David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Done at Last! Thoughts on Procrastination

post # 11 — February 2, 2006 — a Careers post

The following is an article-in-preparation that I am co-authoring with Wendy Leibowitz. Wendy is a lawyer and writer in Washington, D.C., who matches my own vast experience in procrastination. Her Web site is http://www.wendytech.com/

Unless you learn how to manage it, procrastination can spiral. The less you get done, the more you beat yourself up for being worthless and hence the less likely you are to get anything done. No wonder that a study reported in Psychology Today, found that “College students who procrastinate have higher levels of drinking, smoking, insomnia, stomach problems, colds and flu.”

Professionals are particularly prone to procrastination, in part because professional projects can be intimidating: long, complex, and stressful.

Procrastination can’t be completely abolished, but it can be kept under control by developing mind games that “short-circuit” the procrastination-inducing mental “do-loops” that plague us. Everybody needs to develop their own highly personal arsenal of tricks for living with (and suppressing) procrastination. Here are some of ours:

Preparing to work

Clients and superiors frequently do not explain precisely what they need, which makes procrastination almost inevitable, since it is difficult to begin work on something if you are confused or conflicted about what you are trying to accomplish. Make sure you know what you are trying to accomplish.

Strangely, procrastination can be caused by panic. Urgency makes us fearful and stop working. There is enough time pressure on us without artificially creating more. When accepting the assignment, acknowledge the difficulty of the task, and ask for a realistic time frame. Allow for interruptions, unexpected developments and an outside life. Most assignments in life are not a race – it’s how dependable you are, not how fast, that will make people seek you out.

If you can, have two, three or four projects and alternate till one grabs you. Robert Benchley, the 1930s American humorist said: “I can get anything done as long as it’s not what I’m supposed to be working on.” Sound familiar? It’s sometimes hard to prioritize among the projects that get thrown at you. But you can be surprisingly productive by working for a short time on each one. Imagine your projects as children, each of them clamoring for your attention. Spend time with each one.

Focusing on a Motivating Purpose

Thinking of the client you are doing the work for, and how important it will be to them can be the force that rouses you to action.

Jay Foosberg, author of “How to Get and Keep Good Clients,” recommends looking at pictures of your family to remind yourself for whom you are doing the work.

Imagine how jealous your bitterest enemies will feel when you’ve finished. (Hey, no one said to limit this list to honorable motivations.) One of the most powerful motivators for some people is to imagine the work being praised by someone they resent (“I showed him!”)

Imagine having to say: “I could have done a much better job, but he beat me to it. Grrr. I’m going to show him!” Anger, jealousy and the basest of motives can get many of us deep into the task.

Finding Ways to Start

Examine your avoidance habits: what do you do to stall? Eat? Watch TV? Surf the damn, wonderful internet? Stop doing that—just for ten minutes.

Divide everything you have to do into smaller, easy bites.

Set realistic time goals to complete your bite-size tasks, and then plan to take a break.

Promise yourself that you will only work for ten minutes.

Start in the middle: worry about openings and endings later. Usually, for almost any project, there is one aspect of the work that is most vivid, that is stimulating you to do the work, or is the most daunting to you. Start there.

Just give dictation to yourself. Pretend you’re talking to a friend or a fellow professional at a cocktail party, explaining what you are working on and how you are getting it done. Next, imagine describing what you have finished.

Sometimes actually talking to a friend can be the thing that unlocks the logjam. Why not call someone up and ask “Can I just try to explain to you what I need to do?”

Cut Yourself Some Slack!

As Julia Child used to say when she took a shortcut or dropped something in the kitchen: “You’re all alone. Who needs to know?” You’re allowed to fail a few times before you get it right.

Adopt the mental dump approach: just do something and plan to change it later. You can always revise what you’ve done. Most work needs refinement. Drafting something –anything – helps you to avoid your saying, “I didn’t do anything today.” You did, it just needs further work!

Evaluate the work, but not yourself. Don’t think: “I’m useless,” but say instead: “Yeah, that paragraph’s garbage, but I’m better than that.”

Tell yourself this is not supposed to be the best thing you’ve ever done. Tell yourself that you can write a “B” assignment. A completed assignment that is adequate is better than the best thing you’ve ever done that exists only in your head.

Arrange (in advance) with a good friend or colleague to review your first draft. That way, you know you’re only producing a first version and have permission to make mistakes. It will be less scary and you’ll get more done.

Varying the Routine

Consider working in a different setting. If your work is portable, bring some of it to a coffee shop to see how much you get done. If you are easily distracted, head to a library, close your office door, or create the equivalent of an isolation booth to see how productive you become.

If you’ve been torturing yourself by pulling all-nighters, go to bed early and see if you are more productive in the morning. Some say that for every hour earlier that you turn in, you gain two hours in alertness the next day.

Sustaining the Momentum

Make up a game with rewards. Plan to reward yourself with a discrete, non-time consuming break such as a walk around the block (or an ice-cream cone.)

If nothing comes in 15 minutes, don’t just sit there: go for a walk and come back. Taking a break from work to walk briskly for 20 minutes might kill two birds with one stone. (This is serious advice, similar to what they say about trying to fall asleep: if it ain’t happening, get up and go do something. Just lying there thinking about it will drive you crazy and won’t work.)

