by Mark Powers and Shawn McNalis
Originally published in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly
Q: I have a tendency to put off doing my work until the deadline is on top of me. I hate working this way. How can I stop procrastinating?=
A: There are many different ways to defeat procrastination. Instead of making excuses to put off your project again, use these tips as a way to help yourself get it going.
Do not try to do everything yourself especially if there is no need for this. A very common reason we procrastinate is that we simply do not like certain tasks. Few people get up in the morning eager to do something unpleasant at the firm or at home. When a task is unappealing or boring, the tendency is to put it off. Occasionally, if you wait long enough, you will not have to tackle the task at all because it will disappear. But more often, the things we put off tend to grow in urgency and have negative consequences down the road when we fail to take care of them. Do not live your life in constant fear of the undone.
Remove distractions from the environment.
Constant interruptions will enable you to put off indefinitely whatever you are currently procrastinating. The typical law office will supply you with endless distractions to use as an excuse for not tackling the undesirable tasks — and who could argue with you when you appear to be so busy all the time? To sabotage this excuse, find an isolated spot to work with the intention of not quitting until you have gotten the job done. Use the library down the hall or go into the conference room and close the door. Take with you only what you need to do the work and organize your workspace so it is free of distracting clutter.
Get to work on a task as soon as you can.
Do not wait until you have everything you need to complete a project — you can gather the rest later. To get started, do any portion of the job, as long as it is a concrete action. Gather enough information to make a sound decision and move forward — even if it is just scheduling a meeting or making a phone call. For repetitive projects, set up a routine and launch into it automatically. Do the most unpleasant tasks first thing in the morning to prevent the build-up of fear and dread.
Set clear, realistic goals for yourself.
If you do not set deadlines for starting or finishing a task, then there is no motivation to move forward on it. Using vague terms such as “before the end of the year,” “sometime next week” or “soon” allows time to stretch into eternity. Start making commitments to others using more definitive terms such as “by 3:00 p.m. on Friday” or “by the first of next month.” Once you have made the commitment, plug it into your calendar immediately. Then work backward from the date and block time in order to meet the deadline. This technique lends itself to any legal matter that requires preparation and is especially effective for litigators who should give themselves ample time to prepare for upcoming trials.
Focus on the benefits you will receive.
Give yourself a reward periodically throughout the project as you accomplish each major goal. These can be big or small. One attorney we know will work a while, then make a phone call to someone he likes, either of a personal or professional nature, just to break things up. Because he is an extroverted person, connecting verbally with someone energizes him. It is a small reward to lure him into action. Another attorney client promised herself that if she successfully completed work on a project that she detested, she would treat herself to a massage.
Though it may seem that these folks are just playing games with themselves — this method really works. What motivates you? And how can you use it to help you through the tasks you are avoiding?
Take regular breaks.
Big tasks do not have to be done in big chunks of time. If necessary, you can start small by aiming for 10 to 20 minutes of work at a time on your task, then giving yourself a break. Even if you can not immediately return to the project, small amounts of time applied to the project over the course of time will help you to maintain momentum.
Procrastination is a way to exert control over your environment. Others can tell you what to do, and how and when to do it, but no one can actually make you begin. You must learn ways to make yourself initiate unpleasant projects. Do not be discouraged if you have a few false starts. Try any or all of these suggestions until you find what works best for you. No matter what your particular procrastination style, finding a solution and then taking action is an important first step to overcoming the issue.