Meet Jamie Palmer and Jan Bavea, two brave women who are ready to stop acting like paralyzed procrastinators. After receiving our “What kind of procrastinator are you?” newsletter, Jamie, a former PR professional who is now writing a book, admits: “I couldn’t even bring myself to open the email about procrastinating.” But her worries about regret and wasted time overruled her trepidation and she emailed us. Jan, a certified business and professional coach who helps busy people find the balance they need, also wants to find a way to overcome her fear of judgment and perfectionism: “I just want to change my mindset to see that being good enough doesn’t mean being perfect. I would finally be able to stop procrastinating around things I know I can do and stop all my second-guessing.”
What they’re currently struggling with:
• “I’ve always been an introvert since I was young, and it’s hard for me to put myself out there,” says Jan. She knows she needs to market her business by developing her website, blogging, and creating a newsletter. She believes she’s capable of doing it, but… “I’m stopped by my self-judgment. I’m scared that the things I do might not be good enough, and I’ll look silly.”
• Jamie is committed to writing a memoir about her family and their experience overcoming the challenges of her son’s autism. “There is a message in here, and I feel like I could potentially help someone who might be going through something similar by doing this. But I just can’t get myself to write. I know I can write — I’ve taught writing for a number of years, and I have been paid to write — but I’m just not writing. I’m scared of being judged. And being a perfectionist hasn’t helped all that much either.”
For paralyzed procrastinators like Jan and Jamie, fear trumps motivation. So sensitive to judgment, they avoid it by not doing whatever it is they know they should be doing. They might have plenty of plausible excuses at the ready, but dread sits at the core. And it often manifests itself in these three ways.
1. “Catastrophize” the consequences. Paralyzed procrastinators frequently imagine the worst that can happen if they take the next step. And they use these thoughts as reasons to stay at a standstill. “Even though I know the good that can come out of finishing and publishing my book,” says Jamie, “everything that could go wrong just keeps holding me back. I’m overwhelmed by the what-ifs. What if my work is rejected? What if people don’t react well to what I share? What if it does get published but I’m not happy with it?”
2. Criticize themselves. Although both Jan and Jamie think they are capable, they often doubt their abilities and even belittle themselves. “When I’m procrastinating, I feel guilty, annoyed, and frustrated with myself,” says Jan. Jamie adds that these feelings of frustration sometimes make her believe something is wrong with her: “I’m always asking myself, ‘Why can’t I just do this?’. I criticize myself by thinking that I’m so undisciplined. And some days, I feel really depressed because I don’t even know if I can call myself a writer. Why don’t I just write? Why don’t I feel compelled to write?”
3. Rely on regular support. Because paralyzed procrastinators tend to be pessimistic and self-critical, they depend on praise and encouragement to build confidence. “I used to always work with a partner when I was a PR professional, and I feel like that’s when I worked best. I needed someone to bounce ideas off of and to give me affirmation that yes, I am doing okay after all,” says Jamie.
How do we stop the negativity and finally put one foot in front of the other? There is no silver bullet when you’re fighting the irrationality of fear. Getting to the root of why you’re procrastinating can motivate, but it helps to follow it up with practical tactics — and frequent reminders that perfection is over-rated.
• Find out exactly why you’re paralyzed. Reaching the aha! often guides us in the right direction, and may point out that we’re taking things too seriously. To get to the core of it, ask a friend to probe you for the reason, listen to your answers, and play back to you what she hears. Try to get very specific. You can also use Unstuck’s “Tell Me Why” tool. (You can download the free Unstuck iPad app here.) And remind yourself that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.
• Pencil in time for feedback. This can be a strong antidote to self-criticism and worst-case-scenario-ism. Ask someone whose judgment you trust to check in on your progress on a regular basis. While these feedback sessions will push you to produce, their primary purpose is to give you reality checks. You’ll learn if you’re on the right track. If your work is good. If you should try a new angle. All of it is aimed at putting your fears to bed. And to remind you that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.
