I Was a Serial Procrastinator. This Simple 2-Step Process Helped Me Beat the Habit—and Do the Best Work of My Life

I couldn’t believe I did it again.

I was a serial procrastinator. There was just always so much to do, so many priorities. So, while I knew it would take at least three hours to prepare for our next quarterly meeting, I scheduled time to work on it just before the deadline, and also added it to my “to-do” list.

“I’m sure I’ll find time before then to work on this,” I told myself. “This calendar appointment is only a failsafe–just in case.”

Of course, I never did the find time to start early, as other tasks demanded my time and attention. As the deadline crept forward, my anxiety went up–knowing that intense, thought-intensive task loomed over me, like a black cloud that followed me wherever I went.

Why hadn’t I learned my lesson? Why did I keep doing this to myself?

Ironically, my efforts to increase productivity had actually made my procrastination habit worse. But a simple two-step process helped me change that habit, and take a completely different approach to managing major projects and tasks.

Before I break down the process, let’s see why many of us end up with this problem in the first place.

The problem with batching

Over the years, in an effort to be more productive, I got into the habit of batching.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, batching involves grouping a set of similar tasks together to complete them all at once (rather than switching back and forth between multiple tasks). For example, you might schedule specific times of day to check email, rather than leaving your inbox open. Or, you might schedule all your meetings for one day, so you can free up the other days for more introspective work.

There is certainly value in batching; it’s an effective tool that can help you manage your workflow and get more done.

The problem is, my habit of trying to batch everything made me only want to work on things when I could get a lot done at one time. I don’t know how many times I found myself thinking: “I’ll barely have time to get into this, so it’s better if I start it later and focus on other tasks that I can finish more quickly.”

This actually fed my procrastination habit, because it gave me a “false” feeling of uber-productivity. I needed to make a change.

Over time, some experienced mentors taught me a new way of working, one that nowadays I try to follow religiously. We can boil it down to two simple steps.

Break it down.

When you are confronted with a major, time consuming project or task, break it up into smaller, more manageable tasks. Then, schedule several appointments in your calendar to tackle the project one step at a time.

This takes a little more time up front, but it allows you to change your view of the project. For example, my preparation for the quarterly meeting is no longer a huge three hour task that has to be done all at one time…It’s something I can work on over the course of one to two weeks, for 15, 30, or even 60 minutes at a time–something that feels much less intimidating.

If I’m still having a hard time getting motivated, I revert to the five-minute rule. Starting a task is always the hardest part, so if you can force yourself to commit for just five minutes, you’re more likely to get absorbed in the work and keep going.

Schedule ‘important’ over ‘urgent.’

Because your project now looks much more manageable, you may be tempted to schedule it at the end of your work day, and focus on other, more urgent work first. For example, you might focus on a menial task that needs to get done today, but has a negligible effect on your company’s bottom line.

The problem with this has to do with Parkinson’s Law, which states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for completion.” When you prioritize “urgent” over “important,” you waste tons of time on things that don’t really matter.

Instead, schedule the important things first, and as early as possible. That way, you dedicate the best of your resources–the mental energy required for tasks like creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving–to the things that matter most to you and your business, rather than allowing mundane activities to eat up your calendar.

There’s an additional benefit to splitting up tasks too: When you schedule your work this way, you’ll almost always end up with a superior product. That’s because when you procrastinate, rush through a project, and finish right at deadline, you’ll likely think of things you could have added or changed later on–but it will be too late. It’s like you’re always submitting your first draft.

But if you work progressively on an important project, and start as early as possible, each aspect of the project will be on your mind for longer. Doing so will provide more insights, allow you to connect more dots, and give you opportunity to make improvements. The result is a much better product than you if you had batched everything at the last minute.

So, the next time you’re tempted to push off an important task or project, remember this simple, two-step process:

1. Break the project down into smaller, more manageable tasks.

2. Schedule ‘important’ over ‘urgent.’

Doing so will help you to manage your workflow and anxiety–and help you to do the best work of your life.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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