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Are you the guy who always turns his report in late? When the boss stresses in a meeting how important it is to stick to deadlines, do all eyes turn surreptitiously (or not-so-surreptitiously) to you?
Most procrastinators don’t like being “that guy,” but they often feel like their delay is beyond their control. No matter what they do, they just can’t seem to make themselves stay on schedule.
There are all sorts of tips and tricks you can use to try to break your procrastinating ways, but often the best way to end a bad habit is to get to the bottom of why you do it in the first place. There’s a reason behind your constant tardiness, and once you understand it, it’s easier to take steps to change.
Here are some of the most common reasons people put off or delay doing something:
You’re stuck in eternal planning mode. Planning in and of itself isn’t a bad thing. But it becomes counterproductive when you use it to stall.
You’ll never be able to foresee every obstacle that might come up or create the one perfect outline that rules out all flaws and mistakes. So make your initial notes, do a little brainstorming—and then get to work! We often figure out better approaches or have sudden insights in the process of working on a project, which makes your elaborate outline outdated anyway.
You don’t know where to start. If you’ve got a complicated or time-consuming project, figuring out where to dive in first can be daunting. But if you can’t determine a good starting point after a few minutes of staring at a project, it’s best to just dive in and start working your way out from the inside.
Things will become clearer as you actually engage with the work—plus getting an early start gives you the leeway to make a few wrong turns and still get everything done on time. If necessary, work on the project in small chunks to keep yourself from feeling overwhelmed.
You don’t understand the assignment. One of the big causes of employee procrastination is due to poor communication with superiors. If you’ve just been handed a big folder and very vague instructions, don’t bury it under your work pile hoping to figure it out later, and don’t spend hours staring blankly at the documents trying to divine what you’re supposed to do with them.
Even if it makes you feel self-conscious, go back to your boss and ask for clearer instructions. Dragging your feet won’t make the project any clearer.
If you’re worried about looking dumb, you can always couch your question in clever phrasing like, “Just so we’re both on the same page, could you give me the run down on this project again?” and hope that your boss doesn’t see through your ruse. (And if he does? It’s still better than admitting to him two weeks after the due date that you’re not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.)
You’re afraid of making a mistake. I’m going to be the mean realist here and just come out and tell you: you very well might make a mistake. And there is no way you can guarantee you won’t. It’s a downside of being human.
But you know what your boss will hate a lot more than a typo in the first footnote of your report? Not getting the report at all because you’re too busy fretting over perfection.
Need a little more encouragement? Look at facing your fear as a career move; by stepping outside of your comfort zone and challenging yourself to take on something that scares you, you demonstrate the problem-solving skills and initiative that any boss would be pleased to have in an employee.
You’re too prone to distractions. If you’re the sort who can’t see an e-mail notification without instantly clicking over to read your new message, you can easily find yourself nearing a deadline without knowing where the time went. So, sequester yourself. Eliminate all potentials for distraction.
Turn off your phone. Close out of Facebook and Twitter. Turn off all your notifications. If necessary, find a nice empty conference room totally devoid of your usual entertainment options and force yourself to stay there until you’ve gotten a certain amount of work done.
You’re waiting for the “right time.” It’s been a crazy day already; wouldn’t you be better off attacking that project when your head doesn’t hurt/you got more sleep the night before/you had prettier-colored highlighters to really organize your thoughts?
The answer is: No. The time to start it is now. You don’t know what sort of projects might be thrown your way tomorrow, so if you’ve got the time today, then get started.
You’ve delayed it so long it’s become a monster. This is when procrastination becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: The longer you put off an unpleasant or complicated task, the more stressed out it makes you, until suddenly you’re so stressed by the very thought of it you’ve paralyzed yourself.
Just like in the examples above, the best strategy for the Project That’s Become a Monster is just to roll up your sleeves, cross your fingers and dive in. The longer you wait, the worse it will be.
Better yet, try to get the projects you dread over with first, before they start spinning out of proportion.
Kelly Gurnett runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.