• Create tiny goals. If you’re not getting anything done, even the teeniest completion will be an achievement. Say you’re writing something. You might tell yourself, “Okay, today all I need to do is come up with a headline. Tomorrow, I’ll think about the first sentence.” And remember, nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.
• Address your anxiety. For every “what if I do it wrong” thought you have, come up with a fabulous “what if I do it right” thought. Here are eight more tips to fight anxiety. And, of course, remember that nothing gets done perfectly on the first try.
Albert Schweitzer once said, “Sometimes our light goes out but is blown into flame by another human being. Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”
We’re seeing more and more peer-to-peer help within the Unstuck community, and we thank you — for daring to be vulnerable publicly and for rising to the call and helping others.
In our June 25, 2013, Unstuck newsletter, we featured "How to stop drowning in a sea of details," which prompted a reader to comment that she could use a system to remain accountable. Two fellow readers stepped forward with great suggestions.
Dan Butcher suggested a tactic he uses on occasion himself: Give someone you trust a check for $100, written out to a cause you detest. If you don’t get done what you need to, the check gets sent. We like this idea for larger, nonrecurring tasks.
To help with daily distraction/procrastination, entrepreneur James Rick offers the Focus Sheet. Every morning, you write out your goals for the day, list the tasks associated with those goals, create a schedule, and then record a timeline of how you spent your time.
It takes the purpose of the Eisenhower Matrix, which is to prioritize what to do, and drills down into how and when to get things done.
For more details on how Focus Sheets work, watch James’ video, above.
Meet Arpan Patel, hardcore put-upon procrastinator. A student majoring in software engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Arpan believes procrastination is a way of life. His motto? Play before work. During high school, Arpan never studied for tests and excelled at convincing teachers to grant extensions or accept late work. Now in college, he’s still living on the last-minute with everything from laundry to papers to financial aid forms. He claims it hasn’t negatively affected his life all that much, but his biology grade tells another story.
Arpan’s recent procrastination moments:
• It’s unusual for Arpan to have regrets, but not studying earlier for biology exams throughout the semester is one of them. A typical test covers eight chapters of a textbook and 12 PowerPoint presentations that are 40 to 90 slides each. Most students start weeks in advance, but Arpan began studying the day before. When the grades came out, he wasn’t very happy. A naturally smart student used to getting straight A’s, his failing grade came as a scary wakeup call. The final is now going to make it or break it for him. “I used to get by never even cracking open my textbooks, and now in college, I’m realizing I actually have to,” he says.
• Cleaning doesn’t fall under the topic of interesting for Arpan, and it shows the minute you step into his dorm room. Empty wrappers, sheets of paper, Post-its, and 12 packs of cold medicine and pain relievers (six of which are empty) cover his desk. Unfolded laundry is strewn across his bed. On the floor, a spray of empty water bottles. There’s even a spill in one corner that he doesn’t plan to mop up: “I mean, it’s water. It evaporates, right?”
• If there’s anything college students never seem to have enough of, it’s money. So when Arpan actually saved enough to start paying off a loan without accruing interest, you’d think he’d jump at the opportunity to save himself some additional expenses. But even with his mom’s nagging, he put off the 10 minutes it would take to make his payment…and ended up with an unnecessary $63 in interest charges.
2 telltale signs that you’re acting like a put-upon procrastinator
Put-upon procrastinators feel bored or devalued by tasks “put upon” them. Like Arpan, they purposely try to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible, prioritizing activities they consider more important or more fulfilling. The loop in their head includes thoughts like, “What’s the point anyway?” “My time is better spent on something else,” “If I don’t do it, maybe someone else will.” If this sounds familiar, you’ll probably relate to the following two common characteristics.
