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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Use the two-minute rule to beat procrastination

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In “Getting Things Done,” David Allen speaks about “the two-minute rule”. He says that as you go through your list of tasks, anything that can be done in two minutes or less should be done immediately. Don’t schedule it for later, do it now. The time you would take to schedule a task or make notes about it could be used to get the thing done.

I do my best to follow the two-minute rule and find that it not only aids my productivity, it is also very satisfying. It allows me to clear my plate of “open tasks” and it feels good knowing I’m getting things done.

Part of the appeal of the two-minute rule is that psychologically, two minutes seems like no time at all. We don’t get caught up in thinking about what we have to do, we just do it.

Get ‘er done!

I use the two-minute rule in a different way, to beat procrastination when I find myself stalling on bigger tasks and projects. I know I’m not going to get the thing done in two minutes, but I can get it started, and getting started is the most important part.

So, I give myself two minutes to do something, even if it’s just re-writing the list of the tasks I’m not doing. I might make some notes, grab a link to a website to check out, or create an index page to the Evernote notes I’ve been collecting on the subject.

I might free-write for two minutes. Now that I think of it, I started this post with a two-minute stream of consciousness. I didn’t know what I would say on the subject, but once I started writing down my thoughts, I was on my way.

In two minutes, I might set up a new folder on my hard drive and add documents to it. Or prioritize my task list by putting tasks in numerical order.

Two minutes of activity also sets the stage for another two minutes. I might grab my newly prioritized tasks list and do two minutes on item number one. Or I might skip down to number eight and do two minutes of outlining, research, or brainstorming.

It’s all good. And it’s all just two minutes.

I suppose one could argue that any project could be completed in two-minute increments. All I know is that once I’ve started a project with one or two two-minute drills, I usually keep working on it.

Learn how I use Evernote for Getting Things Done. Go here.

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Slaying the perfectionism dragon

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A short article on the Entrepreneur.com website caught my attention. In “Start Before You’re Ready, Really,” the author urges us to launch our new business, project or idea before we are, or it is ready.

You can set up a quick Facebook page instead of a website, or a simple (ugly) web page just to get something “out there”. Run the idea up the digital flagpole and see who salutes it.

The author started her new business with just one strategic alliance partner (referral source), who sent her enough business to help her get her business off the ground. Had she waited until she had ten or twelve referral sources, she may still be waiting.

No matter what you do, you can improve it later. Even if you do wait before you launch, there will always be things to improve. So why wait?

Get something out there now and fix or improve it later.

I salute this idea. Hard as it is to show your ideas before they are fully formed, edited, vetted, and groomed, you must. If you wait, you’ll never be ready. In your lifetime, you will produce only a fraction of what you could.

I’ve done this many times. I’ve put up terrible web pages. Announced businesses and books when they were merely ideas. Advertised courses before I was finished writing them.

Some of my best stuff came because I put it out for the world to see before I was ready. Turns out, they were closer to being ready than I had thought. What’s a few typos among friends?

There’s nothing like a deadline to get you crackin’. Once you announce or launch or publish, you’ve got a deadline. You’re committed. You’ve got to finish it, or fix it, and you do.

The alternative is to pay homage to your perfectionism and wait until everything is right. That’s how so many people die with their music in them.

The most important part of any project is getting started. Whatever it is you want to do, do it. Give yourself permission to do it badly. You can fix it later. You can make it better. Or you can cancel it start something else.

There is greatness in you. Slay the dragon and let your ideas soar.

For a simple marketing plan that really works, get this

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How to get your work done on time

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The statute runs on the ninth, so we get the complaint filed by the eighth. We have to, so we do.

What about things that don’t have a deadline? We put them off. We procrastinate. Especially if it’s something we don’t want to do.

But we know this is a bad habit and we want to overcome it. So we make up a deadline. A firm date when we will have the work done. We put it on our calendar. It’s in writing. We see the due date coming up. We’re determined to beat the deadline.

But we don’t.

The day comes and goes and we don’t do the work. We were probably busy doing things that had a real deadline.

I read about a study that confirms what we already know: self-imposed deadlines don’t work. At least for things we really don’t want to do. We procrastinate for a reason, and writing down a deadline doesn’t eliminate that reason.

There is a solution. A way to make a self-imposed deadline work.

You need a deadline AND a penalty for missing it.

When you set a deadline, tell someone. Someone who will hold you accountable.

Tell your client when the work will be done. Promise to deliver it on that day. Put that in writing. You don’t want an unhappy client. Or a client who thinks you are incompetent. Or a client who sues. So you get the work done. Because you have to.

If you really have a problem with procrastination, put in your retainer agreement that the work will be delivered on the date promised or there will be no fee. Or, 10% reduction for every day it is late. Or some other costly consequence.

You’ll get the work done on time, won’t you? Yeah, you will.

You can do something similar with non-billable work or projects. Have you been procrastinating on your website? Tell your boss, partner, or spouse when the work will be done and ask them to hold you accountable.

If you have difficulty estimating when you can finish a big project, break it down into components and set a deadline for the first one. If you want to write a book, for example, set a deadline for completing the first chapter or the first draft. After that, set another deadline for the next component.

