In this episode we talk about the age-old problem of procrastination. It’s something we know a lot of readers struggle with.
We all procrastinate sometimes, but it can become a real block to achieving your goals when it happens habitually. With that in mind, we discuss seven ways to stop doing it!
Included in this podcast:
- Just stop it! (2:52)
- Eliminating busy work (4:27)
- Stop setting false goals (6:58)
- How to get yourself to do unpleasant tasks (9:55)
- Eating the Frog (12:23)
- The Pomodoro Technique (16:16)
- Putting some “skin in the game” (19:56)
- Trimming your to-do list (22:16)
- Can a little bit of procrastination be a good thing? (23:41)
Supplementary Links and Information
We have edited some repeat words and unclear passages to enhance readability.
ALEX: Welcome to the HomeWorkingClub podcast. I’m Alex and with me is Ben. How are you, Ben?
BEN: I’m good, Alex. How are you?
ALEX: I’m alright. A little bit of a cold today, so I have to apologise to the listeners. We can’t blame the internet for the sound quality… it’s entirely my sinuses.
BEN: Okay, well, we hope you get well soon, Alex.
ALEX: Thank you. It’s very kind of you, and slightly sincere.
Today we are covering how to conquer procrastination.
Now, this is definitely something I could do with some help with. What are you going to do, Ben? What are you going to tell us?
BEN: Well, I’ve got a list of seven ways to get better at not putting things off and getting things done. It’s something I’m asked about a lot and something I know a lot of people really struggle with.
I struggle with it sometimes, and it seems to sort of come in waves. But generally, I think… having had to self-motivate working for myself for many, many years now… I’m reasonably good at not procrastinating.
That doesn’t sound too conceited, so hopefully, I’ll be able to share some tactics that will help people.
ALEX: I could give some independent verification. I think you’re pretty good at getting stuff done, certainly compared to a lot of people.
I think it is definitely, as you said… when you start off on your freelancing or home working journey… it’s almost that case of shifting from an office where there’s a boss looking over your shoulder, all the deadlines are really obvious, or even it’s just that you’ve got to go home at 5:30 or something like that. You have that time pressure given to you.
Whereas when you’re making your own hours, it’s very easy to go, “Well, I can always do it tomorrow” or, “Does that really need to have to happen today?”
I think sometimes that can become quite distracting, can’t it?
BEN: I think so. I think the consequences are rather different as well.
I mean, obviously, if you are in an employed job and you keep putting things off and you keep missing deadlines… stage one is that you’re going to get in trouble with the boss and stage two is that you’re going to lose your job eventually.
Whereas if you are a freelancer or say you’re just starting to get a new project underway… a new website or something like that… and you keep procrastinating, the consequences are rather different in that you just get steadily more down on yourself. Probably more demotivated because you’re not getting stuff done.
It’s just you always start to punish yourself for it. And I think it becomes a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy if you fall too far down that trap of not getting the things done that you intend to do.
ALEX: Yeah. I think motivation can wane very, very quickly if you are not on it.
So, what’s the first tip then?
BEN: Well, the first one is very blunt: Just stop it!
There is a reason behind me saying this first, because essentially, if you’re going to stop procrastinating, you have to stop procrastinating.
I think procrastination very much becomes a habit. But I think not procrastinating also becomes a habit as well. I think if you get into a flow, where you get everything done and you get to Friday evening… if you work a Monday to Friday week as I do… you get to Friday night and you’ve done everything and it feels great.
And then you do it another week and then another week. You don’t want a week when it doesn’t happen. I mean, obviously, those weeks do come and life happens, but I think it’s very much the habit of… if you keep doing it, you’ve got to stop doing it.
Obviously, the other tips are going to expand upon how you stop doing it. But ultimately it is as simple and as black and white as… if you want to stop procrastinating, you have to stop procrastinating.
ALEX: And I suppose part of that is being aware that you’re doing it as well. I suppose you could probably get into the mindset where you don’t realise that you’re putting stuff off and it can just slip and slip.
You probably think that you’re doing all sorts of other stuff, but you’re actually putting off that nasty thing.
