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This week, I haven’t been able to get a single thing done efficiently.

I’m not normally a procrastinator. I hate saving things for the last minute, and I am really bad at surfing the internet so I almost never fall down those Google/Facebook/Wikipedia holes that end up eating hours of your day.

But this week, I’ve had a million terrible reasons not to work on the projects I need to. I’ve been checking Twitter, lazily browsing Instagram, baking things in the kitchen, taking unnecessary trips to the grocery store, and even cleaning the bathroom to put off doing the things I am supposed to be doing, if only for five minutes.

It makes me feel weak, that I can’t seem to just suck it up and do my job, even when I care so much about it. I’m doing the same kinds of work I always do, and yet this week, it all just feels impossible. I can’t sit still; I can’t just get things done.

One of the topics we’ve been exploring here on the popforms blog is how companies can work with no managers. (See Part 1 & Part 2 of this series so far.) There are lots of issues that arise when you get into the operations of running a team with no manager, but the big one that’s on my mind today is that when there is no manager, there is not necessarily someone checking up on you to see if you’re getting things done.

Are you working on the right thing? Are you working efficiently? Are you working at all?

Status reports are essential (whether you have a manager or not) for creating accountability and making sure things are getting done in a timely manner. But just because you’re getting things done on time, work matters. There is no real way to track if things are getting slapped together at the last second, if time is being wasted browsing Twitter, and if people could be getting *more* done if they were not procrastinating so much.

Which means, on a team without a manager (and remember, there’s no manager for your personal life, so even if you don’t work at a flat organization, being a smart time manager for yourself is really crucial), you have to know how to get yourself to get things done.

Easy to say, harder to do.


Why does procrastination happen?

I work from home and don’t have a manager. Most of the time, this freedom and autonomy is amazing. This week, though, when I can’t seem to focus? Well, then that freedom becomes a curse.

I can work any hour of the day I choose, which eliminates any time pressure that might otherwise convince me to just finish up that next project right now rather than cleaning the stove. I naively think to myself, “If I don’t get the spark done now, I could always do it in an hour, or in 3 hours, or even at 11pm tonight, because I can do my job whenever.”

A lot of us get into trouble when we remove time pressure from our lives. We all crave it; after all, who likes working at a place where you just have to stick it out from 9-5 no matter what?

We like to think that if we could just have it all under our own control, we’d use our time in the smartest way possible for us.

But once we get it — once we are free to determine our own schedules, deciding what gets done and when — it is so easy to push things off for later and accomplish so much less than we are capable of. “One more episode of this show on Netflix? Why not! I’ve got all day.”

On the day that I am writing this blog post, for example, I won’t need to post it for three days. Which means, if I stopped writing right now, I’d still have two whole days to write a blog post I know will only take me an hour or so to complete. Even if I didn’t finish it tomorrow, I’d still have one whole day! So why finish it right now?

And then suddenly a day full of hours you could have done something awesome with, is whittled down to a few hours wasted and a few hours of getting only the essentials done. It’s not a good use of your time, for work or for life.

What I’m saying is this: without someone else keeping us in check, forcing us to be proactive about how we spend our time, then WE have to become our own manager. We have to set the goals that make sense and then we have to act on them. We have to do as much as we can with the time we have, and not be satisfied to get just enough things done to stay afloat.

Because you don’t want to just float, right? I don’t. I want to swim.


How to be your own time manager

Even if you don’t work from home, odds are you have a couple of days every week where your time is completely up to you. You have a certain set of responsibilities, some free time, and the flexibility to schedule those however you want.

How many free days have you lost to “kind of browsing the internet” for a few hours in the morning, dawdling around lunch, and suddenly finding yourself that night having spent a day doing nothing in particular?

And days like that are fine sometimes. But they aren’t fine if you have something else you *wish* you had been doing, but just couldn’t quite get started on. They aren’t fine if you end every day with a list of a couple things you had hoped to accomplish, but somehow didn’t get around to doing. The longer you put off those projects, the less likely you are to accomplish them.

It reminds me of this quote:

“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” — Pablo Picasso

So if you are ready to stop leaving things for later and want to get your productive self back (even when your procrastinating self is fighting it), here are some of my best tips for managing yourself effectively and getting things done:


Identify good procrastination and bad procrastination

Sometimes getting away from my work is actually the only way I can get the distance and clarity necessary to be able to finish it. Occasionally, a brain can get so much information crammed into it all at once, that it actually needs you to give it a break so it can process all that data and help you come back to work with coherent thoughts.

In those situations, taking a shower or doing a chore around the house is actually a perfect thing to do. Stepping away makes you better. Making the choice to not think about your work helps your mind regroup, which will allow you to make new connections and formulate your ideas. You stop working and do something else, but for good reason.

But other times, you step away for no reason or for passive reasons. You find yourself on Facebook again, looking at the same posts that were there 5 minutes ago. This is bad procrastination.

