How to finish a job you’ve been putting off

I thought about this post idea months ago, and ended up putting it off, which isn’t a good sign as to how qualified I am to write about this. But on the other hand, I suppose you need to experience a problem before you can offer a solution to it, so perhaps being a regular procrastinator myself makes me ideally suited to write this post.

For me personally, I think there are two main reasons which cause me to procrastinate. One is that if I don’t complete something immediately, I start to feel concerned that it’s late, and then feel like it’s become too late and that when I do complete the task I’ll look bad for doing it late, and that idea of other people judging my lateness makes me feel even less inclined to do the task. The problem, of course, is that putting it off just exacerbates the lateness, leading to a vicious circle where every time I go back to the task, it feels like an even less appropriate time to complete it. For example, I have a letter which I was supposed to write in July. Already in August, I started feeling like I was very late and would have to give an explanation about why I was late. By now, I think about writing the letter and start thinking about the paragraph of excuses I’d need to start with, and my heart just sinks.

The other reason is to do with the difficulty of the task itself. Either I feel like the result will be poor after I finish, or I’m aware that I won’t be able to finish it during the current session, and that puts me off starting the current session. So effectively, not continuing with the task then becomes a way of avoiding failure or disappointment. An example of this is a job I’ve taken on for a friend. It’s not something I’ve done before, so I have no idea how long it’ll take to finish, and I also don’t know whether what I end up with will meet her expectations. It’s also quite complicated and technical (reading and summarising academic papers, ordering the summaries coherently and joining them into a seamless narrative), which makes me feel like there’s no point just spending a short amount of time on it as I’d spend time getting into it, which would be wasted if I were just doing a 15- or 30-minute burst. It’s also a job which demands a reasonable level of concentration and thought, so I can’t do it while doing other things. The last time I worked on it was in September. So what are some techniques you can use to get back on track with this kind of procrastinated task?

  1. Tell yourself you’ll just have a look at the task itself. You don’t have to work on it this time, just think about the stages. So for example, with the letter, I could look out my friend’s address and prepare the envelope, get out a piece of letter paper, think about the topics I want to include in the letter (e.g. excuses, work, travel, free time, questions). Actually, just writing out the list of stages here for this article has made it seem a bit more manageable.
  2. Set yourself a minimal amount of time to work on it. This would have to be whatever small period you can commit to without feeling even more resistance. 30 minutes would be good, but I sometimes feel that’s quite a long period when I’ve been putting off a job for a while, so then 15 minutes might seem more doable. It’s a slot you can find even on a weeknight after work, and it’s short enough that you can probably resist whatever distractions might arise, such as feeling like you’re hungry and need to make dinner, or you really need to be doing something else. With the minimal time technique, there are two things to remember. First, the idea of this is to break your psychological resistance, with the hope that after you’ve spent 15 minutes on the task, you’ll be able to continue and get it done because you won’t be resisting any more. However, although this is the hope, you have to give yourself permission to stop as soon as the 15 minutes are up if you’re still resisting. If you’re secretly planning to push yourself until the job is complete, you’ll end up resisting even the minimal time. Second, it’s important to commit to a series of minimal times until the job is done. If you commit to 15 minutes every day until the job is done, it won’t drag on too long. If you commit to 15 minutes today and then leave it a few weeks before revisiting, you’re almost worse off with a late task, because you then have another delay to explain.
  3. Do the task before you get distracted with other things. I usually have to tell myself no reading until I’ve done the minimal time, or no Facebook or YouTube, because I know these are ways that I can easily lose track of time and distract myself for a couple of hours. Especially on weeknights, if I start with those things then I soon get to a point where I legitimately run out of time and have to go to bed, and the task remains undone for another day. On the other hand, if you tell yourself you can do whatever fun activity you’re thinking of after 15 minutes, you can resist for that long and then enjoy yourself guilt-free, knowing that you’ve made at least a little bit of progress.
  4. Reward yourself for doing the task. This technique doesn’t work very well for me, because I’m good at making excuses and then rewarding myself without doing the task, but it may work for you. Say that you’ll do something fun, or eat something delicious, or take a break, or whatever works for you after you’ve completed your 15 minutes. I think this could be effective if you’re doing lots of activity bursts e.g. “I’ll work on the task for 15 minutes then I can go online for 15 minutes, then repeat”. Of course, it would only work in that case if you are able not to distract yourself and lose time so that the 15-minute break becomes two hours.
  5. Think about why you want to do the task in the first place. This has a double benefit because maybe when you think about it, it’ll turn out that it’s not that important to you and you can scrap it rather than doing it. On the other hand, if you realise that it has to be done for whatever reason, that could help to incentivise you. For example, if I don’t write and send a letter to a penfriend, the friendship effectively dies because they’re waiting for a letter that never arrives. So if I want to continue the friendship, I have to write the letter, there’s no other option. Of course, I might decide that the friendship is not worth continuing and not write the letter on that basis, but at least in that case the decision has been made on a sound basis and I can scrap the task guilt-free and get on with my life, without the task still lurking in the back of my mind.

Do you have any special techniques for beating procrastination? How do you get back on track after a long hiatus?

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