More On Procrastination (Because I Know You’d Rather Read This Than Work)

Continuing on yesterday’s procrastination theme, here are signs you’re a procrastinator [at work]:

  • Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do List.
  • Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
  • Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
  • Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
  • Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
  • Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.

Filling your day with low-priority tasks is not good, but doing some quick, low-priority tasks is not a bad thing, so long as it’s not your entire day. Marking things off your to-do list can give you a jump start into bigger tasks. For instance, the first thing I did at work this morning was check the voicemail and mail out a bill. Low-priority? Yes. But I did these things while my computer and printer were booting up–time that would otherwise have been wasted while standing around, waiting. And marking two things off my list made me feel better, and I jumped into a more important–but long and tedious–task.

If you fill your day with little tasks and avoid big tasks, then your big tasks are too big. Try breaking them down into smaller parts, so you can do a  little and then switch to something else for a while. Something I’ve also done to make myself get through something unpleasant (e.g. housework, data entry) is to set a timer for 15 minutes and work on the task for 15 minutes, then take a break for 15 minutes. You can set an egg timer, stove timer, or, if you are working on the computer, use this online timer (no download necessary). And if you can’t even stomach 15 minutes, do 5 minutes. That’s still progress.

I tend to keep e-mails pretty organized, especially at work. (Despite my procrastination tendencies, I actually have no problems developing really good organizational systems.) The first thing you need to do is have folders in your e-mail box for things you HAVE to keep.

When you read an e-mail, you need to decide:

  1. Is there anything I need to do?
  2. Do I need to keep this e-mail?

If there is nothing in the e-mail which you need to do (i.e. it’s informational, not task-related), then move to question 2. If it’s nothing you need to keep, then delete it. If you need to keep it, then move it to the appropriate folder.

If it contains an item you need to do (including, but not limited to, replying), then leave it sitting in your inbox until you do it. Now you know that everything you’re seeing in your inbox is work that needs to be done, and that tends to have a motivating factor as it begins to lengthen. And if it doesn’t, then print out the e-mail and put it in your paper in-box and make sure you add it to your daily or weekly to-do list. (Sometimes it’s easier to tackle tasks which have a physical form–i.e. paper–than those that are merely electronic.)

I am very guilty of going to do something and then getting back up to make tea, use the bathroom, etc. When there’s a portion of my novel which is proving difficult to write, I’m bad about playing solitaire or reading online articles to avoid it. Again, you might get some relief by breaking your task down into many smaller tasks, or you can always set the timer for 15 minutes.

One place where I procrastinate? Doing things which I know will be depressing–like checking my bank account/balancing the checkbook. Paying bills can also be depressing if you know you’re late; you hate to look at the late charge. It’s like a scarlet letter the procrastinator has to wear. I don’t have any help for that, other than to 1) not let yourself get late, overdrawn, etc. and 2) just force yourself to do it anyways.

Procrastination Shame

I’ll tell a story on myself, which illustrates procrastinator shame. I had a paper due for a class in college. It wasn’t a very long paper, and it was on a book I had read and liked. For whatever reason, the paper just wasn’t coming. I kept putting it off until it was a day late. Then it was a week late. Then it was over a week late. I think I actually finished the paper a couple of weeks late, but was too ashamed to turn it in.

The semester went on. I got my other papers in, but that one lingered. And I felt constantly guilty. I couldn’t just take a 0 and shrug it off (which, a month after the due date, is what I should have done for my mental health); I felt like I had insulted my teacher by not turning it in. The fact that the paper was short and should have been easy to do compounded my misery. I asked myself why I hadn’t written some crap and turned it in; at that point a poor grade would have been better than none at all (this is perfectionism at work big time; FlyLady addresses it on her site).

Finally, at the end of the semester–when I didn’t have to see my teacher again–I slipped the paper under her office door with a note about the fact that I had had the f-ing paper done for a couple of months, but had been too ashamed to turn it in late. And I made some humorous comments about “senior-itis” and procrastination.

What was the worse that could happen? I already had a 0; I couldn’t get a negative. I have no idea what the teacher thought about it, but I made an A- that term, so I’m thinking I got at least some credit for the paper.

In situations like these, the task is less of a problem than the accompanying shame. And at the root of the shame? Knowing you disappointed someone and/or having to admit that you f-ed up. No excuses, you just didn’t do what you should have done when you should have. I think that, theoretically, the more you get used to saying, “I’m sorry, I f-ed up and don’t have an excuse,” the easier it will be to swallow your pride and say it. And once you’ve gotten past that hurdle of shame, the easier it will be to complete whatever the original task was and, next time, get it done on time.

(Saying you’re sorry–especially sans excuse–is incredibly hard. In Judaism, you are required to apologize to others/seek forgiveness for your words/actions in the 10 days between Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur. And boy, is it ever painful.)

Or, as UNC-Chapel Hill puts it:

You may not be surprised to learn that procrastinators tend to be self-critical. So, as you consider your procrastination and struggle to develop different work habits, try to be gentle with yourself. Punishing yourself every time you realize you have put something off won’t help you change. Rewarding yourself when you make progress will.

This is something I need to work on, because I am bad about punishing myself/feeling guilty when I don’t complete something. That’s what I was saying yesterday: it used to be that if I didn’t get something done on my list, I added it to the next day’s list, in addition to a full workload. This was punitive, not realistic. I’m trying to be more realistic.


So, how did yesterday’s list go? Pretty well, but I didn’t get it completed. One task I had on there took about three times as long as if should have, because I was given incomplete forms and I had to go hunting for the info I needed. So, instead of getting that and other things done, I spent most of my day on just that one task, and I still had to carry it over to today (it’s since been completed).

Despite this, I felt like I got a lot of work done (this is different than getting a lot of tasks done). In other words, I spent more of my time actually doing work instead of procrastinating. So, in that regard, the list helped (by being a motivating factor).

Speaking of which, lunchtime is over; time to go back to the list. The liiisssssttttttt.

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