The Working With… Podcast

How To Turn Procrastination To Your Advantage

March 2, 2020

This week, on the Working With… Podcast, we are digging deep into the world of procrastination. 



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Episode 122

Hello and welcome to episode 122 of the Working With Podcast. A podcast to answer all your questions about productivity, time management, self-development and goal planning. My name is Carl Pullein and I am your host for this show.

Right. So it happens to us all. We find it almost impossible to motivate ourselves to begin a project or to sit down and prepare that presentation, write that email or call that difficult client. Instead, we will suddenly realise that the most important task right now is to clean our desk of the five files we left there this morning and our socks drawer has to be re-organised now!

Yes, this week we return to the wonderful subject of procrastination and more specifically how to turn procrastination to your advantage. 

Now, before we begin, are you ready to move beyond the to-do list? I ask because I see a lot of people getting stuck and not getting what they want done because they are spending far too much time inside their to-do list and not enough time doing the work. For me, that’s a weakness in the whole Getting Things Done methodology—too much time processing, organising and reviewing—and it’s a weakness in a lot of people’s system and if you think about it, it is just another form of procrastination. 

In my latest course, Productivity Masterclass | Build Your Own Workflow, I take everything I’ve learned about doing the work so I have more time to do the things I want to do and built it into a course that will show you how to get focused on your important tasks, how to make sure you goals are being acted on every day and how to finally get away from living inside your to-do list so you can focus on the things you want to focus on. Basically, how you can stop procrastinating.

I’d love for you to join me in this course, so please take a look. The link to the course details is in the show notes. 

Okay, it’s now time for me to hand you over the mystery podcast voice for this week’s question.

This week’s question comes from Janet. Janet asks: Hi Carl, I recently took your COD course and loved it. The problem I have though is I never seem to be able to get started on my work. I follow the Golden ten, yet when I wake up in the morning I will do everything except the things I had planned to do. Do you have any tips that could help me?

Hi Janet, thank you for sending in your question. 

Now, we all procrastinate, it’s part of being human and it is perfectly normal. What we rarely hear about is there are two types of procrastination. The famous negative type—the one where you don’t do what you had planned to do and the positive type—the one where your brain engages your subconscious mind and develops great ideas and solves problems you thought were impossible to solve. 

Now when people talk about procrastination they are inevitably talking about the negative kind. The one that finds you watching puppy videos on YouTube instead of writing that urgent email to your most important customer. 

Why do we do that? Well, it’s more often than not linked to a fear of failure. That’s the number one reason we procrastinate. We fear we will screw up, we fear we will be embarrassed by what we do. This is why when we are not clear about something, rather than ask the question about what something means, we procrastinate and not do anything about it. That appears a safer option than risking looking stupid by asking what might be an obvious question. 

Procrastination is built into our human psyche as a safety mechanism and if you procrastinate a lot it does not mean you have a problem. It just means you are normal, but are more aware you are procrastinating than most people. That’s a good thing. Seriously!

It’s far better to acknowledge you procrastinate—because we all do—instead of telling yourself you are naturally lazy and that is just the way you are. That thought might not be completely true. Yes, humans are naturally lazy. We naturally take the path of least resistance. To not be lazy takes a lot of willpower and discipline but that is something completely different from procrastinating. 

So how do we prevent ourselves from procrastinating?

Well, first up is awareness. You need to be aware of when you are procrastinating. Catch yourself doing it. Knowing what you do when you procrastinate (in the negative sense) is the first step to overcoming it. Do you flip through your Instagram or Facebook feed? Do you watch unrelated videos on YouTube? Do you suddenly begin cleaning your desk or removing old files from your computer’s hard drive? What do you usually do when you find yourself procrastinating. 

When you recognise the signs you are procrastinating it is much easier to stop yourself. It also allows you to ask yourself why? Why are you procrastinating? What are you afraid of? I love that question because it shocks me into thinking about what the fear is. 

That’s because it’s almost always related to fear.

It took me six months to record my first YouTube video! Seriously, six months! Why? Because I was ‘afraid’ to be on camera. I’ve always preferred being behind the camera rather than in front of it. This fear manifested itself by convincing me to “think about topics” to “plan out the way I would record the videos” and to research the best equipment to make a YouTube video. My favourite phrase at that time was “I just need to…” 

Once I realised all this was BS—and I thank Gary Vaynerchuk for this because I remember seeing a video he did on the phrase “I’m gonna” that woke me up to the excuses I was making (I’ll put a link in the show notes to that video) I finally did my first video. That first video was the start of an incredible journey and a journey that has completely changed my life in so many positive ways. 

