The Procrastination Demon – 2

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Last time we talked about clearing out the fridge. How to deal with those painfully old and furry tasks that we really didn’t want to deal with.

Now we need to go one stage further. We need to stop ourselves from procrastinating in the first place.

If you are not a procrastinator, this might sound like the most obvious thing in the world. You just need to do things on time, don’cha? This is usually said with a hint of slightly exasperated sarcasm. It’s not difficult.

My all-time favourite loathsome phrase is “All you need to do is …”

This is usually said by someone who doesn’t understand the problem, but is absolutely convinced that they know the answer. The solution to world peace. Why the England football team can’t win a major tournament.

It’s so simple they can’t understand why no-one has thought of it before. All you need to do is …

Whenever you hear someone say those words, you have my permission to press your mental mute button. Because they will almost invariably be talking twaddle. If it was that easy, someone would have done it by now.

Stopping ourselves from procrastinating is hard. It will take lots of effort. We will fail from time to time. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So how do we deal with the procrastination demon? We need to follow his life cycle and tackle him at every point.

The first step is not to accept a task that we are not going to be able to do. Procrastinators are fantastic project starters. We have these grand ideas and ambitions. We are going to write a book, start a business, restore a classic car, redecorate the house, run a marathon.

Ambition is great, but not if it means we are adding more unfinished and unfinishable projects to our lives. The people who get things done usually focus on a small number of things that they do completely. Procrastinators tend to have far more started … and a lot less finished.

So the first rule is … don’t take on new projects if we haven’t finished the ones we have already started. Strongly consider nixing some of those old projects. And spend as much time as possible on good projects that will move us forwards, and not on time-wasting.

Rule one: a small number of good projects done well.

The second rule is that we need to stop the demon from hiding. The procrastination demon loves to sneak under the radar. He will tell you that everything is okay. You don’t need to worry about that job. Everything is well.

The answer is to tie a little silver bell to his toe.

Every task should have a deadline. Every large project should have milestones – individual deadlines when each bit of the project will be done. Don’t let anything hang around with an indefinite deadline. Because that is the sort of task that is never going to get done.

And here’s the secret – write it down. A written deadline has far more force than an unwritten one.

Rule two: every job should have a written deadline.

Next we need to micro-manage our time. This needs an entire blog on its own, but for now let’s reduce it to its absolute basic. After 50 years of searching, I think I have found the best time management method of all:

  1. Pick the most important job that you could possibly do right now.
  2. Do it with focus, fire and passion, to the absolute exclusion of everything else.
  3. Keep on doing it until you physically can’t do any more.
  4. Repeat. Turn to the next most important job and do that.

At the beginning of each day, write down the jobs that you would dearly love to complete by the end of the day. Nastiest jobs first. Put a time against each one. Then work your way through the list without allowing yourself to be deflected.

I like to think that we are all split personalities. We have one executive personality where we wear a smart suit, we take decisions, we plan, we think, we supervise. Then we have the blue collar worker personality. The version of ourselves that rolls its sleeves up and does the work.

The problem comes when these two personalities don’t do their jobs properly or don’t talk to each other. Supervisors sometime take on too many tasks. They get confused about what is important and what is overdue. In worker mode, we can find ourselves getting distracted by non-important work. Even if the supervisor is telling us what to do, we find excuses to do something different. We fill our time with things done, but not necessarily the most important things.

So here’s the trick. In supervisor mode, write down the jobs that you need to do today. The jobs that need to be done. Worst first. The most important, most scary, most urgent.

In worker mode, your job is to do what your supervisor tells you. Roll your sleeves up and work through the list. Don’t change the order, don’t improvise. Start at the beginning and work through to the end. One job at a time.

Rule three: one day at a time, one job at a time, worst first.

We are going to need help. The best thing you can give a procrastinator is a partner or work colleague who doesn’t procrastinate. A wife, husband, friend, colleague. It is much easier to keep to a routine and a project if you have (a) their support and (b) you don’t want to embarrass yourself in front of them for missing a deadline.

Rule four: get help

Every now and again we should have a stocktake. Grab hold of each demon and take a big sniff of his hairy armpits. Does he smell fresh and clean? Or is there a whiff of procrastination about him? In other words, have you allowed a job to get mouldy on a back shelf of the fridge?

You know what to do if you find a mouldy demon. In supervisor mode, write it down on your daily list. Then pass it to yourself in worker mode. Do it.

Or decide to ditch it. We spend far too much time on non-essential projects that don’t achieve anything except ticking the clock around to our last breath on this Earth.

Rule five: periodically review.

Then sit back and watch the jobs race out of the door. You will be amazed how much you can achieve.

Here are the five rules, in all their simplistic glory:

Rule one: a small number of good projects done well.

Rule two: every job should have a written deadline.

Rule three: one day at a time, one job at a time, worst first.

Rule four: get help

Rule five: periodically review.

Here’s the paradox. This is both easy and incredibly difficult. To people who don’t suffer from procrastination, this will seem ridiculously simple. Of course, that’s how you do it. It’s obvious.

To the rest of us, the challenge is to stick to something like this. We need to make it a routine. To build it into our daily lives. To climb back on the wagon when we have fallen off.

But then I never promised it would be easy.

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