BEN: I wonder here if you’re doing one of those wonderful seamless broadcasting segues into the next point… because it does certainly lead very nicely into the next point.
ALEX: These things work better if you don’t point them out… but yeah.
BEN: Yes. So, if I can, the second is: eliminating busywork.
Now, I think we all have busywork, as I call it… which is things we do where we are absolutely convinced we’re busy and we’re achieving stuff, but what we’re achieving isn’t actually taking us anywhere nearer to the goals that we want to achieve.
I’ll give you some examples of my busywork and then maybe, Alex, you can give us some of yours. One of mine is endlessly checking data and statistics.
ALEX: Something that you did quite a lot of just before we started recording.
BEN: I did actually, yeah… so I procrastinated starting recording this podcast by showing Alex endless metrics about email open rates and Google Analytics and stuff like that.
But no, I’m really bad about that. It would be perfectly adequate for me to check my website stats and analytics and stuff once a day or even again at the end of the day. But I’m not. I look several times throughout the day at how many views I’m getting to my websites and things like that. That’s probably my number one bit of busywork. There are others.
What do you do, Alex?
ALEX: Are we talking sort of displacement activity as well? There’s always that kind of thing where I will find that, if I’ve got a particularly tough day, I will always end up at the end of the day with perhaps not all of the tasks completed, but a very tidy desk.
BEN: Yeah, I’m not so bad for that one. But again, I think that illustrates the point that it’s unique to everybody. And I think that busywork, especially when you’re based from home, that busywork can extend into things that are completely non-work related.
Actually, coming back to what you said, I do have a bit of a thing of… I can’t start until my environment is tidy. I don’t know if that’s quite the same for me, because I do generally sort of think tidy environment = tidy mind. And I think if I am just looking around at a mess, it doesn’t help.
But then I think there’s mess and there’s mess. It’s like, “Do you actually need to sort out a sock drawer?” or, “Do you actually need to complete the laundry that you could do that evening?” That kind of thing.
But I think people do have a tendency to think, “I need to get this done, and this done, and this done, and then I’ll start.” And then, what do you know? It’s time for your evening meal and you’ve not got anything done.
ALEX: Well, I think that leads on very nicely to the next point, actually. I’ll let you say it because it’s your list.
BEN: Stop setting false goals.
So there is someone I know who always has lots of good ideas for projects… there’s a couple of people I know like this, actually.
It’s very much a kind of, “Yeah. I’m going to start it as soon as X is done.” and that X could be literally anything… “As soon as I finish this diet that I’m on”, “As soon as I finish reading this book”, or far more tangible things like “As soon as the children are back at school, I’m going to start.”
Now, my thing with these false goals is that life doesn’t stop. All these other things in your life carry on anyway.
Let’s use an example of starting a blog. You’re going to say, “Yeah, I’m going to do it when Christmas is over” or “I’m going to do it at the end of the summer”, or “… after this public holiday.” As soon as you’ve achieved that false goal there’s going to be another one. Another one is going to come along. It will be, “As soon as I’ve had that doctor’s appointment” or… you see what I mean?
And I think, just as people say if you wait until the right time to have children you never will… it is the same kind of thing. If you keep setting yourself an, “I’m going to start this after X”, then before you know it Y is going to come along and you still won’t have started.
ALEX: It’s almost the inverse of S.M.A.R.T. objectives – specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.
I can’t believe that I remembered that from the last time I had an appraisal. But the time-bound thing of that is… it’s always really, really good discipline to say I will have achieved this by this point. And then that gives you an idea that this has to be done within three weeks, or within a year, or something along those lines.
I do this myself. If you actually set yourself a time, which is “I’m not going to do anything until this time”, it’s really, really easy to stretch that. I mean, if you’ve made no progress on a goal by the time that you’ve set yourself, you can actually go, “Well, maybe the time limit was wrong” or “Maybe it’s the wrong thing”.
You’re immediately just saying to yourself, “I’m definitely not going to do anything until this point”. Which is probably not the best way to get things done.
BEN: Well, no. It is actually deliberately putting barriers in the way of getting things done.
