Dealing with procrastination (and how to get things done)


Procrastination. We all do it, students excel at it, and many of us think it’s the enemy. And yet, procrastination is often the result of our behaviour defaulting to activities that give us the richest sense of progress.

When tackling procrastination, the biggest wins are achieved not necessarily by eliminating access to the activities we procrastinate over (that only enhances craving anyway), but rather by making it easier to see progress in the activities that matter.

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So, let’s unpack procrastination.

The story goes something like this: ‘I work better when I’m under pressure.’

And the self-sabotage is this: We allow ourselves to get distracted, delaying important work until the last minute. This enhances the pressure we experience, and the risk that things may go wrong. But we have an alibi: If things don’t go well, we can always say, ‘I didn’t have enough time’. If you happen to become unwell in the crucial last hours, or if your computer breaks down, even better — you can blame it on that.

Now, here are a few ways you can change the game to make procrastination work.

Make procrastination work harder

Make the things you procrastinate on the very things that contribute to progress. In other words, surround yourself with progress-making tasks. I used to show university students how to enjoy exams. Part of this meant establishing study environments where you combine a primary task (that is, the one in front of you) with two peripheral tasks (one either side of you). For example, you might have economics study to do in front of you, a history assignment to the left, and a maths assignment to the right.

By mixing up the types of thinking required for each ‘zone’ (emotive/creative and logical/analytical), your three work zones essentially allow you to channel-surf; when your mind wanders, it has a productive place to land.

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Track yourself

There are some great software applications that help you to track where your time is invested each day on the computer, but I find it’s a combination of both digital and analogue tracking that works best.

Just like keeping a food diary, a time diary will make you extra conscious of where your time is being invested. You’ll have a clearer sense of the game you are playing, and you may see your performance naturally increase simply because it is being monitored.

By having data to play with, you can pick up on patterns of behaviour, and you’ll be better placed to calibrate your game.

Leave it until the ‘last minute’

Author Rita Mae Brown once quipped, ‘If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done’. But the fact that there even is a ‘last minute’ implies there is a structure — a deadline — which means there’s a start point and a gap in between. In other words, a game we can tweak. We need to make that last- minute come sooner, to manufacture our own sense of urgency. At its simplest, it looks like this:

– Make a list of all of the discrete tasks associated with progress. Arrange this list into a logical sequence.
– Break down the immediate (proximal) tasks into smaller subtasks (ensuring that each subtask can be completed in around 15 minutes).
– Establish mini-sprints of work—try to knock off five subtasks in under an hour. Maintain clear visibility of progress throughout.

Visibility precedes accountability. If you want to be accountable for your actions, make your action steps visible first.

Dr. Jason Fox
Jason is a motivation strategy & design expert who works with senior executives and boards to make clever happen. He is the author of The Game Changer – learn more at

photo credit: Nikki Lyn via photopin cc