Procrastination might be your friend

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In an interview, Ray Bradbury spoke about writer’s block, noting that it’s a warning that you’re doing the wrong thing:

“What if you have a blockage and you don’t know what to do about it? Well, it’s obvious you’re doing the wrong thing, aren’t you? . . . You’re being warned, aren’t you? Your subconscious is saying I don’t like you anymore. You’re writing about things I don’t give a damn for. . . If you have writers’ block you can cure it this evening by stopping what you’re doing and writing something else. You picked the wrong subject.”

So, trust your gut.

Could the same be said whenever we find ourselves procrastinating?

I think it could. But things aren’t that simple.

If you’re doing work for a client, the work has to be done. You can’t change the work just because your gut’s telling you something’s not right.

But that doesn’t mean we should ignore our gut. It might be trying to do you a favor.

When you feel resistance to doing something, take a moment to ask yourself some questions:

  1. Does this have to be done? Maybe there’s another way to accomplish the same result. It couldn’t hurt to take a moment to consider this.
  2. If the work has to be done, does it have to be done now? Maybe a delay would help you sort out some things that your gut says are a problem.
  3. Am I the one who has to do it? If someone else could do it, that might be a simple solution to what ails ya.
  4. Is there another way to get it done? If the work has to be done, now, by you, maybe you can do it in some other way? How might you do it differently?

Let’s noodle for a moment about that last one.

Suppose you are hired to write an appellate brief but your gut is telling you there’s a problem. You’re blocked, but you know it has to be done and you’re the one to do it.

Instead of writing the brief the way you usually do it–research, outline, first draft, etc.–how about trying a different process? Maybe start with a quick stream-of-consciousness draft of what’s on your mind about the case or the people, before you do any research. Maybe by doing that, you’ll realize some things about the case you didn’t think about before. And maybe this will provide you with a breakthrough and help you turn out a brilliant piece of work.

All hail your gut. It knows things you don’t know.

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2 easy-peasy techniques to stop procrastination

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You’ve got something you need to do but you’ve been putting it off. Maybe it’s unpleasant. Maybe you’re not ready. Maybe you’re not sure you can do a good job.

It doesn’t matter why you’re procrastinating. All that matters is that you’re not doing something you know you need to do.

There are many techniques for dealing with procrastination but one is about as simple as it gets. It’s called the ‘5 Second Rule’ and it goes like this:

As soon as you have an urge to do something or the recognition that you need to do it, start doing it within the next 5 seconds.

It’s like pulling off a bandage. Don’t think about it, do it and get it over with.

Since this is a habit you’re trying to develop, you might need a little help. Try a “five-second countdown”. As a kid, when I was tired and didn’t want to get out of a warm bed on a cold morning, I would do a countdown–5, 4, 3, 2, 1-and then spring out of bed.

What can I say, it worked.

Another technique for dealing with procrastination goes by a similar name. It’s the ‘5-minute rule’. Here, you commit to doing the task for just 5 minutes.

You can do just about anything for 5 minutes. Then you can turn your attention to something else. “I’m just going to work on this file for 5 minutes; then I’ll watch that new cat video”.

What frequently happens, of course, is that once you begin (and see that it’s not as bad as you thought and it feels good to make some progress), you’ll want to continue. 5 minutes turns into 15 or 30.

Use the 5-second rule and 5-minute rule together and you might be amazed at what you get done.

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How to create a task you’ll actually do

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If you find yourself procrastinating about certain tasks on your list, one reason might be the task description itself. If it’s unclear what you’re supposed to do, if the task looks daunting or overly time consuming, it’s easy to see why you might put it off until later or skip it completely.

You can avoid this by writing better descriptions. Here are three ways to do that:

1) Make sure the task is something you can DO.

A task should be something simple, meaning something you can actually do.

You can’t “buy a car,” for example. There are too many things you need to do first: research makes and models, read reviews, consider extras and add-ons, choose a color, compare prices, take a test drive, inquire about financing, and so on.

Buying a car is a “project” not a task. Break up your projects into the component tasks and record those on your list.

2) Use ACTION VERBS to describe your tasks

Describe each task clearly and concisely. Start the description with an action verb: write, call, review, outline, research, send, etc.

If your task is to compare prices on your new car, for example, you might write, “Call five dealers for written quotes”.

Specific, clear, concise, and doable.

3) Make it EASIER to do

The easier (and quicker) it is to do a task, the more likely it is that you’ll do it. When writing the task description, include additional information and resources you’ll need so you don’t have to go looking for them when it’s time to do the task.

If the task is to call someone, put the phone number in the task description. Add notes you might need to reference during the call.

If the task is to review a document, embed the document or a link thereto in the task description. If you need to fill out a monthly report, include the template or the previous month’s report to refer to and/or modify for this month’s report.

