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Becoming a "Do it now!" Person

By Jane-Mich le Clark

Chronic procrastinators often ask me if there is any hope of being able to change this destructive habit. The simple answer is, "Yes, you can become a 'do it now' person." Below you will find a few suggestions from a semi-reformed procrastinator (I, too, am working on changing this habit).

The biggest key: Either start taking action immediately (even it's simply to schedule it into your week) before the job gets any bigger in your mind - or cross the item off your list and don't waste any more thought or energy on it.

I find that when I put things off, it's usually because I don't want to do the task, or I don't know where to begin, or don't think I'll be able to do it well, or some variation on this all-too-common theme.

This creates a vicious cycle for most people. Me, included. The more I don't want to do something, the longer I put it off - and the longer I put if off, the more I don't want to do it. And the bigger the task becomes in my head. This usually applies to something that needs to be done and that I think is going to take a long time, or is going to be hard, or won't be very much fun. Cleaning out the garage and forensic accounting seem to hit each of these buttons at the same time! Yet, it can be something as simple as having to return a call (and the longer I put it off the harder it gets because then I wonder how I'll explain my delay). Or hanging a picture. Or really cleaning out my in-box (to the point where the tray bottom can be seen).

I'm not going to pretend that there are steps you can take that will make you suddenly love doing something you currently hate. There are, however, ways of making the task seem less daunting - and of making taking action seem more enjoyable (or, at least, less painful). Here are a few suggestions that have helped me, and hundreds of others:

1. If it's a really big task, break it up into a series of smaller jobs.
This has two benefits. For one thing, you will likely feel the task is more manageable once it has been organized and simplified somewhat through this process; this in itself can be enough to get you over the hump and motivate you to start taking action. Many people have told me that they often don't know how, or where, to get started, and so they do nothing. It's almost as if they are paralyzed by a big amorphous monster mass in their head. When they can see what actually needs to be done, and know what steps to take, it seems the monster disappears. It was just the thought of the BIG project that had them stuck.

The other benefit is that you will be able to see if there are any parts of this project that can be given to someone else - and then delegate. Frequently, if the job has been started by someone else, you ll find it easier to keep going. If the task can be broken into sequential stages, you can apply leverage on yourself by giving A and C to a co-worker and keeping B for yourself - that way you get put under the gun a bit when they deliver the completed 'A' and then can't go any further until you give them 'B'.

Once the task has been broken into manageable pieces, commit to having your part done by a certain date. Making a commitment to someone else often helps you make a deadline that you might break if you are the only one keeping score (not too surprising, your subconscious is always keeping score and when you don't deliver on the commitments you make to yourself, all kinds of things go off the rails in your thought processes - but that's a topic for a whole other discussion).

But what about projects around the house? Especially if you don't have anyone to whom you can delegate? Same principle applies - break it down into smaller pieces and see what can be eliminated and what you can get someone else to do. See if there are some things can be given to a local student or handyman.

Sandra, a single working mom, hates cleaning out the garage, major yard work and minor household repairs and painting and used to keep putting it off. Every week she d plan to work on the house on the weekend; on Thursday and Friday she would start thinking, Just great, I've got to do the house this weekend. Over the course of the weekend, she wouldn't go anywhere with her friends, because, "she had to do the house." Somehow it wouldn't get done - and Sunday night would find Sandra feeling guilty, tired, wishing the work had been completed, and planning to give up the following weekend to get it done.

The pattern would continue and the chores would start to become a major cloud hanging over her head until Sandra finally broke down and did them. Every year, to her surprise, Sandra found that she never really minded the work once she got started. Even though she knew this, each spring the dread and put off scenario would repeat itself. Finally, Sandra decided to reclaim her spring weekends. Now, at the beginning of every spring she hires a couple of high school students and that forces her to get things done. Once she gets started, she finds that it's easy to get everything done.

What about the things that can't be delegated? Take the smaller tasks and decide to do one a day (or two or one every two days - whatever works for the size of the task). Commit to doing what you said - and do it first thing in the morning when you get to work (or as soon as you get home). Find some way to get motivated (e.g. don't let yourself have coffee until the task is done) and reward yourself for doing what you said you would (e.g. allow yourself 15 minutes of business-related surfing or magazine reading once you have completed the day's commitment). At home the possibilities are endless. One woman made up a chart with the same number of squares as there were smaller tasks. When she completed each task, she checked off a box; when the chart was complete she treated herself to a massage. (Yes, I know this sounds a lot like the charts our kindergarten teachers used to get us to do things on time. But if it worked well then, why not now?)