Recognising you are procrastinating and understanding what the fear behind it is will do so much to help you overcome it. 

Nine times out of ten the fear will be a fear of failure. You are afraid you will screw up. The thing is, you are going to screw up, you are going to fail. It’s how we learn as humans. 

I’ve been watching my nephew learn to walk. He pulls himself up on the sofa, looks around and tries to take an unaided step and as soon as he lets go of the sofa he falls down. Again and again, he falls. But we don’t turn round and say, “oh well never mind. I guess he’s not going to be a walker”. We encourage him to keep trying until he can walk unaided. All those mistakes are part of the learning process. It’s in the not giving up and trying one more time that eventually leads to kids being able to walk unaided and that leads to the next step and the next. 

In a work environment, picking up the phone and calling the angry customer to sort out their problem will always be easier than worrying about what the customer might say or do. The worrying is always a lot worse than the actual call. Sure, the customer might shout and scream at you down the phone, but by making the call you have taken the one step you were afraid of and can now move on to the next step of turning that customer from an angry unhappy customer into your biggest fan. 

So, what can you do to overcome procrastination once you have identified you are procrastinating? 

What has worked for me and many of my clients is to schedule the work on my calendar. Let’s say you have an angry customer and you know you have been putting off making the call, what you need to do is to set a time for when you will call the customer. Let’s say you schedule the call for 11:30am. Put that on your calendar. Write something like “call Miss Angry about her problem”. To really make that time stick, send the customer a message either by text or email telling them you will call at 11:30am. Now you cannot escape—well you could, but you would be making a bad situation onto a worse situation. 

If you have been putting off writing a report, Schedule thirty minutes to write. I like to use the words “begin writing report on regional sales in the first quarter” rather than “write report”. Using the words “begin writing” lowers the expectation enough for my brain not to overthink the work. “Begin writing” means if I only write 500 words, I can still claim I have completed the task. After that, I use words like “continue writing…” If you write 500 hundred words every day for five days you have a 2,500-word report. 

Another trick you can use is the momentum trick. This involves building momentum so you eventually reach a spot where momentum carries you through to completion. For example, if you wanted to find another job there are a number of things that need to happen for you to apply for a new job. Things like, update your resume, research job openings, draft out a cover letter etc. 

In your to-do list or notes app, you can create a list of tasks you need to perform and once that list is complete you start at the top and tell yourself you will complete one task per day until all tasks have been completed. So, day one you might update your resume, day two you write out your cover letter. Day three, you find ten jobs you want to apply to. Day four you apply for those ten jobs etc. Over a period of five days, you will have moved a significant way towards a new job. 

The rule is you one thing every day. No excuses. 

Finally, the one thing that works for me every time is to plan the work I will do the next day the day before. Every day, before I close out the day I sit down with my to-do list and calendar open and I plan out what I will work on the next day. For those of you familiar with my work you know about the 2+8 Prioritisation method. This is where I select two tasks as my objectives for the day and up to eight other tasks that I would really like to complete. This means I close the day knowing what I want to accomplish the next day and I begin the day with a clear plan on the work I will do that day. 

I don’t always complete the eight tasks, but I rarely fail to hit my two objectives. It’s when I don’t have a plan for the day I find I procrastinate. Having a plan allows me to start the day with a purpose and a focus and that keeps procrastination away. 

One more thing I should mention before I end is if you are not getting enough sleep, you will find you procrastinate a lot more. Now, this is not usually associated with fear, but more a lack of willpower. A lack of sleep dramatically reduces your willpower and discipline because your brain is tired it just wants to stop. If you do find you are procrastinating over something and you did not get enough sleep the night before, it’s much more likely caused by tiredness rather than fear.

I hope that has helped you a little Janet. Remember, if you do catch yourself procrastinating ask yourself what it is you fear. Then, break down the task into steps you can take and just do the first step. Fear is not a physical thing, it’s a mental thing and understanding the fear, what’s causing it and rationalising it so you can take the first step is going to build the momentum you need to move forward on the task.

Thank you for the question and thank you to all of you for listening. It just remains for me now to wish you all a very very productive week.