How to Get That Thing Done That You Keep Putting Off
Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.
Most of us have something that we keep putting off until a looming deadline spurs us to action. Our modus operandi robs us of sleep and our confidence that we did our best work. Some unpleasant tasks don’t have a deadline, so we postpone them until we can’t function anymore without doing something about them. Like when you know you need to get a new computer, but that requires a disagreeable choice between researching to make the right selection, or surrendering to the influence of a salesperson. So you don’t do anything about it until your processing speed slows to a crawl.
Whatever you tend to procrastinate on, that increases your stress and lowers your self-esteem. Go through this list of suggestions and look at your practice with new eyes to find one thing you can do differently now.
1. Delegate it. The easiest way to get something off your desk is to give it to someone else. Most likely, some aspect of the task isn’t one of your strengths, or you would have already done it. Lawyers should improve their delegation skills and consider delegating in 3 scenarios:
a. Get rid of the drudgery. Someone else likes that kind of project. Another person may appreciate the opportunity to develop a skill that you mastered long ago and now find boring. Even if you have to edit it or otherwise fix a subordinate’s work product, you’ll finally be in motion on it. Some attorneys can get more motivated to critique another’s work than to do the work themselves. If you provide clear instructions about your corrections, the subordinate will begin learning how you want it done. If this is a recurring task, have him add detailed instructions to a desk manual for future reference.
b. Find a temporary helper. A lot of attorneys say they don’t have anyone to delegate to, and they wind up putting off filing, scanning, invoicing, following up on receivables, closing files, updating their website, sending out their newsletter, and engaging in business development activities. You can bring someone in to do discreet chores, which will free you up to handle what only you can do. For low skill matters, ask colleagues and the local high school or college for the name of a bright and conscientious student that wants to earn some extra money on a part-time or project basis. Local organizations that award college scholarships can be a great resource because they see many more deserving candidates than they have funds for. Also, in this economic environment, law students will jump at any kind of work that gets them through the door of a law office.
c. Engage a specialist. If your procrastinated project requires more skill or experience, hire the right kind of expertise. Don’t keep fooling yourself that you’re going to create your own website, figure out the right technology to buy, write your own marketing copy, or be your own paralegal. When you’re in over your head, you’ll keep procrastinating. Someone can do it better and faster than you, and their rates will still be less than yours. Let them free you up to do what you do best, and your productivity and job satisfaction will soar. If finances are tight, you may be able to barter services or find a qualified low bidder on www.elance.com. You might be surprised at what can be handled virtually.
2. Chunk it down. Some projects get postponed because they are too overwhelming or take big blocks of time. Can you break it into component parts? If you’re trying to organize your office, start with a goal of organizing one drawer or one stack of papers on your desk. If you want to get a blog started, dedicate 30 minutes one day just to jotting notes on the kinds of questions clients frequently ask you. On day 2, spend 30 minutes sketching out a rough outline for two or three topics. On day 3 start writing. If the muse still doesn’t strike you, on day 4 find a law student with an English major to create first drafts from your rough outlines.
3. Get the right equipment. Examine whether annoying chores that you tend to defer can be made easier or more pleasant if you invest in some new equipment. Would you return client calls sooner if you could quickly view all of your voicemails, instead of having to listen to 5 other messages to find out that the client has called? There are smartphone apps for that. Would you get into motion with drafting if you could just talk about the subject and see your words appear on the screen? Dragon Naturally Speaking does a good job now. Would you promptly scan paper to an organized location instead of piling it up, if you had a scanner on your desk? Lawyers love ScanSnap, and it doesn’t take up much space.
4. Schedule it. Stop kidding yourself. You’re not going to get “a round tuit,” so set aside a specific time for it. Block off space on your calendar and set a task reminder on your computer. If a genuine higher priority prevents you from keeping the date with yourself, don’t allow yourself to dismiss that task. Snooze the alert if you have to, but don’t dismiss it. You’ll eventually get the job done just to escape the nagging reminder that keeps popping up.
5. Create small successes. Research shows that when people begin intentionally modifying one behavior, they tend to be more successful at changing other unrelated behaviors. Making the bed daily has been correlated with sticking to a budget and improving productivity. People who start exercising regularly get more done, use their credit cards less and show more patience with colleagues. (Source: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.) Clean your office and you’ll settle down to work more quickly in the morning. Enforce a habit of updating your to-do list daily, and experience little wins as you check items off. Soon you’ll procrastinate less. Pick out one small thing to do better or differently, and do that thing consistently for several weeks. The new faith in yourself that small wins engender will give you extra willpower and optimism to tackle some of your bigger, more disagreeable responsibilities.
6. Identify next actions. Fans of David Allen’s Getting Things Done book recognize that often our problem originates from focusing on the wrong first activity. You keep intending to go paperless in your office and you even have the necessary equipment. Every time you tell staff to start scanning, however, they keep peppering you with questions about what category to put something in. You’re too busy to think it through at the time, and the whole process stalls. Your first project needs to be to get the appropriate computer file structure designed. Then you won’t have to be so involved. (Don’t forget step 1 above for elements of that assignment.)
7. Get an accountability partner. Make a commitment to someone you respect to get the job done by a specific date. Often that alone will move you to action. If you need a bigger incentive, design consequences for failure or success in meeting your goal. Most people will work harder to avoid loss than to achieve a gain, but experiment to find what works best for you. Professional coaches can be particularly creative at helping to design effective consequences, and they aren’t afraid to hold you to your commitment. I know of one very productive individual who used to hire someone to sit in his office, babysitting him until he completed the activity that stymied him. That’s an element of what a professional organizer does, compelling clients to make decisions about what to do with each category of their accumulated stuff.
When you get into motion, please celebrate your small win in the comments below. Perhaps you have a favorite technique for overcoming your own inertia and disorganization to start getting things done. Share that too!