Say you say to yourself, “I’m going to start that blog when my children go back to school.” What happens if, on a Sunday evening a week before they go back to school you think, “You know what? They’re in bed. They’ve actually gone to sleep at a reasonable hour for once, and I’ve got three hours to spare”?
Maybe there’s this fleeting thought of, “Oh, I could start to do some work on the blog. I could start to list some posts to write or buy the hosting, or design the logo.” And you think, “Oh no, but I’m not starting that until the children are back in school” and on goes Netflix. And you’ve just wasted those few hours.
ALEX: That’s interesting. This will probably lead on to the next point, actually, which is: the things that you tend to put off tend to be the unpleasant tasks.
It’s things like doing your taxes or, you know, some of the things that we all hate to do. And everybody has their own. I hate admin at the best of times, and it’s always the admin tasks that you put off. So, if it’s something quite pleasant you’re probably not going to want to put it off.
But that was the next point. How do you get yourself to do those unpleasant things?
BEN: Yeah. If I could just say one more thing on the previous one first, actually… I read somewhere and I can’t for the life of me remember where (I will try to find it and put it in the show notes)… but someone said that the things that you keep putting off are actually, probably, the things that you should be doing to be successful.
NOTE: We found it – it’s called “The Importance Trap” and it’s listed in the links above.
BEN: And that probably comes down to one of two things: either fear of failure or fear of success.
Say you are starting a new project… an online store, or again a blog, or even writing a self-published book, anything like that… once you’ve actually done it and you put it out there… that’s when you’re going to know whether you’ve failed or succeeded, I guess, broadly speaking.
BEN: And that really can lead to procrastination because you don’t have to face that day of reckoning, where you know whether it’s worked or not, if you don’t start it.
So often I’ve put off things that I probably do know deep down are the thing I really need to do to take a project to the next level. I’ve done it plenty with HomeWorkingClub. An example of that being moving into video. I know that moving into video is a really good way to gain more momentum with a website.
I don’t like getting in front of a camera. I’m a little bit intimidated by the technical aspects of it. And so I’ve not done it. I’ve done one video review. I’ve got a brilliant idea for a whole series of tips videos, and I will do it at some point. But I think again…
ALEX: What, just after Christmas, maybe?
BEN: So, as we’ve proven here, I’m not great at eliminating procrastination altogether. But I think it does illustrate the point. A lot of the time, that thing that you’re putting off is actually the thing that you really should be doing more than anything else.
ALEX: Good stuff. So the next point, related to that, is?
BEN: Okay. Well, it’s: Eat the Frog.
Which is actually the title of a book by someone called Brian Tracy. Which I’m going to summarise very, very quickly.
Each day there’s usually a task you really don’t want to do. The idea is basically that you’d make sure that’s the first task that you do in that day.
For example, quite often, for me, there will be an article for a client that I’m just not that interested in. I will try and do that first in a day because… then you’ve done the worst thing, you’ve got the thing on your to-do list that is sort of acting as a blocker to getting everything else done, and everything else you do that day is going to be more fun than that one thing that you did.
And I think if you do it the other way around, which is that you do everything else and the more agreeable tasks first… what then happens is you are just a little bit miserable all day long because you know that task is still coming.
Ironically, I’ve got an article to write this afternoon, but that’s purely because for scheduling Alex and I recorded the podcast now. So yeah, I’ve got it in the back of my mind right now: “Oh! When I finish this…”
I enjoy doing the podcasts. They’re fun. But when I finish, I’ve got to write that article. Actually, if I had got up an hour earlier and written that article first, I’d be a little more breezy right now.
ALEX: If only you’d listened to a podcast yesterday about how to avert procrastination you’d be a much happier man now.
BEN: Yeah. Unfortunately, there are far too many easy procrastination gags to fit into this. We’ve been doing it before we even started recording.
On the days when I do eat that frog, and I’m looking at 10 things I want to do that day and I do the worst couple first, I always have a really good day. So there’s a lot of wisdom in that. The more often you can persuade yourself to do it the better, I think.
ALEX: I think you get that feedback loop as well with procrastination, don’t you? If you’ve got an unpleasant task, the longer you put it off the bigger it seems and the more you don’t want to do it. And I think that’s the thing, isn’t it?
