Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
One of the first productivity books I reviewed on The Simple Dollar was Dr. Neil Fiore’s excellent The Now Habit. It did a wonderful job of attacking the problem of procrastination from a psychological perspective, looking at the core reasons why people put things off. Since I posted that review, around a dozen people have written to me suggesting that I take a look at The Procrastinator’s Handbook by Rita Emmett, which offers a somewhat different take on solutions to the persistent problem of procrastination, and I was glad to pick the book up.
Procrastination was once a severe problem for me. In college, I consistently procrastinated on assignments and studying, to the point that it dragged down my GPA a significant amount. Even now, I occasionally procrastinate – sometimes I have a great idea for a post, but I know it’s going to involve a lot of work and research, so I’ll put it off for later.
Digging Through The Procrastinator’s Handbook
1. Tackling the Dread
Right off the bat, Rita Emmett makes a very strong suggestion: whenever you find yourself procrastinating, ask yourself exactly why you’re putting it off. Which part of that job do you hate? Even more important, is there a pattern in the things you find yourself procrastinating? For me, there is – I procrastinate on housework-oriented tasks. I hate washing windows, for example, and find reasons to put off tasks like that.
Rita suggests giving yourself small rewards for actually doing those tasks. I find this is very useful for me – I usually use a period of time playing a Wii game as a reward for doing a household task I don’t like. I wash the windows on the main floor, I play a game after they’re done. It works well for motivating me.
2. What’s Your Excuse?
Right off the bat, Rita suggests making a pseudo-101 goals list, except it focuses heavily on the short term. Go around your house slowly and look for things that you’d like to get done some day – repaint that wall, change that light fixture, sort your books, etc. Write them down. Do the same with your personal life – are there things you’d like to work on personally? Write all of them down. Then work on that list.
I did this really quickly while writing this review. I walked around my house and started listing things I saw until I had a list of ten of them. Here’s what I found.
1. Replace the broken recessed light fixture in the basement.
2. Get different bulbs for the flood light in the living room.
3. Go through my left over personal finance books and work on my plan for them.
4. Clean out the closet in our bedroom and get rid of some of that stuff.
5. Fold the box of unfolded clothes and take them to Goodwill.
6. Go through the “unimportant” box of mail and probably shred almost all of it.
7. Cut my hair.
8. Go through all of my kids’ toys and put about half of them into storage.
9. Clean out the coat closet on the main floor.
10. Clean out the empty bottles for my next beer bottling.
Making that list was awesome. Try it for yourself. After I made the list, I just stopped for a bit, went downstairs, and spent an hour fixing that light socket – it now works perfectly. I also added the new bulbs to the grocery list (amounting to a “next action” on number two) and started in on the “unimportant” box by tossing out a lot of the junk mail. Amazing – it felt really good, and now I have a list of stuff to work on instead of stuff weighing down my mind.
Yes, this is the core principle of Getting Things Done, but it works. It feels tremendously empowering, and it’s mostly that you’re turning the half-thoughts and cruft running around in your head into something tangible on paper, a list of things you can work through.
What does this have to do with procrastination, though? When you make that list, you’ll probably find yourself coming up with all sorts of reasons to not do that stuff right now. That’s procrastination. Note those reasons. Those reasons are your enemy. In the words of Herman Blume: “Get them in the crosshairs and take them down.”
3. The Games People Play
Many people respond to a task that needs to be done by playing “games” of various kinds. Sometimes it literally is a game, but other times it’s just various distractions that we invent to put off getting things done: shuffling papers, talking on the phone, surfing the web, working on stuff when you’re tired instead of when you’re awake, and so on. When you feel yourself doing things like this, stop and get on task – tackle the next thing on your to-do list right now.
I find that “reality checks” like this on occasion throughout the day really help me out. Stopping what I’m doing and making sure that it’s actually in line with what I need to be doing is a great way to make sure I’m really on task and not just procrastinating. In fact, I often just get up and walk away from the situation when this happens – I move on to another task on my to-do list.
4. The Fears That Stop You Cold
This section of the book goes through a whole litany of fears that drive procrastination: fear of failure, fear of success, fear of incompetency, and so on. Procrastinators often use such fears as an excuse to put off working on what they need to be working on.
How do you fight fear? Emmett offers up my favorite suggestion for tackling fear: imagine the absolute worst case scenario that can happen if you go ahead with it – then imagine the worst case scenario if you don’t get started right away. Almost every time, you’re better off getting started now than getting started later on. For me, this is often a very good motivator to get going on what I need to do.