Make your tasks something you can do, make the description action-oriented so you’ll know exactly what to do, and make the task easier to do by adding additional information and resources.

“Get more referrals” is a project, not a task. Here’s everything you need to do

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Is this the cure for procrastination?

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You’ve got things you need to do but you don’t want to do them. You may even have things you want to do but for some reason, you’re putting them off. I just heard about a simple way to overcome procrastination, courtesy of the late Raymond Chandler.

As a full-time novelist, Chandler believed that he should maintain a schedule of 4 hours of writing each day but he sometimes struggled to stick with it. He decided to do something about it by creating a simple rule to follow, and it helped him do the job.

Chandler’s rule was simple: either write or do nothing.

And nothing meant nothing.

By giving himself a choice, he avoided the guilt of not writing and thus didn’t force himself to do it, something he was sure would lead to poor results. He quickly found that when you don’t do anything, you get bored and getting back to work feels like a much better alternative.

Chandler’s rule applied to writing but is equally applicable to any task. If you want to try it, schedule a fixed time limit for your work and, perhaps, a fixed time of day. This should make it easier for you to choose the work, knowing that while there might be some unpleasantness, it won’t be never-ending.

In addition, eliminate all of the usual distractions. Close your browser, turn off your phone, and ask your staff not to disturb you. For some tasks, you might consider getting out of the office and going to the library.

Or, do what I did when I was faced with a big stack of files on my desk I had been avoiding for several weeks.

These were problem files and I didn’t want to look at them. I knew I had to but kept putting it off. I was getting anxious about what might happen if I put them off any longer and had to find a way to do it.

I got some help.

I had my wife come to the office and sit across the desk from me. She didn’t do anything or say anything, she just sat with me, silent, giving me the choice of either sitting quietly and doing nothing or digging into the files. I chose the latter and got through them in less than an hour.

It’s amazing what you can when you have a choice to not do them. It’s also amazing what you can do when you have your wife in the room watching you squirm.

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5 ways to fix a stalled writing project

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If you have a writing project that you’re having trouble finishing, the best solution is to look at your material with “fresh eyes”.

Here are some things that work for me:

1) Break it up into smaller parts

When I find myself stuck on a project, one of the first things I consider doing is breaking up long chapters or sections into smaller parts. I can then re-arrange those parts, again and again if necessary, until I find the best places for them, whether that’s another part of the chapters they came from or another chapter entirely.

In time management, it’s called “The Salami Technique”– breaking up big projects or tasks into smaller slices which are easier to handle. It works the same way with writing.

In Word, you can cut and paste parts of your chapters into separate documents. I use Scrivener, which makes this much easier. At a glance, I can see all of the parts, without having to scroll through long chapters, and it’s easy to move those parts to anywhere in the document.

2) Write a new outline

Outlines are meant to be a starting point, not a rigid mold into which you must pour your words. If your original outline isn’t working for you, write a new one.

You can “re-write” the outline you started with, or, as I often do, put everything out of sight and write a new outline from scratch.

I often do this on paper because it gives me a different perspective. I might go in another room with a legal pad, think about my project, and quickly write a list of the subjects I want to cover in the order I want to cover them. I’ll usually start with the subjects I’m certain about, then come back and fill in the others.

I might do a mind-map, on paper or on the computer. This gives me a visual overview, making it easier to see where I might be going off track.

Sometimes, I re-write my mind-map or outline several times, until it feels right to me. I might do it again later in the project if a particular chapter or subject is giving me trouble.

3) Put it away

If you don’t have a deadline for your writing project, put it away and come back to it later. Give it a few days or weeks, or even months, and work on other things. When you pick it up again, you will be able to be more objective.

When I do this, I often see entire pages and even chapters that don’t belong. I also see gaps I need to fill in, with unanswered questions I need to address.

Things jump out at me–paragraphs that don’t make sense (“What did I mean, here?”), repeated ideas, and ideas that need to be fleshed out. As a result, problems that had once plagued me are easily fixed.

4) Get someone else involved

When I’m stuck, sometimes I sit my wife down and “explain” to her what the project is about. She gives me feedback and asks questions that allow me to clarify what I mean. Explaining it to her also allows me to “hear” if what I’m saying makes sense, and gives me clues about what I need to do to finish the project.

5) Read it out loud

If I’m on the third or fourth edit and something is still bothering me (i.e., something’s missing, something doesn’t make sense, I’ve got too much of one thing and not enough of another), reading the document out loud helps me to see what I couldn’t see before.

So that’s what I do to fix a stalled writing project.

One more thing. Sometimes I find that despite my best efforts, I can’t make the project work and the best solution is to abandon it.