Advanced Techniques

Write down how you are feeling about your tasks and what upsets you about them. You might be angry that you were stuck with someone else’s work while they’re away on a vacation, or it’s just some damn boring anonymous thing that must be done. Or you don’t think you can do it. Pin the description on your desk or wall or computer screen. Then keep saying to yourself “All that’s true, but I still have to do the work!” A few (silent) curse words at this point can actually help you get it out of your system and get over it.

Some people schedule an artificial deadline before the real one. Say, make plans to go to a play or movie the evening before the project is due. That way you’ll have to finish it early, and will have time the next morning to read it over and catch the inevitable typo’s.

Make a commitment to someone whose good opinion you would like to keep (the hostage to fortune strategy). This is very effective. The person should not be a friend who will forgive you if you miss the deadline, but someone whom you’d like to impress or who will be very disappointed in you if you don’t finish. (Embarrassment can work better than guilt.)

Those are some of our mind-games. What works for you?


David said:

For me, embarrassment can often be the biggest problem. When I’m already a little late, the stress really gets to me.

posted on February 2, 2006

Dean said:

If my tasks on my project list are granular enough and I just dive into the project and surrender to the work, it is amazing what can be accomplished. Especially if I lose my attachment to a particular outcome and just go with the flow.

But on other days …

posted on February 2, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Yes, David, being late can add to the stress and that can bring things to a halt. I was going to save what follows for one of my articles, but it fits here, so let me offer it in case it helps.

I remember once being stuck, unable to get started on something I had to write. The reasons were many, but mostly it was because I was intimidated at the magnitude of the task, the importance of the people I had to write for, and so on. I developed a long list of work avoidance tactics – clean the house, alphabetize my books, make another cup of coffee.

I was bemoaning my fate to a good friend. Can you write it?, he asked. No, I whimpered.

How about just a page? he said.

I told him I’d try, but I didn’t get it done. That’s all right, he said when I saw him, How about trying for a paragraph? I agreed to try, and came back to him with only a sentence. That’s an interesting sentence, he said, reading it. Tell me why you said that in the sentence.

I explained what I was trying to say. That’s very good, he responded, Go away and write that down! I did, and found I had written a page and a half.

Do you need any more of my help in writing the next page?”my friend asked.

No, I said sheepishly, I think I know what I’ve got to do next.

And I did. My piece got written. Of course it had to get rewritten, but that’s the point. If you try to get anything perfect from the beginning you’ll be frozen into immobility, as I was.

If a task intimidates you (for any reason), just focus on getting started. I no longer need my friend to talk me through the process, but I replay the conversation in my head every time I’m stuck. (Thanks, Rod!)

posted on February 2, 2006

Ted said:

Anne Lamott, a wonderfully honest writer talks about this very issue in her book about writing, “Bird by Bird”. Her basic advice is to concentrate on “short assignments,” instead of trying to scale the whole mountain at once. Even better, she advises people to write “sh*tty first drafts,” acknowledging that every good writer does this. It just takes the pressure off if you lower your expectations and jump in.

posted on February 6, 2006

Wendy Leibowitz said:

Much of what a lawyer does is write. Writing, I have come to learn, is hard work, though many people don’t think it is. This belief that writing is easy can mean that people give themselves ridiculously short deadlines to complete a task. The short deadline adds to the pressure and stress and make starting more difficult.

David, your busy list of things to do other than start a difficult writing task is shared by many writers. Ernest Hemingway I believe said that he always began writing by cleaning out the refrigerator. Many people spend 10-15 minutes cleaning their desks, answering their phones, writing a few sentences, etc. and they can be quite productive, though they might feel as if they are not getting very far at every task. They are actually moving slowly forward on many tasks (“Bird by Bird.”)

But there are deeper reasons for procrastination, and one is depression, which can make concentration difficult. Perfectionism, self-doubt and relentless self-criticism can also accompany depression—if you don’t think that what you will do is very good, or good enough, it’s hard to begin.

A master writer who struggled with depression was Winston Churchill. He wrote:

“Writing is an adventure. To begin with, it is a toy and an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, then it becomes a master, then it becomes a tyrant. The last phase is that just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

It’s worth it to think of Churchill as you struggle to write, because you know you are in good company. And acknowledging a tendency to be depressed is, well, healthy.

CHurchill befriended his dark moods and called his depression his black dog that accompanied him often.

“Chance Thoughts,” by Dr. Sue Chance, at http://www.mhsource.com/exclusive/chanceth0196.html, states: “Black Dog” was Churchill’s name for his depression, and as is true with all metaphors, it speaks volumes. The nickname implies both familiarity and an attempt at mastery, because while that dog may sink his fangs into one’s person every now and then, he’s still, after all, only a dog, and he can be cajoled sometimes and locked up other times.

The man was in lustrous company – Goethe, Schumann, Luther, and Tolstoy to name but a few – all of them great men who suffered from recurrent depression. Who doesn’t have at least a passing familiarity with the notion that depression sometimes acts as a spur to those of a certain temperament and native ability? Aware of how low they will sink at times, they propel themselves into activity and achievements the rest of us regard with awe.


Many lawyers go to work, and work well, while struggling under an emotional cloud. It’s a source of admiration, as well as concern.

posted on February 6, 2006

Patrick Mauldin said:

This espetially applies to us who are self employed. Procrastination is definatly one of the biggest obsticles of business owners espetially if their is fear of doing it properly. Good material, I got alot out of it that I will be applying to my business immediatly. Alot of times I try to focus on “what will happen if I don’t do this?”, and I find that fear pushs me forward to completion more often than not. Thank you for putting this podcast together.

posted on March 7, 2007