Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Stuck in a rut of procrastination? It's time to get more specific with what you need to do

Do find yourself dreading a certain task, or finding ways to delay it? Christine Hennebury writes that often happens when when we haven't been specific about what it is, or how and when we are going to do it.

Make your tasks as specific as you can by asking yourself these 3 questions

Have you ever spent a long time avoiding a task only to get annoyed with yourself when it ends up only taking 10 minutes to complete? Contributor Christine Hennebury is here to help. (Christine Hennebury)

When we find ourselves dreading or delaying certain tasks, we often haven't been specific about what they are, or how and when we are going to do them.

Have you ever spent a long time avoiding a task only to get annoyed with yourself when it ends up only taking 10 minutes to complete?

Did that annoyance then turn into a full internal tirade about procrastination, laziness and general lack of character?

Procrastinating your tasks can be annoying, especially if they end up taking quicker than you expected. (Giphy)

I'd like you to ask you to consider being kinder to yourself about the whole process.

Sure, maybe you procrastinated a little on it but I don't think the problem is that you didn't want to do it. I think the problem was that you couldn't do it.

Trying to get a task done can be a challenge when you don't know where to start. (Giphy)

And the reason that you couldn't do it has nothing to do with being lazy or unmotivated, no matter what that internal tirade said.

Often, our inaction in these circumstances stems from not getting specific about what the task was, how it needs to be done, or when we were going to do it.

When we take on these sorts of vague tasks, they tend to loom large in our minds. They take up a lot more space than they need to and they give us a lot of trouble. And we compound that by giving ourselves grief about how long we are taking to get around to them.

But, really, we have been trying to get ourselves to work on something without having a clear idea about what the tasks involve. It's no wonder we didn't want to get started — who wants to start when you don't know what you're doing, how to do it, or how long it will take?

Trying to finish a task when you don't know how to start it can leave some people trapped in procrastinating. (Giphy)

So if you want to reduce the time you spend avoiding your tasks, your best bet is to make them as specific as you can by asking yourself these three questions.

Do I know exactly what I have to do?

Lots of times, we'll decide to do a task or a project but we're not really clear on what we actually need to do or what we hope to get out of it. Perhaps we didn't get clear instructions or perhaps we didn't understand things as well as we thought we did. Either way, things are murky and we are left with a sense of something needing to be done but we don't really know what it is.

If this is happening to you, take a few minutes to focus on clarifying the task. You aren't trying to do it right now, you are just trying to define it.

Getting specific in what you need to complete will ultimately make getting things done easier. (Giphy)

If your task is clear, something like "Call and make an appointment," this stage will be pretty straightforward and you jump ahead to the next questions.

If it is unclear, then your clarification will help you see if it is a one-step task or if it has multiple steps.

If it is just one step, once you have clarified it, you can figure out the how and the when from the questions below.

If your task has multiple steps, then it's a project and you aren't going to be able to do it all at once. (I'll bet that some part of your brain realized that all along and that's why you couldn't get started.)

Make a list of the specific tasks involved in each step (or at least as many as you know right now — it's OK to work on the parts you know while you figure out the rest) and then move on to the how and the when.

Do I know how to do it?

If your task is straightforward, like the appointment mentioned above, then your "how" would be something like find the number and make the call. (If making phone calls is difficult for you, for any reason, perhaps your how could involve finding the number and texting a friend to make the call for you.)

If the tasks are not quite as straightforward, then this "how" stage will include figuring out the specific things that need to be done for each step.

Sometimes you need to take a moment and plan out how are you are going to complete the task at hand. (Giphy)

This thinking and research you are doing at this point is part of the work. Make sure you count it as working on the task because, after all, you cannot complete the work until you understand how.

Once you have figured out enough "how" to get started, you can figure out your "when."

Note: If you struggle with the 'how' and breaking projects into steps, perhaps part of your work could be enlisting the help of a friend who can do this with less stress. We all have different skill sets, and not all of us have the strong executive function skills. There is no need to be hard on yourself about not being able to do this; your skills are just in a different area and your friend may need your skills another time.

Have I picked a time to do the task?

No matter how small your task, it is going to take some time to do it.

If you are having trouble getting it done, picking a specific time to do it will help.

Picking a specific time to get your task done will often help make sure it's completed. (Giphy)

Scheduling a task not only identifies when it will be done, it also identifies when it will not be done. By marking a certain time for the task, you no longer have to think about it at other times.

When you don't have a task scheduled, you are essentially asking yourself over and over, "Am I going to do that now?" "How about now?" "Am I going to forget to do that? Should I do it now?" Frankly, that's exhausting.

If you put your phone call on your calendar at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, then 2 p.m. on Tuesday is the only time you need to think about it.

I know your next question is 'What if something happens and I can't do it at that time?" If that happens, don't be hard on yourself; just reschedule the task for another specific time. Don't just think you will get to it later — that's too hard on your brain. Reschedule and get yourself out of the 'How about now?' loop.

This works as well for complicated, multistep things as it does for simple tasks.

When you have figured out your "how" for a project and broken it into a set of steps, schedule time to do each one. Or, at least, schedule time to do the first one. You'll figure out the timing for the rest as you proceed.

Breaking a bigger project down into multiple steps can often make completing it a lot easier, making a similar to a smaller task. (Giphy)

Be specific

It is a lot easier to do a specific task at a specific time than to try something like "Work on Project A this week."

The parameters of "Work on Project A this week" are not clear and it makes sense that you would resist doing that work.

When you have clarified your tasks and scheduled them, you will find them easier to start.

If you don't get a task done, don't be hard on yourself! Everything will work out in the end. (Giphy)

Please remember that you are not a superhero; you are a human being with limited time and limited energy. Don't waste yours being hard on yourself about the tasks you haven't been able to get to.

Clarify and schedule your tasks so you are able to do the things you can, when you can, and then try to be kind to yourself about the rest.

If your challenges with these types of things are compounded by anxiety or by executive function issues, please be extra kind to yourself about them. You may need extra support (or different systems) to get specific, and that's perfectly OK.

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