Many people find that once they start completing the smaller tasks, that they begin to do more than one of the items each day - and the closer they get to the finish line, the more they want to get the job done and the faster it goes.

One executive had moved to Toronto from the west coast and into a new 2-bedroom condo. A year later, the second bedroom apartment was filled to almost overflowing. In addition to several boxes that still needed to be unpacked, there were piles of papers and plastic bags full of odds and ends. Every time that this young man had company, he would tidy up by throwing things into bags and hiding them in the spare room. "Just for now," is what he told himself - never to be seen again, was closer to the truth. Sometime after the floor had disappeared, Greg decided that "enough was enough" but several weeks later, the pile was still growing.

In the course of discussing the frustrations about his job, Greg blurted out the story of 'THE ROOM,' which is how he had come to see it. I suggested he get a few clear recycling bags and one medium-sized, empty box. The homework: Go home on Friday and fill the box from the piles and bags in the room. Ignore the box all weekend, and then leave the box in the middle of the living room as you leave for work on Monday. As soon as you get home and change, put away everything in the box, then fill it again and ignore it until the next day.

Greg felt that was doable and agreed to give it a try. By telling him he couldn't start until Monday, Greg was given permission to not feel bad about the room - and it freed him to think, "Why don't I just do a little now and start the one box a day routine on Monday?" So he emptied 6 or 7 bags. On Monday, he did one box. On Tuesday he did another. On Wednesday he got home from work early and did a few more. Within two weeks the room was done, the job had not interfered with work or his social life ("I only have to do one - and that only takes 30 minutes or so," he would say to himself) and the guilt was gone. Surprisingly, he also felt less stressed about work.

As almost always proves true: The thought of doing the job was worse than completing the task, and once he got going, the urge to put it off disappeared - along with the nagging sensation.

Remember: Any task can be broken into easy manageable steps. And remember, steps that do not need to be completed all at once are easier to get your head around.

2. Pair the task with something you do enjoy doing.
One client, Sandra G., needed to get back to the gym - but could never seem to get around to it. She claimed she never had the time, but later admitted it was a form of procrastination. She also wanted to wean herself from a long-time television addiction. She always felt guilty for not going to the gym - and mad that she had wasted another evening in front of the tube. She often tried answering e-mails and doing work on her laptop up in bed, with the little screen blaring at her. So, she never really enjoyed the shows - and the work always took twice as long, and wasn't half as good. Frustrated, knowing that this behavior was holding her back on several fronts, she wanted to know how she would take action. How she could stop procrastinating about the gym.

My answer: Don't. Don't worry that you re not going to the gym and that you are watching television. First step, tell yourself that both things are okay. When she heard these words, Sandra's shoulders dropped as she sighed in relief and started to smile. Like so many of us who have things we've been procrastinating about for a long time, Sandra had created a whole set of 'I musts' and 'I shoulds' for herself and was making herself feel bad each and every time she broke one of these self-imposed rules and then, when her conscience next pricked at her, she would create an even more stringent set of 'I must' and 'I should' rules - and they became even harder to live up to - and this made it even harder for Sandra to take action. A vicious cycle was born.

I suggested that she give herself permission to watch TV - provided that she do sit-ups, used an exercise ball, stretched and did other such activities while she was watching. I also told her to pick three favorite shows. When these shows came on, she was to turn off the phone, sit in her favorite chair (not in her bed), sip on a coffee (a passion of hers) and not do anything other than watch the show. It was a total time of indulgence. During these three hours (for the week, not per day) Sandra was not allowed to work or do anything else. By focusing on the shows, it turned them into an activity for her - and she appreciated them more. So what happened?

Sandra quickly discovered that she preferred listening to music while she worked out at home than the TV, and started shutting off the TV. It didn't take long before the spacious gym seemed more inviting than the cramped space on her bedroom floor. Once Sandra started going to the gym regularly, she realized that her bathroom was staying cleaner and there were fewer towels to wash, which actually saved her cleaning time. (Going to the gym vs. cleaning the shower? Hmmm, not a difficult choice in my mind either!)