1. Live in the moment. Put-upon procrastinators tend to view their world through a lens of “right now” rather than “better in the long run.” Faraway deadlines barely register, especially if something more enticing shows up. “If a paper is due next week, I don’t feel like doing it early is going to be enjoyable at that moment. I know I’ll get it done anyway, so I’d rather do something else that I know will be worth it, like going to a party or watching the game that’s on at that time,” says Arpan.
2. Try to “why” their way out of it. Why do I have to do this? Why can’t someone else do this? Why should I even do this now? A put-upon procrastinator’s list of “whys” can go on and on. For example, “I just don’t get why I should even do some of the stuff I procrastinate on,” says Arpan. “Why am I doing all this biology work when I’m trying to pursue a career in software engineering? Why should I fold my laundry and put it away when I’m going to have to take my clothes out again to wear them anyway? Why should I clean when I don’t mind living like this, and I’m going to have to move out of my dorm anyway?”
How do you stop “whying” and start doing? First, you have to truly, deeply, sincerely want to change your ways. Then, try one or more of these tips to avoid the eleventh hour.
• Highlight the benefits. Draw a T-chart for a task that you’re putting off. On one side, write down all the advantages of starting now. On the other side, write all possible consequences of starting later. Pin your chart in a visible place so you can’t ignore all the benefits of not procrastinating that you came up with.
• Ask for some help. Arpan often feels like he’s in control of everything because he does what he calls smart procrastination — planning ahead for what he can save for the last minute. But scrambling to study hundreds of pages in one night or panicking over an unpaid bill sounds more like barely hanging on. It may be time to find someone who can get the tasks done for you, or at least get you started. What you don’t want to do is ask someone to act like your personal calendar. You’ll end up feeling frustrated when that person starts pestering you, risking your relationship.
• Treat yourself, strategically. Arpan can’t live without his TV shows and movies, so he might use that as an incentive to study a certain amount of hours before allowing himself to watch a show. If you love going out, tell yourself that you can’t hang with your friends on Friday night unless you get your house cleaning done. This tactic is tried and true, but you have to take yourself seriously for it to work.
• Commit. Complain. Reflect. Try the “just do it” approach. Will yourself to start, and give yourself permission to complain. Whine and grumble about how you much you hate it all you want — as long as you finish it. Once you’re done, reflect upon getting the task off your plate. How do you feel now compared with before? Was doing it as bad as you thought it was going to be? What do you have time for now that it’s out of the way?
Meet Linda Hollander, self-professed pinball procrastinator. Currently a freelance writer and mother living in the Netherlands, Linda began her career as a secretary. Bored with her job, she noticed that she procrastinated on even the smallest tasks, and chalked it up to lack of interest. After a few years, Linda quit to pursue a writing career. But even as a successful freelancer, her procrastination habits remain.
Linda’s story of extreme procrastination
“Whether it’s turkey or a crucifixion, all over the world people have their own way of celebrating Christmas on the 24th of December.” Yes, you read that right. It was Linda’s first sentence of her first article ever published — the result of some serious procrastination. Four years earlier, when an editor friend asked her to contribute a piece for the December issue of his magazine, Linda was ecstatic to officially begin pursuing her passion as a writer. Problem was, she didn’t know where to start. She spent all of October brainstorming, finally landing on the topic of worldwide Christmas traditions. By early November, she had 100,000 words worth of information to cram into a 2,000-word article. Then she caught the flu. At the height of her fever, her editor called, sending her into a panic. She frantically edited and rewrote her piece until she nearly passed out. A few days later, she discovered that all her work had been accidentally deleted. Feeling frustrated and flustered, and still working her dull day job, Linda put off rewriting her story until the night before it was due, finishing at 4 a.m. When the magazine hit stands in mid-December, Linda’s friend/editor stopped by to see if she’d read her article. Yes, she said, even though she hadn’t. Then he read aloud the first sentence. But Linda’s mortification didn’t end there. Each year her friends send her Christmas cards wishing her a merry 24th of December.