It is really, really solid advice. And it’s the sort of thing that used to annoy me when I was a kid: “If you get your homework done on a Friday night, then you’ve got the rest of the weekend to enjoy yourself.”
ALEX: I was always there on Sunday night trying to finish it off before school the next day.
BEN: Well, that’s true. And I bet it occurred to you, or maybe it didn’t… but it probably occurred to you during the weekend that you still had it to do.
ALEX: Yeah. It’s one of those things, isn’t it? And you’re absolutely right. It’s all about building those habits and those more successful habits. I think the older you get, the more you get into that kind of thing.
It’s actually that case that you just want to get stuff dealt with and then move on. And it does improve your mood… speaking as somebody that was on the phone to the tax people earlier on today and got that out of the way.
BEN: Well done for eating that frog, Alex.
One other thing to add to that is, if you’re talking about this on a day to day basis… it might be that you need to eat a particular frog at the start of a week or the start of the month… but on a day to day, if it is a question of putting off a task you don’t want to do and you’re doing it at the end of the working day… you’re more tired, you’re less motivated, generally… so you’re going to find that task more of a chore at the end of a day as well. Especially because it’s that one thing standing in the way of your day being over and you going to do whatever is fun and relaxing that you want to do that evening.
After recording this, eating more frogs in the morning is something I’m going to try and do myself, I think.
ALEX: Breakfast frogs, excellent.
So, what we’ve touched on there is a bit of time management and stuff. Obviously, that’s hugely important. If you’re putting stuff off you obviously have a vague idea of what tasks you’ve got to do during the day. But good time management can help you with not procrastinating, I believe.
BEN: Yes. So that brings us on to number five, which is the Pomodoro Technique.
I think a lot of people will probably have heard of it because, let’s face it, it’s in every article about procrastination and time management you can find.
But it does work.
So, the Pomodoro Technique simply means that you set aside a certain amount of time… that could just be 20 minutes, it could be an hour… but you say, “Okay, for this hour I’m going to write and do nothing else.” So you close down your social media, close down your email, you put your phone on silent and you literally look at what time it is and you’re like, “Right. So until 2:42 p.m., I’m going to work solely on this.”
It is really, really effective.
There are lots of apps and programs you can get to support the Pomodoro technique. Even ones which will literally stop you from opening your Facebook and Twitter for a certain set period of time. That always brings me back to point one, the just stop it. If you’ve set yourself that hour, I think maybe aim to the point at which you’ve got the self-discipline not to open Facebook rather than rely on an app to force you to do it.
I think working on the self-discipline is probably worthwhile as well. But just the general principle of, “I’m going to concentrate solely on this task for this period of time”… I think it’s a very wise thing to do.
ALEX: Well, there’s a huge amount of stuff about focus and the idea of getting into a flow state. When you’re working on something that you are really engaged in, that you really enjoy doing, the tasks that you want to get through to… you don’t notice the clock.
You certainly don’t want to check Twitter. You don’t want to go weed the garden. Or whatever it is that you would do if it’s something you don’t want to do. I think, much as you would say, “Work on that self-discipline to do it”… that when you’re working effectively because you’re enjoying yourself… trying to create that environment where you’re enjoying yourself is a good idea.
So if it does mean removing those distractions, it does mean just saying, “Right. I’m not going to do this for an hour”. And I find that really useful sometimes… to go, “Okay, I’ve got two hours to do this” or “I’ve got an hour to do this”.
Not exactly Pomodoro. I mean, there are certain disciplines where you work for a solid 20 minutes, take a break, do something else for 20 minutes. And I suppose it depends on how your mind works. But it’s not a bad idea to give yourself those little false parameters until you get into the habit of doing it, I think.
BEN: Yeah, agreed. Obviously, the apps and stuff are there for you if you want to have it enforced, but a good halfway point is just literally to make sure you do close your email apps and your messenger apps and stuff like that.
Let’s face it, if you see a one new email notification pop up, however well-disciplined you are, the curiosity does get the better of you. Or you’ve been tagged in a photo… well, you are going to click it. Let’s face it.
