Giving Procrastination A One-Two Punch

Full disclosure: I procrastinated on writing this blog post. Then I avoided working on my novella to actually write this post.

Why am I telling you this? Because in the end, I finished both tasks, and well before their self-imposed deadlines.

This isn't about a cure for procrastination. I'm not sure one exists, because there will always be reasons that we don't want to do things, no matter how necessary they may be. This is about processes that can help structure procrastination so you're not stuck spinning your wheels.

Caveats:

  • If you have twenty things due tomorrow and some of them need days of work? Your problem is with the You of Several Days Ago. These methods might cut down your backlog a little, but they can't warp space and time.

  • Make sure nothing else is in your way first. Are you hungry? Thirsty? Have you taken your meds? If you're exhausted, take a calculator and do the hard math. Except in the most dire circumstances, sleep should take precedence over your projects.

  • Be honest with both the difficulty and importance of your tasks. Putting stuff out of order because you don't want to face the amount of effort that's stacked up is only going to make things more frustrating in the end.

With that said, here is how you get started.

Make your list! Figure out what needs to get done. This can be for the next hour, day, week, etc. as long as there's some sort structure involved. Then take that list and determine what is the hardest thing for you to finish, and the most important thing for you to finish. A lot of times those two cross over, but it's not always the case.

Now it's time to pick your method:

Most Important Task First

It makes sense, right? Whatever is the highest priority should be first on the agenda, but you're probably not reading a post on procrastination because everything you needed me to tell you that. Because of the common link between importance and difficulty, chances are, you're stalling out because this is The Big One, and it seems impossible to face.

On the other hand, why scale Mt. Everest first? Because once you get over the most terrifying peak, everything else is going to look like a walk in the park. Even if you spent the majority of your energy on the first task on your list, you've accomplished two things: your utmost priority is out of the way, and every task after that should take less effort.

I work in the games industry, so I'll use an example from a video game: Destiny 2.

In Destiny 2, there are multi-tiered quests to get unique weapons, which often have some of the best perks in the game. The first tiers in these quests tend to be a tremendous grind, requiring a great deal of time and focus. Every tier to follow, though? They're half the work, at that. It gives you the sense that your initial hard push was rewarded, and allows smooth sailing until your desired prize is in your hands.

Lesson: A complicated project getting more simple as it goes along makes it far easier to coast to the end. Once you have your momentum going, you're unstoppable.

But what if your Most Important Task is too big to hold in your head at once? It's hard to start something when you can't see the whole shape of it.

So break it down into bite-sized chunks. Writing a ten page essay might seem daunting, but if you can cut it into two page sections, you can build up little victories until the entire essay is complete. The same goes for a book: focus on paragraphs instead of chapters, or chapters instead of the full novel.

And whether your task is writing or not, worry about polish after. This is about getting enough to meet the mark of complete, not perfect. You'll feel a lot better looking at a raw draft than a single sentence tweaked incessantly.

Then what? You climbed the mountain! Congratulate yourself, take a little break, and keep going down your list.

If this method doesn't work for you, or sounds too potentially frustrating on its face, go ahead and check out the section option.

Easiest Task First

Because, of course, it's easy! Flip your list upside-down and start from the bottom up. The strange beauty of procrastination is knowing that you're putting off a bunch of other things to do something simple can actually be kind of exciting--and you still get to check tasks off along the way.

There are plenty of jokes about this method. Authors clean their entire houses rather than focus on a manuscript, or go on a ten mile run when they should be emailing their editor. But uh, having a clean house is great. Exercise is healthy for you, and can help clear your mind so the world fits together a bit easier once you're done. It's okay to start on level one and work up.

That's the classic mechanic behind countless games, anyway. You're not supposed to beat the huge, world-shaking boss with the wooden sword you found in a chest somewhere--you practice on the little mobs hanging outside of your hometown first. The more you learn, the more you accomplish, and the more confident you are meeting more difficult goals.

So skate on the hard stuff to start if it helps get you rolling. Once you've knocked three easy things off your list, all the energy you have left can go to finishing the difficult task of the bunch. Even if it wears you out, you're done afterwards! Go rest and celebrate.

Feel free to juggle tasks around too. I've gone back and forth between sweeping and folding laundry because getting the dust off the hardwood sounds way faster than figuring out the halfway point on my tank tops so they'll lay evenly. Then I rushed back to the tank tops, because the hallway is really long and sweeping it was making my back hurt. Folding is a break in comparison!

This doesn't make you wishy-washy or unfocused. If the work gets done in bits and pieces, it's still getting done. Maybe there's more efficient ways, but I didn't write this post to make you a perfect time-saving robot. I did it so that damn list that's haunting you will get smaller and smaller until it's complete.

--

Which method is best? I can't tell you that. I use both, depending on what kind of work is standing in my way. Deadlines for jobs that pay me are more important than scrubbing out the French press, even if the latter might only take three minutes. But sometimes, I need the satisfaction of a half dozen little things done before I can devote the rest of my day to climbing the huge mountain looming in the distance.

The point, either way, is to get out in front of your guilt and anxiety when facing that to do list, and turn your procrastination on its head. I hope it works for you!