How to Avoid Procrastination

Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried, or so goes the anonymous quote. We find out time fluttering away while we say “not now,” which too often turns into “never.” Procrastination is a problem many of us suffer from without finding a solution and instead just letting life and opportunities slip by. No more! End procrastination now!

I just finished reading a wonderful article on procrastination by James Surowiecki in the October 11 issue of The New Yorker. The money quote:

[I]t might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

“Akratic” is a term defined earlier in the article, a word taken from the works of early Greek philosophers that refers to doing something against one’s better judgment. Akratic is also define as a “weakness of will.”

In essence, Surowiecki is making the statement that we procrastinate in two ways: we either do something knowing there is a better way or we are simply acting on our deep impulse that we’re merely avoiding something that’s a waste of time. Either we’re procrastinating something worthwhile (a mistake) or something wasteful (a good move).

How do you distinguish between the two, though? How do you know, when you realize that you’ve been procrastinating, whether you’re sensibly discarding something useless or you’re really undermining your larger goals in life?

There are times I have something I know I need to accomplish, but I’d rather sit down to a movie, play a game, or take the kids out for ice cream. How do I know if I’m making a mistake by not working on the item or if instead I’m doing something worthwhile by avoiding a time waster?

Here’s how to determine the effect of your procrastination.

Prioritize Your To-Do List

If you don’t already have one, create a to-do list which includes everything you need to get accomplished over the next few days. As the days pass, add items to your list and remove the items you’ve accomplished.

Often, people find a lot of unimportant items make it on to the to-do list while the urgent items get pushed down. You can confuse your sense of what is actually important and render the whole exercise of creating the to-do list useless. You cannot just list all of the items you have to do as there is no categorization of what is important and what is non-important.

The solution? Prioritize your to-do list. Remove the unimportant items, even when you’re making difficult calls. I find more and more that if I have any doubt that something is important, I should just delete it.

This way, when you have a window of opportunity to procrastinate, you can just look at your real, and prioritized to-do list. Is there something that needs done? If not, then you can do what you want to do.

Focus Your Personal and Professional Responsibilities

How do you decide if something on your to-do list is actually important? The first step is to associate your to-do list with your major short term and long term goals that you want to accomplish.

For example: we like a clean house. Not obsessive compulsive clean, but clean nonetheless. However, clean the house is not on our goals list and therefore it doesn’t rate as highly important when something else that is important comes up. Perhaps we would add a deep cleaning every so often to our to-do list. We could constantly be adding cleaning tasks to our to do list, but instead, these are just normal chores that must get done. The goals are much bigger items that need to be accomplished in our life.

Focusing on your personal and professional responsibilities, and really focusing on your goals in these areas, is an important step to not procrastinating. If you know it must get done as a step towards reaching your goals, you are more likely to just get it finished.

It Comes Down to Understanding What Is Important and Avoiding the Unimportant

Have you ever heard the story about the big rocks and the sand? Imagine you have an empty jar. The jar represents the time you have available to accomplish anything. It’s amazing – we all have the same sized jar, no matter what you do, you can’t have any more or any less than 24 hours in a day.

In your life, you have a lot of little things you need to get done. The little things are represented by a big container of sand. There are countless things you can work on, countless items you could put on a to do list, but they are all as big – and as important – as little particles of sand. You also have pebbles and big rocks that represent the more important things in life that you spend time in.

If you fill your empty jar with a cup of sand and then place the big rocks in, you will not fit many big rocks in your far. You won’t be able to get a lot of the big goals accomplished in life.

Instead, if you fill your jar with big rocks and then pour the sand into the jar, you will accomplish a lot of big rocks and still get a lot of the little things accomplished.

It’s about understanding what’s important and not clogging yourself up with the unimportant. When you focus on the little things – the unimportant items – you can easily become overwhelmed and then procrastinate on the things that are truly important in life. This kind of procrastination can be very costly in terms of wealth and also in relationships.

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