I find that my best writing doesn’t “fight me,” it flows smoothly and I finish it quickly. If the current project doesn’t, I have no problem moving onto greener pastures.

What are the most important elements of an effective website? This has the answer

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How to beat procrastination without really trying

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There are hundreds of tips and strategies on how to beat procrastination floating around. That’s too many, if you ask me.

Instead of giving you a laundry list of ideas I want to share with you just three.

(1) DON’T DO IT

Not everything on your task list needs to be done. Many tasks aren’t that important, at least in comparison to other things on your list. After all, being productive isn’t about getting everything done it’s about getting the most important things done.

So ask yourself, “Do I really need to do this?” and if the answer is anything but an unqualified yes, either cross it off the list or put it on a “someday/maybe” list and look at it at some future date.

If a task does need to be done, ask yourself, “Who else could do this?” If you can delegate the task to someone else, you should.

(2) CREATE A DEADLINE

If something needs to be done (by you), and you don’t already have a deadline, give yourself one. Pick a date when the task will be done, or when a significant portion of the project will be done, and put this on your calendar.

You may be inclined to give yourself ample time but it’s usually better to do just the opposite. Shorter deadlines make it more likely that you will complete the task.

If you give yourself three weeks to complete something, you might not get started until a few days before the deadline. Or, as you see the deadline approaching you will extend it. So instead of three weeks, give yourself three days to complete the task, or even three hours.

Once you have a deadline, tell someone about it–your client, spouse, partner, or a workout buddy–and ask them to hold you accountable. When I tell my wife I will have the first draft of something done by a certain date, I am much more likely to do it.

(3) START

The most important part of any task is getting started. The first step in doing anything puts you one step closer to the second step.

Start with something small and easy. Make a list of everything you need to do, for example, or re-write the list you already wrote.

Tell yourself you’ll work on it for just five minutes. No matter how unpleasant the task might be you can do it for five minutes. The odds are that once you get started, you’ll feel compelled to continue.

These three strategies should help you beat procrastination most of the time. If you still find yourself procrastinating, however, ask yourself why you are resisting doing things you know you need to do.

The solution might be simple. If you don’t know how to do something, for example, schedule time to learn. If you’re afraid of doing a poor job, get some advice or ask someone with more experience to help you.

There is always a reason why you are procrastinating. Instead of ignoring that reason, embrace it. Your subconscious mind knows what you need and if you listen carefully, you will hear the solution.

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If the IRS was in charge of your marketing

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In school, we had deadlines for finishing papers and projects and being ready for exams. If it weren’t for those deadlines, many of us would never have done the work.

Today, we have more deadlines. Statutes of limitations, court dates, appointments, CLE compliance due dates, bills to pay, tax returns to file, and many more. We also have deadlines tied to our promises to other people, e.g., when the work will be done or the papers will be delivered.

Sometimes we miss a deadline and suffer the consequences, but for the most part, the system works. It works not just because we are aware of the penalties for missing deadlines but because there is a specific date reminding us that something is due.

What about all of the other things we want to do, or need to do, that don’t have a deadline? Too often, we don’t get these done. They may relate to our most important goals but because there is no deadline, no due date, they get pushed aside.

Countless studies, which I am too lazy to look up, have shown that scheduling these “open” tasks dramatically increases the odds that we will do them.

Let’s say you set a goal to increase your income this year. Part of your plan is to bring in more clients by adding one blog post or article to your site each week. The weeks are flying by, however, and you haven’t written the first article, or you wrote one or two but aren’t keeping up.

Because there is no deadline, you’re not doing the work.

It’s not that you can’t do it. If you knew that you had to get the work done by a certain date or the IRS would seize your bank accounts, you would get the work done.

So, give yourself a deadline.

Decide when you will write those articles and schedule time on your calendar specifically for that purpose. Make an appointment with yourself and tell your staff not to schedule you for anything during that time.

When Thursday at 4PM rolls around and you see on your calendar that you have an appointment to write your weekly post, you’ll be more likely to write it.

Tell yourself that you can either write it or sit at your desk and stare at the wall for 60 minutes. Your “client” (you) has paid for that time. So no Facebook or reading or anything else.

You can also impose penalties for missing your deadlines. You might authorize your accountant to automatically send $1,000 to a politician you detest if you fail to send the accountant a copy of your completed post by the due date.

You can also reward yourself for making your deadlines. For each post your write, for example, you get to watch another episode of your favorite TV show.

But while penalties and rewards can help, just having a deadline will often be enough.

Try it. Choose something you need to do and put it on your calendar. Give yourself a deadline for getting it done. I’m betting you’ll do it, but just in case, I’ll tell the IRS to keep an eye on you.