The way to tell the difference between the two is to look for the element of action. When I take a good break from work, it’s because I feel compelled to; I feel overwhelmed, or like I have too many ideas, or like my brain is so exhausted I just can’t be productive anymore. I make the active decision to step away.

When I’m bad procrastinating, I tend to feel like I’m just floating around. Clicking on different tabs for no particular reason, snacking just because food is around. I’m not engaged and I’m not making an active choice to work or not work.

Taking a break is an active choice; procrastinating is passive. Don’t confuse one for the other, and don’t excuse passive procrastination. And if you find yourself procrastinating, move on to the next step which is…


Snap out of it

When you feel that floaty, disengaged procrastination feeling — and there’s no one to tell you to get back to work — you have to be the one to pull yourself together. You can whine and complain about it, but at the end of the day, you are the only thing standing in between you and accomplishing the things you want to.

Once you realize that, you can start to fight procrastination effectively. There are a couple of ways to do this.

  • Get help. Do you have a friend who’s willing to give you the business when you’re wasting time? Give them a call and ask for a pep talk. Have them help you snap back into productive mode, by reminding you how important your work is or why you have to get it done right now.

  • Make a list. When I float aimlessly between tasks, I find list-making to be extraordinarily helpful. Just writing out what you have to do tends to helps you get into a “let’s get these things done” mindset, and seeing them in front of you makes them less vague and more achievable. Plus, getting to cross things off that list gives most people a feeling of satisfaction — a little hit of positivity — that hopefully will spark you to do the next thing on the list so you can get another hit of good feelings.

  • Do one little thing. When you just can’t focus, sometimes all you can do is one little thing at a time. And if that’s the best you can do, it’s better than nothing. Write one sentence, and take a short break. Write one more sentence, and take a short break. Don’t just give up because you’re feeling lazy; a little bit is better than nothing at all (and can help you build up momentum to do more and more as the day goes on).

  • Change your location — physically & mentally. Go somewhere you wouldn’t normally work to try to shake off procrastination; a change of scenery often coincides with a change of mood. Try visiting a coffee shop or even just a different desk. Pretend you are an amazingly productive genius. Even just visualizing yourself successfully working on a project can help make it easier to achieve; seriously. (Just remember, visualize yourself *working*, not already being done. You are already enjoying the feeling of not working; you need to inspire yourself to start.)

  • Be less comfortable. Sit in an uncomfortable chair or work in a room that’s a little bit too cold. Being slightly uncomfortable makes you more alert, which makes you less likely to lazily browse the internet, since you’ll want to get out of that uncomfortable situation as soon as possible. Stick it out, and you’ll reward yourself not just with the good feelings of completing a task but you’ll also be happy to leave the uncomfortable place too.

  • Plan tomorrow before you go to sleep. An unproductive day can make you feel defeated. Make sure tomorrow won’t be a waste by planning out your day before you turn in for the night. If you have made decisions about how to best spend your time tomorrow, you’ll wake up with direction and won’t have to worry about not knowing what to do and potentially falling into procrastination again.

  • Schedule yourself. Strategies like the Pomodoro technique help you manage your time, but even just blocking out time on the calendar can help you be accountable for your actions. Seeing your day planned out visually helps you organize your goals and stick to them. Plus, like making a list, the simple act of organizing a schedule can help you feel motivated to start making progress.

Procrastination doesn’t have to win, even when it sneaks up on you and nearly ruins a week of work. All you have to do is take a step back and decide that you are the boss.


Tags: better leader, goals, procrastination, productivity, success,

2 Responses to “How to do your job when it feels impossible: lessons from a procrastinator”

  1. Joe Zaynor

    Good post Kate!

    Couple additional strategies that’ve helped me be more productive: Get plenty of sleep. I find that my mind is much more inclined to wander and the distractions come much easier if I’m tired from staying up too late the night before. Darn those Netflix people! I know they’re trying to get me fired! I know, it’s often very hard to put down that game controller, book, magazine, or TV remote and try to sleep, but most of us are not getting enough of it. Get at least eight hours of sleep three nights in a row and, look out! you’ll be surprised how productive you can be on that fourth day.

    Secondly, exercise! Since switching jobs a year and a half ago, I no longer have a gym to run to during my lunch hour and I sorely miss it. Doing a good, hard cardio or strength workout in the middle of the day is an excellent way to clear all the junk out of your brain and prepare it for action. After a shower, you return to your desk feeling and smelling all fresh and clean and it feels like the start of a new day. Also, some people are able to do a great deal of strategic thinking and planning while they work out, so it can be productive time too.

    Thanks for the motivation, now I’ve got to get back to work and try to have a productive afternoon!

    • Kate Stull

      Joe, those are awesome tips! I love the one about exercise especially; it is a great way to clear your head and work up energy to bring to your job. Thanks for the comment!