By Katie Azevedo, M.Ed.
This post is one of many resources in my anti-procrastination series. I’ve included links to the other resources throughout this post and at the end.
I start each post in this series with a list of the 6 common reasons most people procrastinate. Tim Pychyl identified that we procrastinate on a task when it is one of the following:
- Ambiguous (unclear)
- Lacks personal meaning / intrinsic reward
This article offers procrastination tips for overcoming the third and fourth triggers on the list: when a task lacks structure and is ambiguous.
If we know exactly what to do, by when, and how to do it, we are more likely to do the thing. It’s when a task is unstructured, unclear and open-ended that we are likely to procrastinate.
Here are 6 tips for giving structure and clarity to the things you’ve been avoiding – whether that’s homework, projects, or personal goals.
How to give a task structure: 6 anti-procrastination tips
1. Set a hard final deadline.
Deadlines create urgency; urgency creates action. Look at a calendar and choose a reasonable deadline to complete your task. Emphasis on reasonable. Don’t give yourself too much time or you’ll fall victim to Parkinson’s Law. Think about how long similar tasks have taken you in the past, and use that as a starting point. Write this deadline down somewhere – in your calendar, in your reminders app on your phone, or on a sticky note on your mirror.
2. Set interim deadlines if the task is large.
If your task is simple, then setting one final deadline (procrastination tip #1) might be enough. But if your task is complicated with multiple components, set smaller deadlines for each step within the larger task. Write down each of these micro deadlines; set reminders if needed.
Main task: Read 5 chapters of summer reading book and write chapter summaries for each chapter by end of week.
- Interim deadlines:
- July 23: Read and write summary for chapter 1
- July 24: Read and write summary for chapter 2
- July 25-27: etc.
Main task: Register for online classes by August 24
- Interim deadlines:
- August 18: Read through course catalog; highlight interesting courses
- August 19: Refine course selection based on class dates and times that work with my schedule
- August 20: Submit course registration
- August 21-24: Deal with obstacles that arise, like dropped or full classes
3. List out exact steps.
Skip this one if your task is uber-simple, like empty the dishwasher. (Dude – just empty the dishwasher.) But for anything more complicated than that, read on.
Also – this procrastination tip pairs well with procrastination tip #2, in case you didn’t notice.
Taking a few moments to list the exact steps for doing something helps us visualize the completion of each component; in turn, this gives the task more structure. If you already know the exact steps in your head, write them down on paper. If you don’t yet know the exact steps, use this time to figure it out.
4. Identify and gather all materials.
If you don’t have the right materials to do the thing, then you obviously can’t do the thing. Take a few minutes to think through the task and identify exactly what you need to complete it. Do you have those materials? Where can you get them? Get them. Will you need a Google Doc? Open a new one. Will you need something from someone else? Get it.
5. Clarify directions and expectations.
If you don’t understand what you’re supposed to do, you won’t likely do it. So get real for a moment and ask yourself do I really know what I’m doing? Do I really know what’s expected? If the answer is no, then you need to clarify the directions and expectations before you begin (or you will never begin!).
There are multiple ways you can gain clarity, depending on the task:
- Google it!
- Read the directions again; maybe you missed something obvious
- Ask your teacher or boss for clarification or a model
- Ask a classmate or colleague
- Check online for examples and/or models of similar projects
- Consult your notes if you have them
- Watch a YouTube tutorial
A quick test to see if you really understand what you’re supposed to do is to try to explain it to someone else. If you can’t do that, then you are still unclear.
6. Choose the right location.
One way to give a task more structure is to identify and set up a dedicated workspace just for that task. Don’t be willy nilly and do it on the couch. Get real about it and set up a desk or table for the occasion – complete with all the materials you will need, and away from distractions. If you’re not serious about your workspace, then you’re not serious about completing the task. Use these tips for setting up the perfect workspace.
Remember, there are 6 common characteristics of a task that make us likely to procrastinate. These tips for how to give a task structure might be exactly what you’ve needed – or maybe not. Maybe you’ve been procrastinating because your task is frustrating or boring. If so, then start with my other resources in this anti-procrastination series.