4 telltale signs that you’re acting like a pinball procrastinator
Like Linda, pinball procrastinators ricochet their way though a project, distracted by lights, bells, and bouncing balls as they aim for a high score. Ideas, details, and other distractions are equally important, so it’s hard to focus and finish anything. While every procrastination opportunity has its differences, Linda practices all of the common traits of a pinball procrastinator. Do you?
1. Overwhelmed by ideas and details. This is the biggest red flag. As the ideas percolate, the to-do list grows exponentially. “I have a huge to-do list, and when I start something, my mind goes into overdrive,” Linda says. When she gets stuck on one task, she moves to another, and another, and so on. Soon, she’s lost in all the things she’s doing — and that prevents her from getting anything done.
2. Unable to effectively prioritize. Instead of ordering to-do’s by importance or deadline, pinball procrastinators tend to choose by interest, ease, or some other less-than-efficient reason. “I have trouble figuring out what to do first,” Linda says. “I’ll often do something else that’s simpler or that I enjoy because I’ll feel like I’ve gotten more things done if I do many small, easy things compared to one big thing. And yet, I’ll still be scrambling somehow.”
3. Delays decisions. Linda acts like a classic Waffler when she’s overwhelmed: Overthinking decisions until she’s paralyzed. So she puts off her choices until the last minute, believing that she works best under pressure.
4. Distracted by the next good idea. Pinball procrastinators tend to start and stop, getting diverted by another brainstorm or unexpected detail. For instance, Linda is currently working on a series about Dutch spelling and grammar. “Getting the basics is a lot of work,” she says. “While I’m busy collecting the info, wham!, I get this awesome idea for another website I’m writing for, and I get sidetracked with that.”
Okay, that’s a lot to deal with. But the very good thing about pinball procrastinators is strong motivation — it’s usually just the approach that gets in the way of completion. To align your method with your desire, try any or all of the following four tips.
• Chunk it out. To herd your to-do’s into something manageable, first get them all in one place. Don’t worry about the order right away, just list everything you can possibly think of. Then rearrange your items into meaningful groups according to timeframe and importance. You might label your most urgent to-do’s as “High alert!” Other groupings could be: “Finish by Friday, “ “Can wait till tomorrow,” “When I have extra time.” If you consider this master list an essential working tool that you refer to daily and revise as needed, you won’t feel nearly as overwhelmed.
• Micro-size your tasks. Completing something is one of the best motivators to complete something else. So to supercharge a steady stream of encouragement, try breaking your tasks down into smaller pieces. For example, if you need to research a sprinkler system for your lawn, your one assignment might turn into four to-do’s:
- Ask Roger about his new sprinkler system
- Order “Sunset’s Sprinkler and Drip Systems” from Amazon
- Do price comparison on Lowes.com, HomeDepot.com, and SprinklerWarehouse.com
- Compare products at Consumer Reports
• Apply pressure. If you believe you work better under pressure, there are ways you can create it without waiting until two minutes before deadline. Unstuck’s “Pros vs. Pros” tool helps you make decisions very quickly (you can download the free Unstuck iPad app here). Another effective form of stress is creating real consequences for unfinished work. But it only works if you hold yourself accountable, so you might want to find a friend who will help you out with that.
• Create a parking lot for your brainstorms. You’ve no shortage of new ideas and fresh things to do — an enviable trait for those of us with a less-active creative spark. The secret is to not let these interruptions get in the way of what you’re currently tackling. When inspiration strikes, record your thoughts in a place that’s easy to get to so you don’t lose them. It might be a wall of Post-it notes, a notebook, whiteboard, whatever works best for you. Then walk away and get back to the matter at hand. Later on, you can add ideas to your master list of to-do’s, but not the moment it occurs to you.
Last week: What kind of procrastinator are you?
Next week: Hardcore put-upon procrastinator Arpan Patel describes his idea of “smart procrastination” and we give him four ways to not procrastinate at all.