Sandra also found that by joining a gym near her office, and going to the gym before work that she saved on commuting time (less traffic earlier on), arrived at work in a more energetic state of mind and was actually more productive.

Some other examples that come to mind:

  • Playing high energy music really loudly and dancing while doing the household chores (that Swiffer lady may not be as crazy as we think!).
  • Paying bills by scented candlelight with soft music or substituting a beer for the candles and having the ballgame on in the background.
  • Listening to a taped book or personal growth program while driving to work, or working out on the Stairmaster, or elliptical machine, etc.
  • Ironing and watching a video.
  • Writing and sorting materials - when you hit a block, get up and sort the materials for your work/ article/ book/ whatever. As you change your physiology, you change your thought processes. The physical movements may be enough to break the mental logjam that had you wanting to stop and you may come across a piece of information that will spark another train of thought.
  • Sucking in your butt, or flexing your pecs, while taking out the garbage.
  • Doing push-ups and dips on the kitchen counter while waiting for the kettle to boil, or microwave to ding. I started doing this at work while waiting for my lunch to heat and now have muscles where flab once resided.
  • Meditating while riding the bus or jotting notes for your next book, party, whatever if you manage to get a seat.
  • Dictating messages, memos and letters while in the car, etc.
  • Cleaning out your purse/wallet/ computer case/ files while listening to your fiend complain - yet again about his/her break-up.
  • Or, if you have a friend that you really want to talk to, tell him/her that you are trying to make yourself tidy/sort X and that your reward is to get to chat while you work, and would he/she mind going hands free for part of the call.

There may only be a couple of things here that actually have any appeal for you, but I'm sure you can see how the concept works.

3. Limit the number of items on your 'to do' list.
Look at what you 'have to do' and see if you can get rid of the chore (or the part that makes you put off the whole task. The fewer items you have on your 'have to' list, the less likely you are to procrastinate on important tasks. In one manufacturing company the parts people dreaded having to complete one of the weekly reports. The reports were tedious to fill out and, as a result, often late and sometimes they even got a few months behind.

One day, a relatively new junior exec assistant asked her boss what they were used for and was told that they were used by the senior management and to hurry them along because they were now three months late and all hell would be breaking loose soon. Thinking that the weekly report couldn't be all that important if no one was complaining about the long delay, Karen set out to learn what was done with the numbers. As it turned out, the answer was: Nothing. The information from the JIT system was more relevant and timely.

On a more personal note: One woman procrastinated about doing the ironing and was often rushed going out the door because she would have to iron something to wear to work. When asked to look at reasons why she might put off this task, Angela realized that she procrastinated because she dreaded ironing the sheets. So she decided to fold them warm from the dryer and put them on the bed and see what happened. Nobody noticed and after a few washes, she no longer thought about it, and no longer put off doing the ironing.

There is a second primary reason for putting things off.
I do actually want to do the job, but I just never seem to schedule time for it - or I find myself doing other 'important' things instead of the task in question. I hear this frequently and used to find myself saying it from time-to-time, too. I have now learned to differentiate between what are really two types of procrastination.

Whenever I put off things that I think I want to do, it always turns out that there was some hidden reason. When you find yourself 'forgetting' to do something, and not being nagged by the little inner voice that speaks up when plain old procrastination or fear are not the culprits, then pay attention. Your 'inner knower' knows that there is something amiss with some element of what you are contemplating. Either the timing is wrong, or you haven't thought things through as well as you should have, or there are other elements at play. In almost every instance, at the point when I've realized that there is something that I've been postponing/ forgetting/ avoiding for a long time, I've gained additional knowledge that has made me relieved I hadn't pursued the original plan of action.

So develop the habit of listening and responding to your gut. When you keep forgetting to do something, ask yourself if it really is a good thing to do, or a good use of your time and consider dropping it from your 'to do' list. If your inner voice keeps screaming at you do something, take action even if it's only a small first step. You'll be surprised at quickly this can lead to more action and how quickly you become a 'Do it now!' person.

In addition to running The Q Group and several of its programs, Jane-Mich le Clark conducts corporate training sessions & seminars and speaks regularly on personal and professional growth topics. She was nominated for Canadian Entrepreneur of the Year the last four years. Jane-Mich le Clark writes articles on a wide variety of business and personal growth topics.
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