How to Undo the Dawdler

Just get started. “Don’t make it any more complicated than that,” says Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “You can do anything for 10 minutes, so just pick any part of it and jump in.” Once you’re on a roll, you may well get into it.

Minimize distraction. “You don’t try to diet in a candy store,” says Piers Steel, Ph.D., author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, and a professor at the University of Calgary. “If you want to work, make your office a temple to work.” External limits, such as software that cuts off your web-browsing time, can help.

Restrict your time. Paradoxically, leaving all day open to get a project done tends to backfire, Pychyl says. Stanford philosophy professor John Perry, Ph.D., agrees. “The few tasks on your list will be by definition the most important, and with nothing else on your agenda, the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing,” he says. Instead, give yourself a short time to do a little, or break down large tasks into sub-goals. “When we break things down, it strengthens our sense of time urgency,” Pychyl says.

Reward the early bird. “Instead of having a penalty for not paying your taxes on April 15, there should be an incentive for paying on March 15,” says DePaul psychology professor Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D. Managers should set a deadline, but reward people for coming in early or finishing projects early, he says. If your manager doesn’t do that, take yourself out for a latté or other treat if you come in under deadline.

Be accountable to someone. If you’re the procrastinator, give your colleague, business partner or boss a realistic schedule of how you plan on getting each segment of the job done. If you’re the boss, don’t micromanage, but be clear that your expectation is that the staffer will stick to his schedule. “It’s counterintuitive, but it’s even more important to give people autonomy when they have self-doubt about their ability,” Pychyl says. “Don’t rescue procrastinators, but continue to express confidence in them.”

Do the tough stuff when you’re sharp. “Most tasks become unpleasant when you’re tired,” Steel says, so that will make blowing it off even more attractive. “Most people have a few hours of peak productivity a day, often 9 or 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Schedule the most difficult tasks for when you have the most energy.”

Let them fail. Sometimes the only way to get a grip on procrastination is to experience its consequences firsthand, Ferrari says. Managers and co-workers want to help their employees succeed, of course, but if people are buoyed too often, they have no reason to mend their ways. “People have to realize why it’s important,” he says. “Perhaps they don’t get the raise or the promotion. There has to be a cost to this.”

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