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How Not to Procrastinate
By Shirley Jump
I have a confession to make: I procrastinate as much as the next person. I’ll avoid a pending deadline by cleaning out the bathroom cabinet, taking a trip to the mall or simply overdosing on junk TV. The problem is that I’m a working writer, and I’m responsible for a sizable chunk of the household income, so procrastination is not a good idea.
Still, I do it. And I’m not alone. “I procrastinate about almost everything, even though when I do occasionally do something right away it always feels so good! If something is going to be unpleasant I will procrastinate,” says writer Holly Gumpher Fawcett.
How do you overcome procrastination and learn to move forward with your work? After a writing career that has spanned more than twenty years, I’ve developed a few tips that have worked well for me.
- Accept that you are a procrastinator: If you know you have faults, you can work around them. Understand that your tendency is to put things off and work hard to encourage yourself to do the opposite. Just be careful to build in enough extra time to accommodate your habits. “I’ve learned through experience how long certain projects take, and I procrastinate accordingly,” says humor writer Jennifer Doloski. “I have, however, been burned by procrastinating under the assumption that my sources will be available when I’m ready to work, and it doesn’t always happen.”
- Take Baby Steps: If you need to get three queries out this week and feel overwhelmed by the task, do one tiny thing at a time. Just outline the first one on Monday, then write the opening paragraph on Tuesday. Wednesday, finish it and outline the second one, and so forth. “You know that analogy about the eagle with the branches in its talon?” asks Melanie Gold, a freelancer and Associate Editor with the National Association of Colleges and Employers. “Singularly the branches are weak, but together they’re unbreakable. I reverse that. A seemingly impossible project can be done if you break it down into parts.”
- Take the work with you: Often, the problem is in your environment. Some people feel all their self-doubts and fears come back the minute they sit in front of their computer. If that’s the case, then pick up your pad of paper, your pen and some Post-its and journey to wherever you feel most comfortable. I’ve worked on the couch, in the library and even in a coffee shop as a reward and a break from my office. A change of pace can also restart those creative juices.
- Get the beginning done: When I have a huge article to write and only have a minute to work on it, I’ll often write just the lead. For some reason, once that opening is done, the rest of the article easily falls into place when I come back to it later. Even though I’ve only composed a paragraph, it feels like the bulk of the work is done and the project isn’t so overwhelming anymore.
- Put a mental boss on your shoulder: Working at home or on your own schedule is too much temptation for most procrastinators. It’s far too simple to opt for baking cookies over writing essays or sending invoices. Writer Cheryl Duksta pretends she has a To-Do list from a boss. “What helps me is to create a list and pretend that it’s my boss. I don’t think; I just follow my list.”
- Do the icky stuff first: If you have a long list of projects and have a couple that you are dreading doing, do those first. Author Melissa Hill says she uses a prioritized list and deals with the unpleasant jobs early. “If say, number 1 is no fun, [say to yourself] I’ll just do it for ten minutes. After ten minutes, you’re kind of in the flow of the thing and you end up just finishing it up.”
- Make bargains with yourself: I’ve set all kinds of rewards for myself to get dreaded projects done — from a Hershey bar to a walk around the block. The key is to find something that motivates you enough to get your work done so that the reward is worth the effort.
You can learn to overcome bad procrastination habits and make yourself a much more productive writer. The key is knowing who you are and finding the right approach for your style of work. Before you know it, you’ll be getting ten times more work done than ever before – and seeing ten times the results of your efforts.