Stop Wasting Time
Nothing seems quite as elastic as time -- entire days can fly by in which one accomplishes literally nothing at all, or huge amounts of creativity and effort can be expended in a few hours that can make all the difference in the world. While procrastination in the workplace is common, most employees do at least tend to get things done, even at the last minute. Of course, when the choice is between doing your job and losing it, procrastination seems to get overcome eventually. But for those would-be self-starters out there, anyone that ever wanted to accomplish anything without a boss looking over their shoulder or a work deadline looming on the horizon, procrastinating can all but destroy productivity and make their dreams impossible.
Know What You Want -- And Make a List
The first thing you need to do is to write down your goals -- both what you want to accomplish, and what you need to accomplish. Focus on the stuff that needs doing first. One big reason for procrastination is wanting to do too many things at once -- the mind boggles at everything that needs to be done, and the excuses start flying as to why nothing can be. Figure out your goals, break your big projects into manageable chunks, and aim to attack each step one by one.
Put everything on a list, everything. Long term goals, near term goals, personal deadlines, today's to do list. The simple act of writing these things down helps to make them more concrete, and to fix the task in your mind as something more 'real' than just a daydream or wish. It is common at first to make unrealistic lists and believe that you can accomplish more than is possible -- that is in fact one way people overcompensate for procrastinating tendencies. Focus on manageable goals, things that can be definitely accomplished in the time you can allot for them.
By prioritizing what needs to be done and tackling it head on you avoid another frequent means of procrastinating -- keeping very busy with trivial or unimportant tasks. Anyone who has ever given their house a thorough top-to-bottom clean before tackling that report due the next day knows this phenomenon first hand.
I find it also helpful to start with the least pleasant and most difficult tasks first, all else being equal. The relief at having accomplished these tasks early is a great feel-good incentive to keep you working on the rest of the project. Quite often this is also the most efficient way to work -- the bulk of your mental energy goes toward the difficult task while you are still fresh, leaving you to do the others later when you might feel a bit less 'in the zone.'
The Big Secret to Stopping Procrastination -- Get Started!
Woody Allen famously said that ninety percent of life was just showing up. Well, in the case of productivity, often ninety percent of the battle is simply starting your project or assignment. It's impossible to accomplish anything if you always find reasons not to start. While no one likes the feeling of sitting at a desk, staring at a blank computer screen, and not knowing what to do, the truth is that sometimes this is necessary -- and quite often such a state gives way to work after only a few uncomfortable moments.
Firstly, it should go without saying that you need to eliminate distractions. Too often people claim to be competent multi-taskers, when in reality they are just incapable of concentration. Focusing on a single task with all your energy is the best way to work on something hard or challenging -- and only after you have started the project you have been running away from should you even think about giving yourself permission to check your email or see how your ebay auctions are faring. The attitude that you can somehow juggle a myriad of unrelated (and often trivial) tasks is another mask for the procrastinator.
By not just organizing your overall list of tasks and goals, but also by examining each task ahead of time and jotting notes or preparing a plan of action for them, you help ensure that the periods of indecision are kept to a minimum. By creating a work schedule for yourself you can really increase your efficiency, and train your mind to be 'in the zone' at certain times of the day as well. Sticking with your schedule, putting yourself in front of the screen no matter how little you feel you can accomplish, is an important part of making sure you start your projects rather than run away from them.
If writing is one of the main components of the person looking to stop procrastinating, then there are several tricks to get them started. The first is to create an outline, as I've just mentioned. The second is to start with a free writing exercise -- if you cannot figure out how to start a story or article, simply type anything at all. After a while your brain will wake up, and the words you need will start poring out (and, who knows, you might even discover an entirely new project in this way). Giving yourself permission to write anything, and permission to fail, is a huge part of actually getting things done.
Perfectionism is the Mirror Image of Procrastination
So much procrastination comes from so-called perfectionism that it really deserves to be addressed as its own topic. Many people brag about being perfectionist, and of course the label applies variably across a wide spectrum of behavior. Some perfectionists are also very productive, and produce work that is of high quality and free of errors -- thus living up to their name. But another brand of 'perfectionists' are really just insecure. They lack a basic confidence in their work and instead obsess over the simplest projects by dragging them out forever, until everything is 'perfect' in their eyes. What their compulsion really says is that they don't trust their own instincts, and that they couldn't stand the embarrassment if they made an error or someone did not like their work.
The worst kind of perfectionist-procrastinator is the non-starter. They may have immense talent, ability, and even ambition, but the crucial component of confidence is missing. By never even attempting their dream project -- and by finding and obsessing over a million excuses why they cannot start now and need to wait for the right time in their life -- such procrastinators fail before they begin. Look at your list of long terms goals, your dreams, and find a way to start at least one of them in the time you make for yourself today.
Accomplishment Turns Out to Be Its Own Reward
While common sense might suggest that by avoiding unpleasant tasks and goofing off the procrastinator is somehow increasing his happiness, the opposite is closer to the truth. Having unfinished and half-finished tasks is a big source of stress, as is having a lot of amorphous goals with no clear plan of action. Setting these things down on paper is one way to get them off your chest -- but accomplishing them is the real secret to feeling great about yourself and about your direction in life.
Often the advice for procrastinators is to set up a system whereby they reward themselves for tasks accomplished. I think this is a bad strategy, for two reasons. One, the procrastinator lacks the basic discipline to defer their pleasure anyway -- meaning more often than not they will just take the reward when it suits them with an easy rationalization. But the second and more profound reason is that accomplishment really is its own reward, and the fact should not be obscured by puerile carrot and stick exercises. Doing what needs to be done today, and consistently accomplishing one's real goals in life, is the best recipe for overall happiness that there is. Most people, once they've made gains in stopping their procrastination, won't go back to their old unproductive habits again.