In the prequel to this piece, I admitted I’m an adrenalin junkie who procrastinates as a matter of course. A little clarification is probably in order. You know how professionals on television make complicated tasks look downright easy? It’s often a rude awakening the first time you attempt to reproduce their results. Procrastination, for me, anyway, isn’t as simple as waiting until the last minute and pulling a rabbit out of a hat. I thought I’d give aspiring putter-offers a peak behind the scenes at my office.
These are my basic operating principles:
Know what you’re up against.
Sometimes assignments or tasks change shape after I agree to them and I end up doing a lot more, or a lot more difficult, work than I had planned. Other times, the assignment didn’t change, but my perception of it did. I simply hadn’t realized the scope or depth of what I’d agreed to do. After a few pretty painful episodes, I trained myself not to say yes to new work without sitting down and doing a worst-case estimate of how much time and work it will take. Not only does this help me get the work done without going crazy, it also helps me get paid for the work I do. Knowing what you’re up against is especially important for “assignments” that aren’t really optional, like income tax filing or completing financial aid forms. If you wait until the last minute with some tasks, you might be unable to find important information and find yourself up the creek without a paddle. So I never put something off without knowing exactly what I am postponing.
Just because I wait to work on projects doesn’t mean my work space and habits are a disaster. Being relatively organized is one of the key things that allow me to procrastinate successfully. I file paperwork as it comes in and keep good records. I maintain a stash of paper, ink, envelopes, tape, and all the basic office supplies. I update my calendar regularly. These habits allow me to enjoy the time between projects because I’m not caught off guard by deadlines. And my intense, last-minute work sessions aren’t complicated by runs to the store or derailed by missing information.
Break big tasks up into little ones.
I find that projects seem to swell in size when I put them off. Mostly this is mental, so I outline every little step involved in getting the thing done before I start work. I do mean every little step, including printing and even buying ink cartridges, if that is necessary. No surprises! This makes it feel more manageable and helps me manage my time. Speaking of time, keep track of it. Before I begin a task, I estimate how long I think it will take. Then I note how long it actually took. This information reduces future “will I get it done” stress.
Tackle the worst first.
I used to be invigorated by eliminating as many things on my to-do list as I could, as early as possible. All those crossed-out items made me feel accomplished and in control. At least until I got to the last, hardest item, at which point my energy and enthusiasm were usually running dangerously low. I decided to take a cue from the grade school taunt: “First the worst, second the best.” My emotional energy and mental focus are highest at the beginning of a project, so I have learned to use those resources for the hardest parts of a assignment. After that, the rest is like coasting downhill. “Second the best” refers to the fun part of a project. I use doing the tasks I actually enjoy as a reward for getting the worst done first. (So what’s fun about doing taxes? I’ll have to get back to you on that one…)
So go ahead, put things off! As long as you know what you’re up against, you, too, can be a pro-fessional pro-crastinator.