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How To Stop Procrastinating When You've Left It Far Too Late And Everything Is Terrible

So, you've got to go back to work or school in a few days and that Big Project you swore you would have finished by now is, surprise surprise, not finished. You have no idea how this happened. You had so much time! But there is so much to do that even the thought of starting makes you feel panicky and stressed-out. Dude: I feel you. I am a champion procrastinator. I used to do my homework on the bus to school or not at all; this year, I ignored a deadline for so long that I ended up having to write almost an entire novel in less than a fortnight. Hell, I've checked Facebook four times just while writing this introduction. But in order to function as a halfway competent human being, I've picked up a number of tips that I use to trick myself into Doing The Thing - especially if I've left the thing until the very last minute. And now I want to share them with you. Follow this step-by-step guide and I promise you, you will find it easier to Get The Thing Done. Start right now! I believe in you!

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1. Don't aim for 'perfect': aim for 'finished'


Sometimes - especially if a project is overdue - it's tempting to think that you need to make it AMAZING before you show it to anybody. That way, when they finally see it, they'll be so bowled over by your genius that they'll forget how long they had to wait for it! Right? WRONG. You need to produce something that meets the requirements you were given, and you need to do it quickly. Let go of the idea that this is going to be your best work: just do the best work you can with the time and resources you have available.

2. Set a deadline


If you already have one, great. If your project is already overdue, don't make the mistake of thinking 'well, it's already late, so there's no rush'. Set yourself a deadline that is realistic, but is soon enough to keep you motivated. Got fun plans for Friday? Aim to finish by Thursday night.

3. Give yourself a limited amount of time to make a plan


As procrastinators, we are excellent at planning. We love making lists, using highlighters to colour-code those lists, and basically doing everything we can to put off doing actual work.

The good news is that if we use our planning superpower responsibly, we can achieve anything. That means a) making a plan that is QUICK and SIMPLE and DOES NOT TAKE MORE TIME THAN ACTUALLY DOING THE THING; and b) following the plan right away.

So grab some paper, a pen and a handful of highlighters while we follow what David Allen, the author of life-changing productivity manual Getting Things Done, calls the Natural Planning Model. Allow yourself no more than an hour to make this plan: set a timer if necessary. (See step #10 for more about the life-changing magic of setting timers.)

4. Ask yourself: 'why am I doing this?'


The answer could be something like:

* because I said I would, and it's important to follow through when you've made a commitment

* because my teacher/colleague/grandma is expecting it

* because it will help me get a qualification or a promotion

or even just

* because I've been putting it off for so long that it's stressing me out and I want to get on with my life!

Either way, the answer is likely to remind you of what we talked about in step #1: your purpose here is not to produce the best work you've ever done. It's to meet the requirements of the task and get it finished by the deadline. Write down your purpose (quickly: the clock is ticking!) and move on to the next step.

5. Define the requirements of the task


If someone else offered to do this task for you (dream on!) what very basic instructions would you give them? You'd remind them of the deadline; what else? Is there a wordcount? What do they need to include? Write these down.

6. Envision the outcome


Take a couple of minutes to imagine you've just completed this project. What does it look like? How do you feel?

This exercise might give you some ideas for your project: if so, write them down. Or it might just help you imagine the feeling of relief you'll get when this project is finally complete: that's fine too. Move on to the next step.

7. Brainstorm

You know what you need to do and why you need to do it. So HOW are you going to do it? If you have to write an essay: what is it going to say?

You might have a lot of ideas; or just a lot of questions. Either way, write them all down - the big-picture ones, the tiny-detail ones, even the ones that are probably terrible. Get them all out of your head and on paper. I like to use a mind-map for this, like the one above, but you could use sticky notes or index cards - one note per idea! - if that works better for you.

8. Organise your thoughts / Via

Now you have all your ideas and questions out of your head, it's much easier to structure your work and to identify areas where you need more information before you proceed.

If you've used sticky notes or index cards, you can rearrange them into different sections. If you're planning an essay these might include sections of the essay itself, like 'introductory paragraphs', 'use of dialogue', 'foreshadowing'; but they could also include things like 'stuff I need to research further' or 'quotes that might be useful'. If you've used a mind map like the one above, you could organise it by colour-coding with highlighters or gel pens.

9. Identify the next action


Once you've organised your thoughts, you should have a list of steps you need to take to get your project done. This might be as simple as:

* write the intro

* write section 1

* write section 2

* etc

or it might look more like

* make a list of every example of x in Act 1

* call Mallory to check what the wordcount was

* write essay.

Either way, make sure you've identified all the steps you need, then sort them into order. If there's a step you absolutely need to complete first before anything else can happen, that's number 1. Or if there's a part of the project that you're dreading (in my case that would be anything that involves making a phone call), do that first. It's like eating a frog: it might not be pleasant, but you don't want to spend all day looking forward to it. You'll feel better once it's off your plate.

10. Set a timer


Personally I swear by the Pomodoro technique, which involves working in 25-minute chunks. But if you're feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated, 25 minutes might seem like a long time - I get it. If that's the case, try five minutes.

* If possible, switch your phone off, put it on flight mode, or leave it in a different room

* Set a timer (since you're trying to avoid using your phone, try an app on your tablet, a browser plug-in on your computer or even a kitchen timer)

* Check what your next action is, and DO IT, without stopping, until the timer goes off. You'll be surprised by how much you can get done

* If you successfully worked without getting distracted the entire time, reward yourself with a five-minute break.

* After your break, come back and do it again. Repeat until you've finished.

11. Reward yourself


It's a great idea to have a reward to look forward to when your project is complete: you could spend a day with friends, or buy yourself something pretty. But if you're really struggling to stay motivated, you might also need to plan some little ways to treat yourself as you hit milestones along the way. For example, you could:

* Make each five-minute break a reward for working uninterrupted. Get some fresh air, make a cup of your favourite tea, dance around the room to a song you like, check Instagram. Just make sure you're ready to start work again at the end of your break.

* Take time to wind down at the end of the day. If you've made real progress and you're pleased with the work you've done, reward yourself with a bath, a tasty dinner or a Netflix marathon.

* Plan incentives as you go along. If you have to write a thousand-word essay, you could allow yourself a tiny snack, a Facebook break or a 1-minute dance party every time you write 100 words.

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