So turning off those notifications will definitely help you actually do it.
ALEX: It is that intrusion of the notifications.
I used to work with a guy years ago… if he went on holiday, when he came back from holiday he would delete every email he had received in the time he was off and just say, “If it’s important, they’ll get back in touch with me. They got an out of office.”
I’ve never been that brave. This guy was completely immune to any notifications and stuff – “If it’s that important they’ll get back to me.”
BEN: I can’t help but wonder how many deeply frustrated people he left in his wake, waiting to get back to him.
ALEX: He didn’t really care.
So what’s tip number six?
BEN: So, tip number six is put some skin in the game.
What I mean by this is… kind of make yourself accountable by actually taking those first steps.
So if there is anything you’ve actually got to buy… say you’re starting a blog, buy your web hosting and your domain. Or, if you’re thinking of getting into some new area of freelancing, buy the course that you need. Because I think that’s giving you that accountability. It’s, “Right, I’ve spent the money on this now, so I really ought to do it.”
Now, I can’t guarantee that this will work, but I certainly know from my perspective… let me give you an example:
There are lots of keyword research tasks and quite heavy data analytics tasks I need to do for HomeWorkingClub. And so I’ve just paid for Ahrefs, which is the software that I use for that, and it’s quite expensive. It’s around about $100 a month.
And I thought to myself today, “Do you know what? The one way I’m going to stop myself putting this off is to actually buy Ahrefs.” Then I’m going to think every day, “Well, if you don’t actually do these tasks…”
They’re not tasks that I massively enjoy but, because I paid for it, I know that I will get them done now. Because I will hate to see that month’s software subscription just pass me by without me having used it.
I think there’s a lot to be said for putting your money where your mouth is really. If you’ve got an intention to do something and there are some things you need to buy… buy them. It’s just going to make you a little bit less likely to procrastinate, to put things off.
ALEX: I sort of use other people for this one.
If I’ve got an idea of something I want to do… telling somebody about a project or an idea. Then it… sort of just from the point of view of people checking, “Oh, have you started that blog you were going to start?” or “Are you writing that thing?”. It’s “Oh yeah, no I’ve not done it.” Then, “Oh, that was a great idea you should do it.”
Those conversations, really sort of help. Create a little bit of peer pressure for yourself.
BEN: I think so. I think actually, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do.
I had financial investment in mind when I said that but I think skin in the game could equally mean making yourself accountable by telling other people your plans. I think it has exactly the same kind of effect.
ALEX: Good stuff. So that leads us on to point number seven.
BEN: Okay. So our last point. It has some similarities with some of the others and it is to trim your to-do list. Especially if you set yourself goals and to-do tasks some time ahead, like I do.
Quite often, I’ll say “Write an article on X Topic” and I might think, “Well, I’ve not got time to do any more writing for a couple of weeks, so I’m going to stick that in my calendar two weeks ahead.”
What I’ve actually got into the habit of doing now is… when I come to those things, I don’t just do them because they’re there, because things change. Maybe another home working site has written an article about it, which is as good as anything I was going to write or is…
ALEX: I find that hard to believe.
BEN: That’s very flattering, Alex.
But anything like that. If you look at your to-do list with a very critical eye, quite often you’ll find that you’ve put stuff in there… it’s like, “Does it still need to be done? Does it really matter if it is done?”
I think if you do trim those things down… I’ve found as soon as I’ve got more than about six or seven things on my task list for a day, it just all starts to feel a bit overwhelming. And so, certainly in the last couple of years, I’ve started to just try to become a lot more ruthless about what things I don’t allow to have on that list.
So, yeah, trim your to-do list down and make sure the stuff on it is stuff that you actually want to do.
ALEX: So this is going to lead me to the point at which I completely trash your entire premise of procrastination. I’m going to say that sometimes procrastination can be a good thing.
ALEX: You can’t see this now, but Ben has crossed his arms and he’s looking at me with with a vicious stare.
BEN: I have actually! I’ve just realized my own body language. I actually sat here and crossed my arms. Shame on me… Alex, do tell.
