This week, we’re tackling one of the most vicious struggles for many of us — procrastination. I’ve spent a lot of time observing what causes procrastination and what prevents it because this is such a deep and pervasive problem for me personally. It’s something I have always struggled with and probably always will.
I haven’t found that procrastination is something you can conquer once and for all. Like just about all decisions that involve staying healthy and being productive, your day-by-day choices matter a lot. For most people, there will never be a day when you wake up and don’t feel pulled to be lazy, or eat junk food, or skip the workout, or leave the house a mess. These are temptations we’ll be faced with daily.
So, here are four things you can do to make it easier to overcome those feelings of procrastination when they strike …
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1. Get clear on your vision and outcome
The first step in overcoming procrastination is to identify a goal or outcome for your work that you care deeply about. Truly productive people tend to set long-term goals for themselves. For example, they know that they want to have a certain task moved completely off their plate in one month’s time so they can focus on something else, and that vision — the intention of being DONE with that project — motivates them to keep working toward it.
When you look at your to-do list and see a bunch of random tasks, it’s easy to put them off. But when you see how the tasks build on one another and move you toward your big goal, you will be less likely to procrastinate.
What will your life look like a few weeks or months from now if you keep plugging along at your to-do list? If you have the right priorities and projects on there, the outcome will be something you care about and really want to make happen.
Maybe you want to streamline your lesson planning and spend less time hunting for new ideas.
Maybe you want to be in the habit of exercising three times a week so you feel better and have more energy.
Maybe you want to have all your files cleaned out and organized so you spend less time digging around for things.
Start scheduling these things into your to-do lists. If they’re big and overwhelming goals, break them down into actionable tasks which you can schedule into your to-do lists.
When you’ve put things on your to-do list that move you toward your goals and you start to see forward momentum, you will be far less likely to procrastinate. Consider those tasks to be your Main Thing for each day. Do them first.
And when they’re done, the resulting sense of accomplishment will give you the energy to tackle the rest of the tasks on your list.
2. Differentiate between wasting time and taking time off
The second step to conquering procrastination is to distinguish between wasting time unintentionally and choosing to do things that are a “waste of time” because you enjoy them. Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted.
There’s nothing I love more than relaxing on the couch with my husband and my cat while we binge watch our favorite TV shows. I can spend hours doing this and truly enjoy it ... if I’m doing it intentionally. If my work is done — I’ve accomplished the Main Thing and emptied my to-do list by either finishing tasks or moving them to the next day when I know I’ll have more energy — I can relax and enjoy something that is not productive.
If you’ve trained yourself to believe that you must be productive every minute of every day, this might not hold true for you. You might find yourself still running through your mental to-do list, or trying to fold laundry while you’re supposed to just be watching a movie and decompressing.
It will take time to re-train yourself to believe that the human body AND mind need rest. You will need to practice doing nothing and “wasting” time so that you can see for yourself just how much more energized and productive you are later on. Giving yourself a mental break for two hours and then being productive is generally much more effective than working halfheartedly and with exhaustion for the whole evening.
Set aside time in your schedule to do nothing, or to do something relaxing. Write it on your to-do list or schedule it into your planner if you need to. Be intentional:
From 8:00-8:30 p.m., I will sit down and spend time enjoying my family without pressuring myself to be “productive.” Spending quality time with the people I love IS productive! It’s one of my highest priorities. I will not feel guilty about choosing to spend time on a top priority like this one instead of on a lower priority like cleaning the house or doing paperwork. Time spent renewing my mind, body, and soul is not a waste: It’s essential!
Planning to do nothing — actually writing it on your schedule or to-do list — is very freeing. It relieves that sense of guilt that you should be tackling your to-do list because “do nothing” is actually on the list!
You can frame this time in any way that feels good to you:
- family time
- mental break
- do nothing time
- me time
- permission to be non-productive
Downtime is essential. It’s the only way you’ll have the energy to be productive later. Create breaks for yourself where you are not SUPPOSED to be doing anything productive. Take care of yourself and be aware of your own needs: Pay attention to which times of day and which days of the week you need the most downtime, and allow for it.
Creating downtime for yourself will help you avoid procrastinating because you’re listening to your body-mind-soul’s message: “I need a break.” After your scheduled break is over, you will usually feel rejuvenated and anxious to start being productive again.
