"If it weren't for the last minute, nothing would get done."
This quote is attributed to Rita Mae Brown, a prolific writer of such books as Rubyfruit Jungle and an intrepid advocate for civil and LGBT rights. Do you find it surprising that such a creative and productive force of nature struggles with procrastination too? For those who suffer from the executive function deficit we call task initiation, too often, the only remedy is fear. Fear of missing a deadline, disappointing others, earning a failing grade, or losing a job. Working this way takes its toll on us, our co-workers, family, and career. By understanding how motivation works and employing a few practical strategies, we may be able to level out this rollercoaster ride for all involved. Below, I offer practical strategies that I call T-L-C.
T = Trick Your Brain:
Do you only complete important tasks at the last minute, too? We are aware that the "fight or flight" response kicks our brain into gear and motivates us to complete tasks we have left to the last minute. Use that stimulus to "trick" your brain into motivation, but do it in a planned and organized manner:
- Set artificial deadlines in advance of the actual ones. Put these on your calendar or your to-do list.
- Make your intent to complete the task a matter of public record. Tell your life partner, co-workers, friends, family, and even boss that you intend to perform a task or project by a certain date. Always remember to record that particular time where you'll remember the promise.
- Make sure that the task or project has actual value for you and get excited about completing it. Write down why it is important to you now or in the future. Put a note about its importance on your calendar and your to-do list. Remember its value every time the task comes to mind.
L = Lighten the Load:
Some of us procrastinate for other reasons. Do you find that you complete simple and non-relevant projects such as cleaning your desk and running errands but are not able to get started on larger, more complex tasks? Feeling overwhelmed may be the culprit here.
- Take time to break a large project down into smaller and easier to complete subtasks. If you have to write a research essay, make completing the research a single task. Make reviewing your research notes another task. Continue until the essay is complete.
- Give each of these subtasks its own entry on your to-do list, an estimated time to complete, and a due date.
C = Create Rewards for Completion:
For those who struggle with task initiation, repeating the adage, "business before pleasure" over and over won't inspire motivation. However, using a similar idea, known as the Premack Principle, may help you get those "hard to get started" tasks done. Dr. David Premack found that we are willing to do a less desirable activity if we are aware that it will be followed by a desirable one. In short:
- Plan a reward or incentive to give yourself after you tackle a (harder) task on your to-do list. It is a technique you can also use on students struggling to start their evening homework. Try rewarding them with time to play a video game or watch a favorite show once they finish their homework or an assignment that is hard for them.
- Remember to set a specific time limit for the reward and an alarm that will signal that it is time to get back to "business."
The last-minute scramble to complete tasks and projects isn't sustainable and doesn't enable us to live balanced lives. Implementing these T-L-C strategies can help you work with your motivational style to increase your productivity and meet deadlines. An executive function skills coach could help you integrate these strategies into your work and planning habits. Don't let procrastination prevent you from living a productive life and reaching your goals!
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