You can use penalties to finish any project or achieve any goal. I know a vegetarian who publicly promised that if she didn’t meet a certain goal, she would eat a McDonald’s hamburger every day for a month. Her goal was a big one, but yeah, she made it.

Get serious about marketing. Here’s help.

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When is procrastination a good thing?

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I’ve got until the first of next month to complete my CLE credits. I’ve been watching videos over the last couple of weeks and making good progress. I know some people would say that doing three years worth of CLE in a few weeks is unwise. They would point out that I could have done an hour a month and been done months ago.

Their math is correct but their advice is misplaced. They assume that procrastination is a sign of weakness or poor organizational skills and leads to unnecessary anxiety and poor results. But is that always true? Is there a time when procrastination is a good thing?

I think so.

Procrastination helps you prioritize. It allows you to filter your list of tasks so you can focus on what’s important and not merely what’s urgent.

CLE isn’t important to me since I no longer practice. Now, it is urgent that I get those credit done, but waiting as I did allowed me to concentrate on important projects.

Procrastinating served me another way. It allowed me to express (to myself) my resentment at being required to take courses I don’t need and don’t want. It allows me to give the middle finger to the system.

Hey, I’m human.

In school, procrastinating served me another way. Waiting until the last day to write a paper or study for exams gave me a built in excuse in case I got a poor grade. “Hey, I didn’t spend any time studying.”

I almost always got good grades, however. But what if I hadn’t?

What if procrastinating is harmful? What if it keeps you from doing what’s important? What if it results in poor performance or results?

Then you have a problem.

There are lots of techniques for dealing with “bad” procrastination. I think the simplest solution is to get the task out of your head and onto paper–your calendar or other “trusted system”. Give yourself enough time to get the task done and then forget about it. If you’ve schedule a start date and given yourself enough time to do what you need to do, you can then devote your mental energy to other things until it’s time to start.

That’s what I did with my CLE. I knew what I needed to do and when I needed to do it. And I’m getting it done.

Calendaring tasks for the future also gives you a buffer of time which may allow you to adjust your priorities. When the scheduled start date arrives you may find that the scheduled task can be safely postponed, or that you don’t need to do it at all. Since I am not actively practicing, I keep thinking about changing my status to inactive. If I do that I won’t have to do CLE.

When is procrastination a good thing? When it serves you in some way. It’s okay to do things at the last minute, as long as you are getting important things done. And as long as you’re still getting good grades.

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How to write something when you don’t know where to start

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It’s November and you know what that means? NaNoWriMo!

What’s that? You don’t know about National Novel Writing Month? I wrote about it last November when I shared some thoughts about “Writers’ Block”.

You may not aspire to be the next John Grisham, but if you’ve ever struggled to write something you’ve never written before, and you don’t know where to start, I have a possible solution.

When I was in high school, my parents had a friend who created several TV shows, wrote screenplays, non-fiction, and music. He also did some acting. Anyway, he didn’t have a musical background, but he wrote some very clever songs. One day, my father asked him how he did it.

He said he took an existing song he liked and used it’s structure as a template. He changed it, note by note, until he had an original piece that was nothing like the one he started with, except maybe in length, key, and tempo. (Since he couldn’t read music, he recorded himself humming his new tune and had someone transcribe it.)

For the lyrics, he took the original words and changed those word by word, or he found another song he liked and changed those words to create a new song to go with his new music. He used the same technique for creating screenplays.

Instead of writing from scratch, he re-wrote something that was already written. He didn’t plagiarize or steal ideas. He took the original, pared it down to it’s skeleton, and added new flesh and sinew to give life to a completely new creation.

Now don’t get me wrong, the guy had talent. Lots of it. He simply used his note/word-changing technique as a starting point. If I ever write a novel, that’s exactly how I will start.

After all, isn’t “getting started” the hardest part of doing something new? Once you have a first draft, you can make it better. But so many aspiring writers never get started so they never have a first draft they can improve.

If you wanted to use this technique to write the first draft of a novel, find one you like (in the appropriate genre and voice, i.e., “first person detective”) and create a “step outline”–a sequential list of the plot points. Note the number of major characters, when they are introduced, and their role (i.e., friend who encourages, villain, love interest, and so on). How many chapters are there? How long are they? When does the crime take place? When do we meet the hero?

Now you have a story skeleton, but of course it’s for someone else’s story. Your job is to change things, point by point, element by element, to write your own.

Your setting will be different. San Antonio instead of San Clemente. Your characters will be different. If the victim in the original was an insurance investigator who is murdered to cover up a fraudulent claim, your victim might be an accountant who knew too much about his crooked client’s business activities.

You write your own novel, using the structure of the original, but nothing else.

Now I didn’t say yours would be a good novel. That’s easier said than done. But your novel will at least be the right length, number of characters, and have the requisite elements in it. You’ll have a workable first draft.

You can use the same technique to write something much less ambitious, like an article or report. Decide on a topic you want to write about and find a model. How many paragraphs? How many main points? How many bullet points? Use this as a template.

Doing something new is much easier when you have a place to start. Fortunately, you don’t have to invent the place the start. You can follow someone who already finished.

Would you like a template for marketing your legal services? Use this

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