That back-burner project that your boss asked you to tackle—six months ago? That semester-long term paper that you haven’t finished—or even started? That absolute disaster of a guest room that your mom is planning to stay in—next weekend?
If you're like most, you have at least a couple of those projects that you really have to get done—but that you just can’t get started on. Why? According to research by Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Professor of Psychology at DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, we procrastinate because we feel overwhelmed, because we’re afraid to get started, or because we’re simply stuck in a pattern we can’t break.
But, you already know that procrastinating doesn’t work out so well in the long run—you still have to get the work done, and putting it off is probably only heaping on to your stress. So, if you have a big project sitting on your plate, it’s time to kick the habit. Here’s Dr. Ferrari’s advice for snapping out of it and tuning in to productivity.
1. Break Up Your Deadlines
First things first: Write down what, exactly, it’ll take you to complete your project—breaking those large requirements down into smaller steps will help the project feel more manageable, says Ferrari. Try sites like Accompl.sh and organizeyourself.com, which allow you to set and track goals virtually.
Then, once you have a to-do list, set realistic deadlines for when each item should be done. Much like you can't fit a whole steak in your mouth in one bite, you can't write a term paper start to finish in one night.
Finally, at the end of your planning session, identify just one or two items you can get started on now. Once you get into the groove, tackle one task at a time, checking off or scribbling out the steps as you go to help you visualize your progress.
2. Manage Yourself
Even with goal setting and step-by-step project completion, procrastination can still sneak its way in. So, in addition to managing time, Dr. Ferrari emphasizes that it’s important to “manage ourselves.”
Think about what’s most distracting to you when you’re trying to be productive. Is it your co-workers walking by every five minutes, your comfy bed at home, or your constantly buzzing phone? Identify your procrastination triggers, then get into “work mode” by limiting those distractions. Go to a coffee shop, leave your phone in another room where you can’t see or hear it, or even download a task bar app like Focusbar that monitors the activity on your computer and reminds you to get back on task.
3. Stay Motivated
Don’t forget to keep yourself in a positive mentality. Think about ways you can motivate yourself to keep making progress. Sometimes, old-fashioned reminders work best: A “Project Deadline: Tuesday at 5 PM!” note on the fridge, on your desk, or on the back of your hand can work wonders.
Better yet, tell your friends about your goals and deadlines. If they know you won’t be complaining about all the stuff you should be doing when you are with them, they may be more apt to respect the hours you set aside to get stuff done. And post your goal on Facebook or Twitter with a consequence if you don’t get it done—threatening yourself with showing up at work tomorrow in your glasses circa 1990 is enough to keep anyone on task.
4. Give Yourself a Break
When you finally hunker down, get into a groove, and start plowing through the work—you should keep going, right? Not necessarily, says Ferrari. It’s important not to burn yourself out, especially if you’re working on a large project. Instead, give your brain a break and reward the progress you’ve made. Maybe work for an hour, then stop to walk downstairs and get a latte. Or, if you’ve spent all day working on your thesis, take the night off to see friends or get a manicure.
Next time those “I don’t want to!” feelings start getting the better of you, don’t panic. By being proactive, setting the right goals, managing your progress, and giving yourself a reward or two, you can beat procrastination and channel productivity instead. So, stop saying you’ll do it later—get started now!