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Do It Now (Not Later)

Break the procrastination habit! Here are 17 tips for getting things done when you need to.

Do It Now

I handed in this article a day late. I wish I were kidding. For a few weeks I sat on the assignment, going through all the justifications that procrastinators like me keep handy: “I don’t have enough information to get started,” “I work better under pressure,” “What can I really get done in a half hour, anyway?” “I’m too tired to be productive.”

Because I hadn’t started writing when I should have, I wasn’t prepared when real obligations came up. Our dog got sick. I had to stay late at the office a couple nights. One weekend there was a homecoming party for my brother-in-law. I fell further and further behind on my article.

For a writer to tackle a story on procrastination is a cruel twist of fate. Writers are notorious procrastinators, having built careers around the adrenaline rush of deadline. But that doesn’t mean we feel better than you do about putting things off. No matter your profession, procrastination eats away at how you feel about yourself.

I sat down at my computer after I’d already missed my deadline, feeling terrible. I’ve failed yet again! I could have prevented this mad dash to the finish; why didn’t I? Then I caught myself. I needed to give myself a pep talk, not a browbeating. I decided that, having botched yet another deadline, I was officially an expert on the topic of procrastination. I put a few of the tips in this article to good use and got cracking.

Nearly everyone procrastinates, even people who seem to have their lives completely in order. We’ve all got too much to do, so some things end up sitting on our to-do lists without ever getting done. Delaying certain tasks—like taking down the holiday decorations, vacuuming the car, replacing the light bulb in the closet—is fairly harmless. Putting off others—like paying bills, finishing projects at work, going to the doctor—can have serious consequences. Procrastination at its most extreme has cost people their jobs, their savings, their health, and certainly their peace of mind.

There’s hope, though. Procrastination isn’t a deep-seated character defect. It’s a bad habit. As with smoking, overeating, biting your nails, or chronically running late, you get caught in a vicious cycle, making it harder to break free. Your inner voice says, “That’s just how I deal with stress.” But procrastination, like any bad habit, can be overcome. Especially if you don’t expect 100 percent success on the first try and are willing to stick with it.

One way to beat the procrastination bug is to take a step back from your emotions about something you haven’t finished and look at the situation calmly and thoughtfully—as if you were giving advice to a friend. Neil Fiore, Ph.D., bestselling author of The Now Habit and the new book Awaken Your Strongest Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self Sabotage says observing yourself objectively and not letting your first reaction to a looming task be your last can help you overcome the mental obstacles of procrastination.

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There are many different types of procrastinators, and there are at least as many different ways of breaking the habit, depending on your type. Some of us having a tough time getting started; others have trouble finishing. Thinking positive when procrastination strikes (or even before!) is the key to beating it.

Here are 17 techniques for getting things done when you need to:

1. Use positive self talk.
Feelings of guilt and failure make it even tougher to make progress. Try something affirmative: “I have done much harder things than this. This is well within my abilities. I will get started this morning and see how far I get.” You might want to say a prayer first.

2. Choose a new reaction.
If your first reaction is, “I can’t do it,” Fiore advises saying, “Yes, that’s one thought,” then using the word “and” as a bridge to a more productive reaction: “…and I am an organized person. I will sit down now and focus on the task.”

3. Break it down into smaller tasks and prioritize.
The tried and true to-do list! Writing down each step gives you a clear picture of what lies ahead. Prioritizing helps you make a manageable plan and prepare your brain for that crucial first step.

4. Work when you’re most motivated.
Don’t even try balancing your checkbook at night if you know you can’t keep your eyes open past 9 pm. You’ll get the most done working at the time of day when you feel your best and most alert.

5. Make a schedule, then show up and see what happens.
“You don’t have to wait to feel confident and all-knowing,” says Fiore. Set a time and place with yourself, show up, and see what transpires. This can work for any number of tasks, from completing a huge spreadsheet to writing thank-you notes. Don’t give up if you get off schedule. Just get yourself back on track.

6. Give yourself specific directions.
Fiore says long-term goals can be dangerous for procrastinating types because they leave the mind hanging in the future without instructions on how to reach that point. He suggests giving your brain and body simple instructions. Try “On Saturday morning, I will get in the car at 10 am and go to the gym for the 10:30 aerobics class” as opposed to “This winter I will get back in shape.”

7. Remove distractions.
What do you do every time you should be doing something else? Get rid of it. This might mean taking your laptop to a coffee shop, hiring a sitter so you can hole up in your office, or turning off the television you keep on for background noise. If the internet is a distraction while you’re on the computer, don’t even go online.

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8. Make a nice place to work.
A cup of tea, some fresh air through a cracked window or a soothing classical music CD can work wonders on your mood and your work-space. Proper lighting, comfy clothes, or a scented candle can help, too. Why should your work feel like drudgery.

9. Set a timer.
If you work for a predetermined stretch of time, you’ll often find you can (and want to) go even longer once you’re on a roll. Start with short bursts of time and work up to longer periods to prevent losing steam.

10. Have someone hold you to your commitment.
If you tell a friend or family member you’re going to paint the bedroom this weekend, you’re more likely to follow through. Ask the person to check in with you and provide positive reinforcement that you can do it.

11. Ask for help.
Turn to your support network. Even if they can’t write that presentation for you, maybe they can run an errand or pick up the kids after school while you’re in work mode.

12. Think progress, not perfection.
A good job is good enough. If you haven’t cleaned out the garage because you can’t afford the shelves you want, start with donating the old sports equipment and garden tools. When you get the shelves later, everything will be ready to go on them.

13. Reward yourself.
Balance work and relaxation. If your Saturday is going to be filled with errands in the morning and a few hours at the office in the afternoon, schedule lunch with a friend in between or get tickets for a movie that night.

14. Be thankful for consructive procrastination.
A friend of mine says that her college dorm room was never cleaner than when she had a paper due. At least she did something productive, even if it wasn’t what she set out to accomplish.

15. Give yourself room to goof off.
It’s tough to sit down at the computer and immediately get to work. Build in a 15-minute buffer to catch up on email or scan the news headlines or sports scores before you get down to business.

16. Be realistic.
Be honest with yourself about how long tasks take. If you get started early, you’ll have some leeway when life’s little emergencies pop up.

17. Practice, practice!
Once you find techniques that lift you out of your let-it-slide slump, keep using them. Soon you’ll build a new get-it-done habit!

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