Overcoming Procrastination: The Art of Conquering Your To-Do List

Federal tax returns must be postmarked every year by April 15th.  Although Kathryn is acutely aware of this deadline, if she wasn’t, the Statue of Liberty mascots and inflatable advertising balloons various tax preparation services place on virtually every corner would, no doubt, alert her to the impending deadline.  It’s not that she doesn’t know when her taxes are due each year; it’s just that she detests doing them!  She has a full 365 days to gather her receipts, documents, and papers, and organize, itemize, and deliver them to the accountant in time to meet the 11:59 PM deadline on April 15th.  Nevertheless, every year Kathryn—and the rest of the people making the late-night run to the post office—waits until the absolute last minute to file her federal tax return.  What’s worse, she makes herself miserable in the process!  She stresses about doing her taxes for weeks preceding the deadline as she transfers the word “taxes” to each new day’s To Do list.  Kathryn feels guilty each weekend that passes without making any progress on her taxes.  But it doesn’t have to be that way!  Given that procrastination is a problem that effects so many of us, here are a few concrete strategies to help us tackle those issues we dread, just in time for tax season.

  1. Discover why you procrastinate – While there are many explanations for why we procrastinate, the three most common reasons are: fear of the task, dislike of the task, or lack of knowledge about how to perform the task.  Figuring out the reasoning behind our procrastination enables us to break the cycle and tackle the task head on.
  2. Figure out how to do the task, how to make it more enjoyable, or why you fear it. – For tasks you don’t know how to do, conduct a bit of research.  Do a web search, check out Youtube for a tutorial, or enlist the help of a friend, relative, neighbor, or professional with knowledge or expertise of the task.  For a task you know how to do but just don’t want to do, think of creative ways to make it more enjoyable, challenging, or interesting.  For example, create a feel-good environment by lighting candles, preparing a snack, and turning on music or your favorite TV program before sitting down to organize and file your receipts.  Challenge yourself by making a game of it or by setting a timer and seeing how fast you can get it done.  Estimate the amount of time you think something will take you and see if you can beat your own estimate.  For those tasks you avoid out of fear, make a list of what you fear about the task, what the worst possible outcome could be, and develop a plan of attack for those outcomes.  Then, make a note of the potential consequences for avoiding the task and not doing it.  Finally, anticipate how you will feel after completing the task and compare the lists.  Often, the result of not doing the task is much worse than whatever you fear about doing the task.
  3. Timing is everything – Break the project down into manageable sections and schedule a date and time for each step.  Sometimes, the first step will be to gather all the materials or tools required for the task.  Often, just getting organized and creating a clear vision of the steps for the task is enough to get you going.  If not, write out the steps in sequence and enter the deadlines for each step of the task in your agenda or your mobile phone’s calendar, and post reminders on sticky notes in prominent areas where you will constantly be reminded of the impending deadline.  If the task is one that requires focus and concentration, schedule it at the time of day when you are most alert and energetic.
  4. Be good to yourself – Make a list of things and activities you enjoy, places you want to visit, and friends with whom you enjoy spending time.  Assign one of these rewards to each step in the process of your task.  After gathering your receipts, for example, treat yourself to a coffee break, game of tennis, movie, relaxing bath, or phone call to a friend.  Reinforcing the desired behavior in this way will make it more likely you will tackle the next step in the process.
  5. Recruit an accountability partner – Enlist the help of a trusted friend, colleague, or family member.  Explain the task you have been putting off, the steps required to complete the task, your self-imposed deadlines, and the rewards you have outlined for each step completed.  Ask your accountability partner to either join you for a work session (sometimes, just the mere presence of someone—even if that person is working on something completely different—can generate productivity) or to call, text, or email you for progress updates.  Most of us would rather let ourselves down than another person, which makes this an incredibly powerful motivator!
  6. Develop routines and habits – Putting things off doesn’t make them go away, but getting things done does!  There are immediate benefits from tackling a task and completing it:  completion generates energy, makes us feel competent, and improves our mood.  Learning to implement habits by associating new behaviors with those that are part of our regular, daily routines is extremely beneficial and can prevent tasks from snowballing and getting out of hand.  For example, most of us remember to get our mail every day.  Therefore, if we link the activity of filing the day’s receipts to the activity of opening our mail, and do it every day immediately after opening the mail, we can very effectively make receipt filing a habit.  Taking 3 minutes every day to file a handful of receipts after opening the mail is far easier, less time consuming, and infinitely less daunting than waiting until a year’s worth of receipts has accumulated into a pile the size of Mt. Everest.
  7. We all procrastinate to some extent every now and then – For Kathryn, taxes are her nemesis, but what is it for you?  Take a few minutes to write out a plan for dealing with the task you are most prone to put off as long as possible.  Identify why you procrastinate, strategies for figuring out how to accomplish the task or how to make it more interesting, what steps are involved in the task and when you will complete each of the steps, how to reward yourself when you follow through with your plan, and who can help hold you accountable for sticking to the plan you’ve created.  Remember, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail!  So stop putting off until tomorrow what can be done today.  Tackle that To Do list and reward yourself along the way!