This is the story of how I learned to be a highly productive procrastinator.
There is little I’d claim to be world-class at, aside from this: I am without a doubt a World-Class Procrastinator (WCP).
I avoid doing the Hard Thing (anything that requires a think).
I avoid doing the other kind of Hard Thing (anything that requires sweat or discomfort, like working out).
I even avoid getting out of bed in the morning. (Can a snooze alarm be a best friend?)
After I wrote those few paragraphs I went to Google (the procrastinator’s second best friend) to research “how to avoid procrastination.” Because how do other people deal with this?
You can see why Google is part of the problem, not the solution.
And now, ask me anything about how to avoid probate, in any of the 50 US states! Revocable living trust, FTW!
So now it’s 45 minutes later, and the blinking cursor on this Word doc is relentless in its reminder that I still have an article to write. But now I’m starting to get hungry.
Mmmm… bacon. Gotta run to Whole Foods. Be right back.
I’d like to tell you I’m exaggerating.
I am. But not by much.
Procrastinators expend far more anxiety than we need to—worrying about how the Hard Thing isn’t done.
We waste focus distracting ourselves with useless (if entertaining) pursuits. (YouTube autoplay is my third best friend.)
The irony of procrastinators is that we spend more time avoiding the Hard Thing that we don’t want to do, than we might if we would just sit down and do the thing already, fercryinoutloud.
Hold up, you’re thinking: You, Ann, can’t possibly be a WCP.
You… Get. Stuff. Done. You write Wall Street Journal bestsellers. You speak on stages all over the world. You head up content at a leading marketing site. You’re all over social media. You assume the voice of your reader to humblebrag and to hyperlink to your own stuff.
All true. I am a highly productive procrastinator, in addition to a world-class one.
So let’s break this down. Here’s how to get stuff done, WCP edition:
1. Do the Hard Thing second.
Ease into your weekday by doing one easy work thing first, then immediately launch into the Hard Thing (the thing that requires the think).
Key here is actually putting that Hard Thing second, though—not third or fourth or fiftieth.
Taking this approach creates some momentum and sets you on the path toward accomplishment. Which is what you want, because the Overlord of Momentum is the mortal enemy of that scoundrel Robber-Baron, Procrastination.
2. Set up a central nervous system.
Use a central calendaring and project-management tool to keep yourself on track. Some of you might call this “workflow scheduling,” which is possibly Latinate for “keeping track without going insane.”
Make sure that that whatever system you use syncs everything (your calendar, meetings, travel, To Do, and tasks) in one place. A bonus is being able to track your time and manage resources, because sometimes you need to do that.
Is it a bit of a pain to set up a system? Well, it’s a commitment. But it’s like childbirth: The joy you’ll get from having done it far outweighs any initial discomfort.
Not too long ago, my right-hand Jess at Don’t Panic Management helped me set up a system so that I have my work life at my fingertips. And every day since then, it’s been like filling my lungs with oxygen for the first time. Ahhhhhh…
3. Review tomorrow’s To Do list at the end of the day.
Did you see how I slipped in the very idea that a To Do list is a given? Well, it is a given. Harness the full potential of your central nervous system by jotting everything down in it. Everything.
Some productivity experts will tell you that you should list only the Hard Things you tend to procrastinate doing, because the other stuff (buy bacon, research probate rules) you’ll do anyway. But I disagree, because checking off even small things leads to momentum. (See point one.)
Hey, what about that reviewing-the-day-before thing? Oh, right. I end every workday by reviewing my To Do list for the following day.
Why? Because, somehow, doing that prepares the procrastinating brain for the work that needs to be done the next day, maybe by allowing things to ripen overnight—the way a rock-hard avocado magically softens overnight inside a brown paper bag.
It sets self-expectations (selfspectations?) and avoids the dreaded roils in your gut when you see something on your morning calendar that (ugh… surprise!) you really don’t want to deal with.
4. Shut off notifications.
Because (ding!) it’s really hard to (ding!) stay focused (ding!) and get any—(ding!) thing done whe—(ding!)—n email and social (ding!) and any (ding!) oth—(ding!)—er instant notifications are turning your (ding!) work space into a three-ring (ding!) circus.
Set up rewards/consequences for tasks in accordance with this well-known idiom. Be quite stern with yourself.
Carrot: If you barf up the first draft of this Workfront post by noon, you can have an extra slice of bacon. (And by “you” I mean “I.”)
Stick: If you don’t complete this entire post by end of day tomorrow, you’ll miss that 7:00 p.m. dinner reservation. You will forgo the oysters you were planning on ordering. You will miss the camaraderie of friends. You will be denied the warmth of your family. You will eat dinner alone. You will never know love.
6. Set small wins.
The carrot/stick practice works best if you set up a series of small wins as part of conquering a larger, tougher Hard Thing. Break down a big project into smaller, more manageable parts, so that it feels… well, smaller and more manageable. And so that you’re nurturing momentum, too.
7. Make yourself accountable to someone else.
Ultimately, my sense of accountability, work ethic, and ambition saves me from procrastinating myself straight onto the couch and deep into a Netflix binge.
The “someone else” could be your client, your boss, your collaborator, your cohort, or your co-worker. Tell them your plan. Give them your timeline. Let them be your beacon on the beachhead, guiding you home. (And be that for them, if you can. Because you aren’t selfish.)
If you are a boss, make yourself accountable to a direct report. Promise them the Hard Thing by a certain date and time. This might seem counter to the boss-employee relationship, but it’s not. “Leadership” requires you to set a good example, especially on follow-through. In that way, it’s a lot like parenting, but without the lifelong cash outlay.
So that’s my list.
What about you? Are you a WCP, too? And if so, what works to keep you on track?
Also, I JUST GOT THE EXTRA SLICE OF BACON.
Ann Handley is the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, the author of two bestselling books on content and marketing, including the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everybody Writes. She is a World Class Procrastinator, albeit a highly productive one.