The funny thing about procrastination is that we hate doing it when we’re doing it, but it’s hard to stop. Though not impossible, if you really want to break the habit. To get unstuck as an Avoider, we like to start at “why?” Once we recognize why we put things off, we can develop habits to reverse our impulses. To find your procrastination style, take our mini-quiz.
When you put something off, what do you feel, think, and do? Pick one from each group.
What do you Feel when you’re procrastinating?
What do you Think when you’re procrastinating?
A. Oh, I really should be doing that. And that. And that, too
B. I’m only making it worse but I can’t help myself
C. Shouldn’t someone else being doing this kind of thing?
What do you Do when you’re procrastinating?
A. A little of a lot of things to keep all the balls in the air
B. Nothing, but I think about it
C. Grouse a bit and then forget about it
If you chose mostly A answers, read about Pinball Procrastinators, below. Mostly B’s, you’re likely a Paralyzed Procrastinator, and C’s are Put-Upon. If you had a variety of letters in your answer, look for yourself in all three types, because you’ve developed a hybrid style of stalling.
A. Pinball Procrastinator
You’ve got plenty of good ideas. They seem to spring up in almost every conversation, making you the go-to person for your less-generative friends. On the flip side, lots of good ideas mean lots to get done. And you definitely want to…if only you weren’t feeling so overwhelmed by it all. Sure, you’re busy, bouncing from one pursuit to another, but somehow you don’t end up doing what needs to get done now.
What’s really stopping you: Not knowing how to start or tackle the task.
B. Paralyzed Procrastinator
There are many entry points to this place of inaction. You might be backing away from something you know will be hard. Or you’re used to others criticizing or re-doing your work. Then again, you could have set the bar too high for yourself. All of these land you in the same situation: waiting patiently for the perfect moment to get it right, until you wait so long, there’s no time.
What’s really stopping you: Reluctance to be judged — by others, yourself, or both.
C. Put-Upon Procrastinator
You’re one of the most productive people you know. That’s why the label of procrastinator seems so not right. But if you lift up your pile of accomplishments, you’ll find a persistent list of not-so-interesting items that aren’t getting done. Is it paperwork? Writing thank-you notes? Taking down the recycling? The common element is that it’s boring, and, well, not that important to you. So you regularly put it off in favor of more significant stuff.
What’s really stopping you: Boredom, and a belief that it’s not a good use of your time.
Did you see yourself in one of these? Or a bit in all three? By admitting that you procrastinate, and digging into why, you take a giant step forward. But don’t be tempted to stop there. You also need to tackle how you procrastinate.
Consider these popular delay tactics — and some maneuvers to undo them.
• Productive procrastination. You’re busy-busy-busy getting stuff done, crossing items off your list…and actively avoiding you-know-what. But as long as you remain on-the-go, no one can say you don’t have a good excuse, right?
If you want to stop this: Put only the critical items on your to-do list, and don’t let yourself stray from your set agenda.
• Unproductive procrastination. Similar to productive procrastination, you push the unwanted to-do off your radar, but instead of filling your time with lots of other tasks, you simply go about your day as if the unwanted task didn’t exist.
If you want to stop this: Turn the task from invisible to unavoidable. Make it an obstacle that must be dealt with before you can move on to more welcome activities. For instance, you can’t pick up your new floating chair for the pool party until you go to the Post Office and buy stamps.
• Waiting for perfect. You can’t get started, or finished, if circumstances aren’t just so. So, you don’t.
If you want to stop this: Prove to yourself that you don’t need a perfect moment to perform. Use your scraps of free time, five minutes here or 20 minutes there, to make progress.
These solutions won’t feel good at first because you’re pitting your rational side against your emotional one. But the more often your rational side perseveres, the easier it will get. But there is one catch: You have to want to stop procrastinating for any approach to work.
Next week: Meet Linda Hollander, self-professed pinball procrastinator, who shares her worst procrastination moment.
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