Does any of this sound familiar?
You can’t fit one more item in your garage (or attic or hall closet or spare bedroom,) and you’re not even sure what half of that stuff is. You say you’ll clean out the space and organize the stuff “one of these days,” but months or even years go by and you still haven’t done it.
Company is coming to celebrate a special holiday in two days. You’re in panic mode because you haven’t yet done anything to prepare.
Your car goes way too long between service appointments; you haven’t seen a doctor or a dentist in who knows how long; and there’s a growing list of things around the house that are waiting for a handyman or a plumber or an electrician to attend to. You say you’ll call and make arrangements for these things to be done — tomorrow or maybe next week.
It’s easy to procrastinate — especially if the thing we’re putting off is something we dread or seems like too much work to begin with. But procrastination adds to our stress level and can cost us our money and our health.
So how do we stop putting things off? Here are some ideas from behavioral experts.
Swallow That Frog
There’s a saying that goes “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Self-help expert Brian Tracy immortalized that saying in his 2001 book, Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time. Tracy’s theory is that the “frog” represents the most difficult and important task you face and that you should tackle it before you do anything else.
The “frog” is something you have been avoiding, but it’s also something that will have a major impact on your life and serious consequences if you don’t do it.
Break It Down
What’s your frog today? What will it take for you to address it? Sometimes, the task that seems so distasteful and daunting can be less so if you break it into manageable pieces. An added bonus of this method is that as you make small steps toward completing the task, you are more likely to complete it.
Take the previous example of company arriving for a holiday in two days. What are all the tasks that need to be done to accommodate them? Cleaning, food purchasing and preparation, decorating the house, buying gifts? Breaking down these tasks into subtasks (for example, if you need to clean the house, make sure you have the supplies you need) also will help you move toward completing your goal.
One caution, though. It can be easy to get bogged down in working through all these steps. If the end task is something you really don’t look forward to doing, you can find yourself procrastinating even further by spending too much time on the “small stuff.” So set a time limit on it.
Make a date with yourself to complete the task. You schedule all the important things in your life, so why not set aside time to do things that aren’t much fun but need to be done? Scheduling the task also can mean you will be less likely to wait until you are “in the mood” to tackle it.
You may be putting off starting an exercise program. But you might be more likely to get moving if you block out a half-hour on your calendar to take a walk every day, or schedule an “appointment” for an hour at the gym twice a week.
For tasks that have a deadline, mark the deadline on your calendar and work backward from there. In the example we used of an approaching holiday, schedule time as the holiday approaches to go shopping, clean the house, etc. Accomplishing these goals on the way to the big task will go a long way in reducing your stress and anxiety.
In making those phone calls to schedule appointments with the auto mechanic, electrician, dentist or other professional you’ve put off contacting, you may be less likely to procrastinate if you put “Call for car servicing” as the first item on your daily calendar in the next day or so. Consider it an “appointment to make an appointment” if you will.
Write It Down
It’s easy to say you should write these tasks down so you will be less likely to put them off. But it’s also easy to lose a paper list. Use your phone, Outlook or other scheduling software to name your tasks, set deadlines for completing them and list the things you need in order to accomplish them.
In the example we used of cleaning out a storage space, will you need empty boxes, garbage bags, extra bins or hangers? Make a list. Once you buy or collect the things you need to finish your task, you are more likely to use them and complete the job.
Find An Accountability Buddy
It’s likely that you already have someone at home who is after you to complete the task you’ve been putting off. Make an accountability pact that you will at least get the job started by a certain date or time.
If it’s exercise that you’ve been putting off, having a friend or family member hold you accountable for working on your fitness goals — or even going to the gym with you — will help get you moving. Or, if you’ve been putting off scheduling a doctor’s appointment, asking a trusted friend to check in with you to see whether you’ve done it can give you a needed nudge.
We give kids gold stars or an extra snack as an incentive for doing tasks they don’t want to do. Why not set a reward for yourself for accomplishing something difficult without putting it off?
The reward could be scheduling an hour or two for something you really enjoy, buying yourself some small indulgence or doing whatever gives you joy. For example, when I started an exercise program a few years ago, I decided I would treat myself to a new dress as soon as I reached a particular fitness goal.
Of course, the greatest reward for not putting off the task you dread is the freedom from anxiety and stress that you get from not procrastinating.
Go out there and eat that frog!