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Overcoming Procrastination: 6 Steps to Getting It Done

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If you are like me you have found yourself putting off things to do that you know would be good to get done. We procrastinate on exercise, getting the taxes done, cleaning the house, making that phone call and getting our work done. You tell yourself, "I know I should do it," but you seem to come up with a million great excuses for not doing it. Then you find yourself criticizing yourself for not getting it done. The next day the cycle starts again -- "It would be great to get it done," "I have other things to do," "It's too unpleasant," or "I just don't want to do it."

So, what can you do -- to do it?

1) Focus on a Specific Task
I have procrastinated on a lot of things, but I find it most helpful if I narrow my focus on doing one thing. Let's take this article. I had put it off for a while. This morning I decided to focus on it. I began, though, with other email, Googling nonsense and watching some news. But then I said, "Focus on the task." That's what I am doing right now.

A lot of procrastinators get overwhelmed thinking about all the things that they need to get done. But right now you can do only one thing -- not everything. Getting one thing done -- proving to yourself that you can overcome procrastination -- is a great way of overcoming any procrastination. Just apply these rules to each task that you are avoiding. You may find that your procrastination is always the same thing.

2) Assign a Specific Time
Like a lot of procrastinators, you might be vague about when you are going to get it done. You might say, "this week" or, even more vaguely, "sometime." The problem with being vague about time is that there will always be other things that come up for you. Make an appointment with the task.

Now some procrastinators think, "I can't really start it if I don't have a lot of time to dedicate to it." That just becomes another way of avoiding doing it. You don't have to get the whole thing done -- it's better to get it started -- better to get something done. I have found it quite helpful to give myself a time limit -- for example, "Spend one hour working on it." By limiting my commitment, I can feel that I am not going to be overwhelmed. You can always get something started, always do something -- always get more done than getting absolutely nothing done. Something is better than nothing.

3) List the Advantages and Disadvantages of Doing It
Procrastinators are great coming up with reasons not to do something. You can always convince yourself that it is too much to do, you don't have enough time, or you would rather do something else. Fine. Those are the disadvantages of doing it. But how about the advantages of doing it? If you get something started -- or finish something -- what will be the benefits to you? You might feel better about yourself, you might feel you finally overcame your procrastination and you might think you don't have to think about it anymore. Weigh these advantages and disadvantages.

Now, sometimes the advantages of getting something done are longer-term. For example, exercising today might not give you much of an advantage today -- in fact, you might have aches and pains after. But if you continued to exercise on a regular basis for a few months your advantages might accumulate. The same with sticking with your diet. The advantages might take a while to show up. Are you willing to invest some discomfort and time in making your life better?

4) Practice Discomfort
In my books, The Worry Cure: Seven Steps to Stop Worry from Stopping You and Beat the Blues before they Beat You: How to Overcome Depression, I suggest that you invest in "constructive discomfort." This means that you are willing to be uncomfortable moving toward your goals. For example, ballet dancers will tell you, "It was a good workout -- it hurt good." You know that getting things done requires some discomfort, some frustration, even some aches and pains. But there is also the psychological discomfort of not doing it. Doing what you don't want to do so that you can get done what you need to get done is the way to take charge of yourself. Discomfort is part of life. The question is, "Are you practicing constructive discomfort or useless discomfort?"

Now, most procrastinators overestimate how uncomfortable it will be. For example, let's take exercise. Imagine that you actually choose to exercise today, even though you keep telling yourself how unpleasant it will be. Write down your prediction of how unpleasant it will be -- and for how long it will be unpleasant. Use a scale from 0 to 10, where 10 represents "water-boarding torture" and "1" represents mildly tight shoes for three minutes. After you have written down your prediction, then do the task you are avoiding. How unpleasant was it really? For how long was it so unpleasant? Maybe you have been procrastinating because you predict that things are going to be much worse than they actually are. You are a pessimistic procrastinator. But what do the facts really say? "It wasn't as bad once I got into doing it."

Not only are many of these tasks only mildly unpleasant, there is another set of positive consequences that you have overlooked. These include a sense of effectiveness, feeling proud of yourself, and feeling like you can take on other challenging tasks. Predicting unpleasantness is part of the logic of avoidance. Predicting pride is part of being empowered.

5) Successful Imperfection: Make Progress, Not Perfection
Many procrastinators who are not getting things done are really closet perfectionists. You are harboring these fantasies that you will do the perfect job -- write the perfect paper, exercise until you become an Olympic triathlon medalist, decorate your house so that it wins awards. Perfection is the enemy of progress.

I suggest practicing successful imperfection. Imagine if you did something positive every single day that moved you toward your valued goals -- but each thing you did was slightly imperfect. You exercised slightly imperfectly. You fixed up your house slightly imperfectly. You did your work accepting slight imperfections. Here is what is likely to happen: You will get a lot done. You will make progress. You will get into better shape.

Successful imperfection empowers you to take on tasks, to practice them, to use constructive discomfort and to get a lot done.

And, as the artist Salvador Dali once said, "Don't worry about perfection. You will never see it anyway." He should know.

When was the last time you were perfect?

6) Reward Yourself for Getting it Done
You are not likely to stick with your program of self-discipline and overcome procrastination if you don't reward yourself. You might be the kind of self-critical procrastinator who only believes in punishing yourself for not getting it done. Imagine if your boss punished you every single time you did something imperfectly. My guess is that you would stop going to work.

Rewarding yourself for making progress is the best policy for managing yourself. Give yourself some praise -- for making progress. Become your own cheerleader. Reward yourself with some "goof-off" time, so that you can spend a few minutes doing nonsensical things that you enjoy.

The reward comes after the behavior. The dessert comes after you eat your broccoli. The more you reward yourself for getting things done, the more you will get done.

You have been practicing self-criticism for years. Has it really helped?

Try treating yourself like you would treat a friend who made progress. Give yourself a pat on the back so you can continue moving forward.

For more by Robert Leahy, Ph.D., click here.

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