3. Take a short break and do an activity that uses a different part of your brain
The worst thing you can do when you need to be answering an email, planning lessons, or grading papers is to procrastinate with another task that requires you to sit still, concentrate, read, and write.
And yet, what’s the default procrastination option for most us? Checking social media!
Reading and responding to Instagram posts does not clear your mind so that you can read and respond to work emails. Clicking through from your Facebook feed to read a lengthy article does not clear your mind so you can read and grade student essays. It just depletes your brainpower even more and makes it harder to get started on what you’re supposed to be doing.
It’s cliched advice to take a walk instead — everyone knows that’s a better choice, but most people don’t make that choice. They use TV and their phones as a distraction when they don’t want to work, and feel guilty about wasting time but can’t figure out why they aren’t able to pull themselves back on track quickly and why even a long procrastination break doesn’t leave them feeling any more interested in working.
Most of the work you do on your own time as a teacher requires sitting and concentrating. So the best thing to do when you feel tempted to procrastinate is an activity that requires movement and no concentration. Exercise and fresh air are best — I’ll go for a 15-minute walk and listen to an inspiring podcast, and by the time I get home, I can’t wait to get started on the task. Well, not every time, but a whole lot more often than when I just lay on the couch and click around mindlessly on my iPad.
Even jobs like making dinner or cleaning can function as a short break — these are active tasks that don’t require much concentration (and no real reading, writing, or sitting), so they’re enough to help you switch out of “work mode” for a while.
4. Force yourself to start and promise you’ll only spend 15 minutes on the task
When you have a clear purpose for your work, you’ve given yourself permission to relax and NOT work at times, and you’ve given yourself a break from sitting and concentration … the best thing to do is trick yourself into getting started.
Promise yourself you only need to work for 15 minutes. This little mindset trick really does work, because the hardest part of most tasks is just getting started.
When the 15 minutes is up, you can switch and do something else. Chances are good that once you get into a state of flow, you’ll want to keep working, and at that 15-minute point, the work will feel more voluntary. You’ll start to see the light at the end of the tunnel — you’ll see yourself making progress and coming closer to being able to cross the task off your list. You might even start to experience some elements of the task that you enjoy.
But keep the promise to yourself — you truly can quit after 15 minutes and do something else.
If you’re using a good list-making system, you’ll know what your other priorities are for the day and the week, and you can choose another task if you’re having trouble concentrating on the one at hand. Truly productive people don’t just write a list and stick to it no matter what! They’re always re-evaluating their priorities and shifting their tasks around to accommodate whatever new challenges arise.
There’s a lot more I could say about this — about how it’s easier to sit down and get things done when you’ve broken larger projects into smaller tasks that you know you can complete in short periods of time, and how you can schedule tasks so that the most taxing things are done during your high energy periods of the day and week, and the easier tasks are left for your lower energy times. We’ve spent the whole month of October strategizing around this in the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club, and procrastination has been the entire focus of our work this past week. We’re doing a deep dive into the six common causes of procrastination for teachers and figuring out how to address them.
If you’re not a member but you’d like more support around procrastination, productivity, and time management, I have a really cool opportunity for you. The club is going to open to new members from June 28-July 7, 2017.
In case you’re not already familiar, The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club provides professional development on productivity to educators who want to focus on what REALLY matters, both in and outside of the classroom.
We have thousands of teachers who have already started trimming hours off their workweek by getting organized, streamlining routines, giving kids ownership of the classroom, and being truly intentional about how they use their instructional, contractual, and personal time.
Here’s what club members receive:
- 52 weeks of new classroom-tested productivity strategies provided in both PDF and audio podcast form accessible in a private membership site
- Hundreds of dollars worth of printable teaching resources and templates to help you save time
- Access to elementary and secondary private Facebook groups where I — and hundreds of other teachers — share ideas and answer questions
- Two free bonuses: The 40HTW List-Making System and The Big 5 Tips for Teacher Productivity
- A professional development certificate at the end of the year to document 104 hours of continuing education
Even better? You keep your access to the entire program AND the Facebook group even after your year is up, so you can revisit the resources at any time and continue to get support from your cohort.
So if you want more tools for productivity, I really hope you will figure out a way to join the July 2017 cohort of the 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. And in the meantime, I hope this week’s episode on procrastination has been helpful as you try to overcome procrastination.