I have a confession: I began writing this article just hours before my deadline to submit it. I have discovered that trying to get work done well in advance of a deadline is a futile exercise for me. I’ve given up trying to pretend that I am one of those organized, calm people who always finishes a task with time to spare. Bring on the deadlines—the closer the better!
For many people, September brings a harsh confrontation with the reality of deadlines. The long weekends, hiatus on big decisions and hot, slow days of summer lull many into a procrastination stupor. But now it’s over. And the harsh reality of fall is looming closer with each shorter day.
The first step to getting back on track is to compile a list of important tasks and their deadlines (make an actual list—a mental note doesn’t pack the same power to motivate). Often, chronic procrastinators are tempted to trick themselves with a fake early deadline. But if you’re anything like me, it won’t work. Science shows that external deadlines are far more motivating than internal ones. It is likely that I will never clean out my spice cabinet, no matter how long I keep it on my to-do list. However, I will always submit every piece of writing to an editor on time (albeit not early).
Next, it is important to ask whether procrastination serves as motivation—as it does for me—or is detrimental to productivity. As a deadline looms, does it cause anxiety, stress or trouble sleeping? Do you take it out on those around you? Do you produce an inferior result when you leave it to the last minute? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then you are not cut out to be a procrastinator. Sorry, you are better off learning how to meet goals in advance of deadlines.
An effective procrastination-busting structure includes short-term goals that inch toward completing final tasks on time. Lydia (51) is the VP in charge of programming for an organization. Lydia is a chronic procrastinator, but she knows that in this situation putting things off is not an option because programs must be researched and secured well in advance. We set up a calendar with weekly benchmarks for how many calls she makes and programs she has booked. I also suggested that Lydia hold herself accountable to another person (an external deadline) and she committed to report on her progress to the president of the organization every two weeks. These structures have ensured that Lydia is almost done scheduling programs—well ahead of deadline.
Procrastination is not inherently as bad a habit as one might believe. It depends on the circumstances and individual’s personality. Pay attention to both of these and deadlines can be friends, not foes.