If you're reading this, there's probably something else you should be doing. You're familiar with the procrastinator's routine — the sinking feeling that grows stronger as a deadline gets closer, the guilt you can't shake and, finally, the full-on panic that takes hold and energises you enough to get everything done just in the nick of time. It's that last stage we're going to talk about today.
Image remixed from Aleksandr Bryliaev (Shutterstock).
You can stop fighting procrastination and make it work for you instead by taking that panic and channelling it into amazing amounts of productivity.
A word of warning: these tips are going to be most useful for people who procrastinate but manage to make most of their deadlines. If you're someone who procrastinates to the point of missing deadlines on a regular basis, I'm not sure what can be done for you. Maybe Adderall.
Assign the deadlines yourself
I'm not talking about putting something in iCal, I'm talking about telling other people — your boss or your clients, people who will hold you accountable. Sometimes you'll be assigned a project with no end-date, and it will hang over your head forever. You know it needs to get done, but because there's no deadline you never prioritise it and you end up feeling guiltier and guiltier. You can fix this. When someone suggests a project or needs something finished, tell them you'll have it to them by such-and-such date. Pick a date that's achievable, but not too far in the future. Put it in writing so you know you're really committed. You'll stress about it, but because you have a deadline you know it will actually get done, rather than occupying a permanent, guilt-inducing place on your to-do list.
You know how they say that if you want something done, give it to the busiest person in the office? It's true. So, you need to turn yourself into the busiest person. Say yes to more tasks than you feel comfortable taking on. Are you freaking out about how you'll get it all finished? Good — it's that feeling that will kick-start productivity. Let that panic-induced energy go to work. In the end you'll be surprised at how you finished everything and then you can go and take a nap.
Leave things until the last possible minute
If you're a practised procrastinator, thinking about the stuff you should be doing is taking up a lot of time and brain space. If you can face it, just plan on doing the project in the minimum amount of time necessary to get it finished. You know that when push comes to shove, you can write a report in four hours, say. So schedule "report writing" on your calendar for four hours before the report is due. Then do other stuff. You'll have cleared that brain space to think about other work, and you'll meet your deadline. Sometimes this has the added benefit of making you so nervous about not getting it finished in time, you actually start working on it ahead of schedule. Mission accomplished!
Do the thing that's due last FIRST
Let's say you've got four projects on the go, all with clearly defined deadlines. What do you mean your deadlines aren't clearly defined?! Back up to point number one with you! One of these things is due in four weeks, one in three, one in two and one next week. Work backwards — start on the last project and knock it out. Then tackle the project due in three weeks. Keep this up until it's really crunch time for the first project — the one due next week. Then, let your fear energize you into finishing it. Now you've done four weeks' worth of work in one week and met all your deadlines. Congratulations — you can take three weeks off.
Need more encouragement?
Here's an example — this article isn't due at any particular time. I've got another article due in three days. I'm writing this one first. The consequences of missing my deadline for the three-day article (a reprimand from my editor, possible cancellation of the piece) are bad enough that I'll force myself to finish it on time. And I'll have written two pieces in the time allotted for one. Productive, no?
On your to-do list there are probably one or two items that you enjoy doing more than others, but which aren't urgent. Maybe they're things like re-organizing your desk, or ordering office supplies, or making your email signature look more professional by deleting that quotation about "seizing the day" at the bottom. Go ahead — do them! If you can channel time you'd otherwise be spending surfing the net and biting your nails about the presentation you have to make on Thursday into something that actually needs to get done, you've just made that procrastination productive. Then, when the presentation is terrifyingly close, let your fear of not being prepared carry you right through completing it.
Nell McShane Wulfhart is a freelance writer currently based in Seoul. She's written for Reuters, The Guardian, Slate, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia, and CNNGo, to name just a few of many. Her specialties are travel, food, technology and productivity.