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Starting is the key to finishing

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I’m about to start a big project, a new marketing course. I’m excited about it but the immensity of it all weighs on me.

When I think about all of the work I have to do, I feel resistance. I want to do other things instead. So, I don’t think about all that I have to do. Instead, over the last several weeks, I’ve been making notes and working on my outline.

The project isn’t something I “plan” to do, I’m already doing it.

Yesterday, I talked about how you do big things by doing lots of little things. How I wrote 1009 blog posts and created an online marketing machine not by writing 1009 posts but by writing one post and then writing another. Once I wrote the first one, it was easier to write the next one.

It turns out there is a scientific basis for this, called the Zeigarnik Effect. “Just get started, because humans have an instinctive drive to finish a task once they’ve begun it.”

The Zeigarnik Effect is “a tendency to experience automatic, intrusive thoughts about a goal that one has pursued but the pursuit of which has been interrupted. … That is, if you start working toward a goal and fail to get there, thoughts about the goal will keep popping into your mind while you are doing other things, as if to remind you to get back on track to finish reaching that goal.”

Is there something you’d like to do but find yourself procrastinating? Start it. Do something, even if it’s just five minutes. If it’s something you need to write, write just one sentence.

You can write one sentence, can’t you? Do it. Write one sentence today. Tomorrow, write another sentence. Keep going, one sentence at at a time, until it becomes a habit.

But here’s the thing. Once you have started, you probably won’t stop. You’ll write more than one sentence. You’ll work longer than five minutes. This too has been confirmed scientifically. Once we begin something and realize that things aren’t as hard or intimidating as we thought they were, we tend to continue.

Go ahead and try it. Go through your list of projects, pick one you have been putting off, and do something on it (anything) for five minutes today. Or write one sentence today.

Because starting is the key to finishing.

Need ideas for blog posts or newsletter article? This will help

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Would you like to get started today or is next week better for you?

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In sales, the “alternative choice close” is a well known technique for getting the client to buy something, rather than nothing. You ask them if they want “A” or “B” and no matter which one they choose, they’re buying something.

“Credit card or check?” “Deluxe package or basic package?” “Would you like to come in at noon or 4:30?”

Clients want you to help them make a decision. They know they might procrastinate and never get the work done. When you help them take action and get the benefits they want and need, you’re acting in their best interest.

And did I mention you’ll also get more clients?

Anyway, you can also use the “alternative choice” concept to improve your own decision making and productivity. It can help you reduce procrastination.

The idea is to always have more than one project you’re working on, or could be.

Writer Geoff Dyer put it this way:

Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other.

If you find yourself procrastinating on Project A, you can turn to Project B. Or Project C. When you find yourself resisting something, work on something else.

You probably do this now with client files. When you are frustrated or bored or unsure of what to do next on a given file, you put it aside and work another.

I do this with blog post and other writing projects. I’ve got lots of irons in the fire and when I run out of steam on something, I’ve always got something else I can work on.

I also do this with reading books. I have thousands of books in my Kindle and I usually read two or three of them at a time. When I find myself losing interest with one, I turn to another.

You can use the “alternative choice” concept for anything you’re working on, or should be. Calls, letters, documents (drafting or reviewing), even errands. Always have something else lined up, because doing “A” or “B” will always be better than doing nothing.

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Maybe you should procrastinate more

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There are countless articles and books about overcoming procrastination, offering hundreds of techniques for doing so. But maybe procrastination has been given a bad rap. Maybe it’s not something we must always defeat.

We procrastinate because it serves us in some way. We resist doing things for a reason. Maybe we’re not ready and need more information. Maybe we need help. Or maybe we would be better off letting someone else do it.

If you procrastinate, ask yourself why? What’s the message? What is your subconscious mind telling you? If you need more information, go get it. If you’re not ready to address the jury or give the speech, practice. Burn the midnight oil. Do what you have to do.

If procrastination is hurting your reputation or income, you need to do something about it.

Otherwise, don’t sweat it.

In school, I routinely put off writing papers and studying for exams until the last minute. But I got them done and got good grades. No harm, no foul.

Okay, maybe I could have gotten even better grades if I didn’t put things off. But I enjoyed the challenge of getting a good grade on a paper I wrote in two hours that other students wrote over six weeks.

Plus, procrastinating gave me a great excuse in case I did get a bad grade. “Hey, I barely studied!”

But I was a kid. I’m not recommending this strategy for operating a professional practice. “Sure, we lost the case, but hey, we did pretty good considering I did no discovery.”

Yeah, not so much.

If procrastination is hurting you or your clients, fix it. Immediately. Otherwise, when you find yourself putting off something, figure out why and learn from it. Listen to that inner voice. It’s trying to protect you and guide you towards a better future.

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