5. “I Wanna Do It All”
Many people become procrastinators simply because they’ve piled too much on their plate. If anything, this describes me: I have a lot of interests and things that I enjoy doing, so I often pile on the activities. I want to read these three books, help out with these two committees, play these four games, spend six hours with my kids, write seven articles, cook five meals, and by the end of it, I simply find myself putting off stuff that I want to do.
Rita’s suggestion to this problem is simply saying no to some stuff and clarifying your priorities. What’s most important to you? Focus on that stuff and say no to the rest. Those books and games can wait… I need to spend time with my kids now while they’re young so we build a great relationship all the way along.
6. “Help! I’m Overwhelmed”
Parallel to that problem of having too much that you want to do is the sense that there’s too much that you have to do and it’s overwhelming. Instead of just tackling all that stuff, you lock up, shut down, and don’t get anything done.
Rita’s solution here also has a lot in common with the Getting Things Done philosophy. Basically, she suggests making a big list of all of the things you’ve got to do, then break each of those items down into smaller tasks. In other words, make a second list of the “next action” for each of those big tasks you need to do. Those small “next actions” can be blown through quickly, then you can move on to the next action on these tasks again and again until all of the jobs are done.
Break the big things down into little pieces and then just do those pieces – don’t let yourself get scared by the big tasks.
7. “Plan Time to Plan”
Most of Rita’s solutions take time, and that’s anathema to many people. I know a lot of people who constantly work all-out on things without really thinking about the optimal way to tackle it. On some things, I do it myself – I’ll just sit down and get to it without really thinking about my plan for tackling that big task.
Rita suggests taking some time at the start of the tasks of the day – and perhaps even some time during the middle – to stop and just plan out what you’re doing. Think carefully about the next actions that need to be done on each of your tasks. The time invested in figuring out the best plan of attack will always defeat investing that time in just running amok on the task.
8. Clutter Busting
Another challenge that slows us down and gently aids procrastination is clutter. Complete chaos on your desk makes everything more difficult. It’s harder to retrieve the document you need, harder to find the space you need for projects, and harder to actually deal with the size of the mess when you finally decide to clean it up.
One of the biggest sources of clutter is the sense that so much stuff has to be kept. If the stuff on your desk isn’t something you’re going to need in the short term, it shouldn’t be on your desk. If it’s stuff that you might read someday, get rid of it – you can always find a copy later. If it’s paperwork that you may need someday, file it. The key is to get it off your desk – get it out of your way but in a place where you can find it if you need it.
The biggest challenge for my wife is getting rid of stuff she might read someday. She has a tendency to want to keep anything she might read someday, from old papers and magazines to books already read. Sometimes, I make a deal with her – I’ll make a box of books off of our bookshelves and suggest to her that if she doesn’t retrieve something out of this box in six months, it’s going away. She’ll almost always go through it once, pull out two or three things, then forget about it – and that box quietly goes away six months later. Repeated regularly, this technique does a great job of reducing clutter.
9. Dollars and Sense
Rita devotes a brief chapter here to financial procrastination: putting off your taxes until April 15, paying bills only at the last minute, and being surprised by “unexpected” bills even though they’re just normal bills that crop up only once every several months (like car insurance). Her solutions to these problems are similar: break the irregular bills into smaller pieces and save for them each month (in other words, budget), and tackle the tasks that come up as soon as you can by identifying “next actions” and doing them.
10. What Dreams Are Made Of
The book closes with the biggest (and saddest) thing that many of us put off: our dreams. I spent years doing just that, telling myself that there was always plenty of time to write and plenty of time to spend with my kids.
Rita offers a lot of simple suggestions – break down your dreams, ask what the next step is and work towards that – but I have some broader advice. If you’ve finally reached a point where you know exactly what your dream is, chase it with your whole heart. Put aside the trivial things in your life and chase that dream hard. You’ll never regret it.
Is The Procrastinator’s Handbook Worth Reading?
To me, The Procrastinator’s Handbook came off as a mix of The Now Habit and Getting Things Done – attack procrastination by looking at what you have to do, getting it down on paper, then breaking that big to-do list down into bite sized chunks so you can get moving forward.
It’s a fun read – Rita has a warm and friendly tone and makes what could be a very dry topic quite engaging. The Procrastinator’s Handbook fills this little niche for people who aren’t hardcore procrastinators and also haven’t invested a lot of thought into basic time management or clutter reduction skills, and thanks to her tone, it works. I’d happily recommend this one to a lot of people in my life, especially people who’ve never thought too much about how to manage their time.
If you have hardcore problems with procrastination, though, The Now Habit offers up more powerful solutions. If you’re overwhelmed by your tasks that need to get done, Getting Things Done is a good solution. Rita’s book resides at a lighter, less intense place somewhere in the middle, a perfect first book on time management for people who have never thought too much about the topic.