ALEX: It’s quite intimidating!
I think this is something that I’ve always done… I’ll write a to-do list. And one of the first things I’ll do is I’ll have a look at that to-do list… and this is time management rather than procrastination, I think the two can get very easily confused… it’s a really good idea to look at all of the stuff that you’ve written down and go, “Do I absolutely have to do this now?”, “Can that be put off?”, “Does it actually have to be done?” or alternatively, “Can somebody else do it now?”
It may sound a little bit lazy, but I think there is such a thing as constructive laziness in this case… which is, “Can you look at that list?”
I think you can get yourself very overwhelmed very quickly if you find yourself… and I’ve had this… where you write a to-do list and that list just keeps getting longer and longer.
The other thing I like to do is deliberately include a couple of things I’ve already done in a to-do list so you can cross a couple of things off straight away. But that’s just how my brain works.
BEN: I do too.
ALEX: It’s a good thing. Looking at a list with nothing crossed off is quite depressing, isn’t it? But I think… yeah, trim that to-do list and actually look at that and go, “Right, do I have to get to that?”
It’s prioritisation really, isn’t it? And I think that’s the point… there’s a difference between procrastination and prioritisation. One being good, the other being bad.
BEN: Yeah. I actually don’t think our stances disagree that much because what you’ve said there really does tie into three of the points. The eliminating busywork because some of the busywork is essentially stuff you’re giving yourself to do to stop you doing the stuff you should be doing. It’s the false goals as well. And it’s the trimming the to-do list.
So, I don’t think I disagree.
ALEX: Well, you’ve uncrossed your arms.
BEN: I have.
ALEX: I think that that also comes into the point with people as well… I always used to do this with people when I used to manage larger teams… Work out who it is that’s giving you work to do. How important are they? How important is the task? And you are able to go, “Well, that’s from the chief executive so I should probably do that first.”
I think there’s that point… you’ve got all of this workload to do, you’ve got to work through it, you’ve got to chew through it… and actually that point of going, “Well, this is important”, “This is something I’ll enjoy”, “This is important and I won’t enjoy it”, “This isn’t very important. It’s not from somebody that can sack me and I won’t enjoy it. So I’ll do that last. Or perhaps not at all.”
BEN: Yeah, that’s maybe where we diverge slightly.
I think these are things that, if you combine all of them, you can end up getting an awful lot more done.
It’s being very honest with yourself because if you’re procrastinating you do know that you are. And it takes us back to the first one again, really, doesn’t it? You do have to just stop it, and use the techniques to help yourself stop it.
ALEX: I think that’s the thing when it comes around to it. You know you’re doing it. You’re aware of it. We all have that nagging feeling that we’re putting some stuff off.
So, what I’m going to suggest is that you stop listening to the podcast and go and eat that frog.
BEN: Yes, absolutely.
The other thing, just to end on if I may, is that procrastination doesn’t feel good. It certainly doesn’t to me.
I said at the start, I do go through phases where I start putting things off and it’s… I think it goes with your mental health in general and if you’re having a sort of a phase of low mood or a bit of depression or anxiety or anything like that… it can get very easy. It’s like you say, it is a bit of a feedback loop, you carry on doing it.
If you suddenly have that day when you eat the frog in the morning and then you Pomodoro Technique yourself through a couple of specific tasks… you feel great after you’ve done it. And if you can add on more days when you do stop putting things off and actually get things done it does feel pretty good.
ALEX: Yeah, I think that’s great.
So, eat that frog with a lovely Pomodoro tomato sauce and you will be a happier person for the rest of the day.
Thank you very much for that, Ben. I think that’s absolutely brilliant. And genuinely, I think it’s good to talk about these things and as they say… get them out there.
What I will ask you, kind listeners, to do is, if you possibly could, like the podcast, subscribe to it, and tell somebody else about it. But also we’d love to hear if you’ve got any tips to overcome procrastination, if you’ve got any stories… we’d absolutely love to hear from you.
How can they get in touch, Ben?
BEN: Through my email.
ALEX: Fantastic. Thank you very much for listening and thank you very much, Ben.
BEN: Thank you.