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Get things DONE. Period

Everyone procrastinates.  But the art of getting things done is something you learn, not a gift you’re born with says psychologist Wendy Jago.  Here’s how to get started on getting started

Procrastination is normal. When faced with a task, chore or challenge that you dislike or don’t know how to cope with, even the most efficient or conscientious person is likely to put it off.

Two sure signs are feeling guilty or rationalising about why you aren’t doing whatever-it-is.Rationalisation usually takes place inside your head: you tell yourself you’re too busy, you will feel more lively or on top of things tomorrow, or perhaps someone else should be dealing with it etc. Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) calls this ‘internal dialogue’, which often takes the form of a silent argument with one part of you taking one side and another part of you opposing it. It can be helpful to listen in and try to identify what these ‘parts’ of you represent. Is one of them a parental-type self that reminds you of ‘oughts’, ‘musts’ and ‘shoulds’, while the other is a child or teenage self hoping to dodge what feels like tidying up your room, doing your homework or writing thank-you letters?

It’s important not to blame yourself. Feeling guilty or inadequate won’t get the ironing done or help mend that silly quarrel you had with your sister, your best friend or your work colleague. Finding out more about just why you are putting that something off, on the other hand, might just start to shift the log-jam. If you ‘have a problem’ in the sense that you constantly procrastinate, look for  patterns. Do you always put off practical tasks? Or confrontations? Or never quite get around to doing more exercise? Look beyond the issue to the feelings that lie behind it and start there. Be curious.

Facing the mammoth A mammoth is huge by comparison with a human, so it’s a good symbol for the tasks, chores and challenges that threaten each one of us in everyday life.  Where to start? How to start? When to start?  It’s why I use the mammoth metaphor for the things people tend to put off. Moreover, we tend to think a big problem requires big solutions so that makes us feel even worse. The secret is taking small steps to reduce mammoths and make them manageable, if that’s what we want to do, or to use small steps in the opposite direction to build up to the mammoths we do want in our lives (goals, ambitions, and achievements).

Am I scared or just lazy?  I have always mistrusted the word ‘lazy’. Even though people apply it to themselves, in my experience as a therapist and coach ‘lazy’ is a label originally given to us when we don’t do something someone else thinks we should be doing.  Fear – or at least some kind of negative anticipation – is more likely. Ask yourself what you think is going to happen if you do – whatever it is. The chances are you are running some kind of scenario about unpleasant consequences – being judged as inadequate, perhaps. Uncovering the unconscious scenario shows you what strong feelings can be involved, and helps you deal with them rather than trying to prod yourself into being ‘good’.

7 steps out of procrastination

1 Describe the problem What’s involved? When? Where? Who else is involved? Perhaps there’s a sequence.  How does it go?

2 Work out what you really want Unless you are clear in your own mind about what you want and don’t want, you haven’t got a direction and can’t work out a strategy for action.

3 Recognise the obstacles you’re dealing with Practical, emotional, behavioural? Primarily to do with you, or with other people?  Separating that out makes it easier to find a way to deal with the root cause of your procrastinating.

4 Make it clear to others and yourself what your mammoth actually involves Spell it out to yourself. Then tell whoever else is involved, in a way that blames neither you or them. This is how I feel about… This is what I’d like…

5 What are the simplest things you could do? Always start simple: one change, however small, in an established pattern inevitably opens up different possibilities – it changes the sequence you’re used to.

6 What’s the worst outcome you can think of (how bad can it be, really)? Surfacing your fears may show even you how unlikely they are to really happen – or alert you to the need to be careful and strategic.

The 20-minute miracle All change is about recombining information in your head or making new neural links. Phobias often get created in seconds by powerful bad experiences – but so can new learning and increased confidence.  20 minutes of private relaxation and contemplation, either during the day or last thing at night, gives your brilliant brain more than enough time to solve an old problem in a new way, come up with a great idea, help you understand what’s bothering you, or find a first step towards realising a long-held ambition.  You don’t have to concentrate and think consciously – in fact, this can stop the unconscious part of your brain making those new links and letting you know what they are. There’s much more about this in the book (see link below) – but as a start, find a short phrase that describes your issue.  Get comfortable and imagine it written on a mental ‘shopping-list’. You might see the words in colour, or hear them spoken, have a picture or run a short mental video. Then ‘park’ the idea and let your mind drift. The chances are that in the hours or days afterwards some new idea about your issue will occur to you.

Working with your own energy levels  Energy levels and concentration vary, and getting on with stuff is most effective if you learn to recognise and work with them. If you are brightest and most energetic in the morning ( a ‘lark’) you will do your best work then. If you are wide-awake in the evening (an ‘owl’) that’s the time to get on with stuff that really matters. The idea is to work with your natural rhythms not struggle against them. Sometimes this involves negotiation – colleagues or partners may be the opposite to you!

Whichever you are, learn to notice the smaller shifts in energy that operate alongside these big patterns. Roughly every 90 minutes everyone goes through a cycle of activity and rest. It makes no sense to try over-riding sleepy or dozy feelings: they are signals of a natural ‘dip’ time which helps your mind and body repair themselves. You’re much better to respect them and go for a short walk, a loo-break or a refreshing drink. On the other hand, don’t waste your brightest, buzziest (‘peak’) times for routine tasks. Instead, use them to have important conversations, brainstorm ideas, and seek solutions.

Why small ambition is the new big ambition  Big ambitions or goals can often feel daunting, perhaps unachievable, so it’s easier to reach them by taking small steps, each of which is achievable in itself so you build your confidence and know you are securely on your way. Small steps add up!

How to Manage Your Mammoth: The procrastinator’s guide to getting things done
by Wendy Jago is published by Piatkus at £9.99 from amazon

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