside the box” and even “under the box.”  Here they are: People, and writers, are attracted to pleasure and avoid pain. In writing, “pleasure” is the feeling of satisfaction and belief, that one is creating something meaningful, and that someone else will understand that and appreciate it. A connection will then be made between author and reader, and that connection brings an additional feeling a worthiness and self esteem to the wordsmith. The connection between author and reader need only exist in… Read more »
Jo Carroll
You are so organised! I envy you. All these good ideas on one list. And yes, I use lists (and have been known to write things down so I can feel smug and cross them off). And I generally have an idea in the morning what I hope to achieve during the day – both reading and writing. Sometimes I manage to do it. But then there is the unexpected. I live alone – and must make time for friends and daughters. Without them I would simply shrivel. Which means that if someone rings and says, ‘Let’s go for cake.’… Read more »
Rebecca L Dobbie

Hi Jane,

This sounds exactly like me it is scary. I do all the lists and schedules yet I still find I am lacking motivation and procrastinating. But reading this and seeing it is a common problem is very reassuring. Time to get the lists working for me instead of against me. Great post.

Mjcwriter

Scary, but effective: Make a commitment to someone important. More accountable than a self-directed deadlines. i.e. Commit to a date for guest posting on a blog or schedule a school visit or advertise your course  dates. Yikes!

Shirley Showalter

Great suggestions here. I have been using your download of the weekly overview and find it very helpful with post-it note supplements.

I have so far stuck to my memoir manuscript production schedule, but I find I am developing very tight shoulder/back/arm muscles.

Suggestion for a new blog post–how to write and do social media 4-8 hours/day without developing tendinitis, carpal tunnel, or rigor mortis!

Anonymous

Thank you, Jane! I’ve wondered how you get so much done. I think I’ll give this system a try. I’ve gotten into a season of work that is demanding so much that I’ve forgotten some important things lately. (The poor couple who flew into town and we were supposed to meet and take out to dinner, for one!!!) This should help.

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Robin

After babysitting my grandsons for a week, this tip is exactly what I need to get back to productivity and lose my sense of being overwhelmed. Thanks!

rachelkramerbussel

Thank you for this! It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time, and my response has been to make multiple, seemingly endless to do lists that wind up becoming pointless and then make me feel like I haven’t accomplished enough because I’ve barely gotten through them. Gonna try your weekly system and see how it goes.

Julie Hedlund

I’ve been moving in this direction for some time, but you are a few steps ahead of me.  I LOVE the idea of putting post-its right on the laptop.  I’m going to start doing that today (as opposed to procrastinating until tomorrow) 🙂

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Krissy Brady

I started creating categories on my to-do list: the absolute must-dos that have deadlines attached to them, and then I base the rest of the categories on certain moods. If I’m feeling creative, I’ll work on my writing project section. If I’m feeling chatty, I’ll work on my social networking tasks. If I’m feeling as if my focus is going to be an issue, I work on the little things on my list I know will give me instant gratification, such as market research, organizing my office, etc.

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Lori

Great column! I found a list by playwright Henry Miller that advised: When you can’t CREATE, you can WORK. So when I’m not feeling the creative juices, I have a list of things I can do that don’t require a lot of focus — writing the bibliography, for example.

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ann marquette

Love this post Jane. For some reason I am unable to open either link to your worksheet form.

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Wotan

Thanks, Jane! I’ve been wanting to look for ways to conquer procrastination, but was too good at procrastinating… 😉 Now I’ve no excuse! Very pretty picture, by the way. Cheers!

Ese Walter

Great post. Thank you for sharing these tips. I practice daily to-do lists with sticky notes I post on my laptop. I also have an infant who helps me make the most of my day because my time is determined by his nap times. lol.

Liz Bee
Great article – thankyou Jane. I’ll be adopting some of your suggestions asap. 🙂 One more trick I use occasionally, as well as a to-do list, is at lunch-time, then again at the end of the day, is to have a blank piece of paper, and write on there what I’ve achieved during the morning etc. It needs to be done twice a day, as by the afternoon you can have forgotten what you’ve done during the morning. I even write showered, did breakfast etc, as we don’t normally consider those types of things important, and yet they’re vital! The… Read more »
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