Procrastination is a fairly common problem, and a common strategy to cope is to use lists. You can find plenty of articles advising you on how to make lists, such as this one, this one, and this one.
Except having tried using lists, I found they didn't work too well. They would either turn into a beat myself up list of things I didn't get done, or mysteriously get lost somewhere. And so another list making effort would bite the dust.
More recently I have found myself running a busy private practice. I have a daily list of things I need to get done, and so have returned to using lists.
These are the 3 things I discovered in making lists work for me,
1. It matters what you call your list
When it comes to naming lists, they are almost invariably called a To Do List. When you start out the day a To Do List sounds optimistic and hopeful.
But by the end of the day your To Do List has transformed into a Not Done List, which can all too easily turn into a Failure List. Then after beating yourself up some more it can turn into a List of Every Reason Why I am a Failure.
Besides a To Do List having Failure hidden in the title, it also contains the assumption that the solution to inaction is action. However, people who procrastinate generally don't have a problem with the action part. What they have a problem with is getting started. That's the really tricky part.
What turns inaction into action is being able to spend long enough thinking and feeling about the task you need to complete. It helps you gather the energy you need to get started. Which is why, "I'll do that later, " is such a masterful avoidance technique.
Tackling the, "I'll do that later," impulse is why I call mine a Reminder List, because "I'll do that later," really means "If I put this off, I will forget about it, hopefully it will go away, and I won't have to worry about it. "
A Reminder List, keeps these important tasks at the forefront, so you get repeated chances to build up the energy you need to get started. Plus as long as you keep the list in the right place, it will always succeed in reminding you, which avoids having to navigate that battle around failure, because the only thing you are asking of your list is to be reminded.
2. It matters where you keep your list
Notes written on a scrap of paper, left lying around in the bottom of your bag or on a pile of papers, are not generally very effective. But then you already know that. I certainly do, have been there, done that, and still sometimes do that!
The best place to keep your list, is somewhere you will come across it several times a day.
The reason why this works, is only partly because it acts as a continued reminder. The other reason is that you are performing something known as systematic desensitisation on yourself, which is used to help people with phobias.
Your list will contain things which are uncomfortable for you to do, some of which will cause anxiety. The effective part of systematic desensitisation is gradual exposure to the feared situation, which of course your list represents.
You don't need to read your list regularly, or even look at it directly, you just need it to regularly appear somewhere in your field of vision.
My list is on my phone as part of my calendar app, which I have put on the home screen. Every time I check my diary, or pick up a message, my list automatically ends up in my field of vision. Plus my phone goes every where with me, and unlike a scrap of paper I am very unlikely to lose it.
3. It matters how long your list is
My list can be both too long and too short.
When it's too long, it gets overwhelming. Our response when we feel overwhelmed is to give up, which doesn't help, because it's likely to bring on expert levels of procrastination.
It also matters how many items are left over at the end of each day. The more items the greater the feeling of overwhelm. Also pushing myself to get the list completed increases my feeling of overwhelm, so this isn't helpful either.
The other thing I have noticed is that I am not entirely satisfied if I have no items left on it. Having a few items encourages me to return to the list the next day and add some more things to it.
And if I end up with too few items on it, I tend to lose interest - I clearly need at least a small tinge of anxiety to motivate me to pay attention to my list.
The way I manage my list is personal to me, however each of us will have a Goldilocks Zone, where there are enough items to motivate you and not so many you get overwhelmed.
Some side effects...
People who experience problems with procrastination often tell me they have poor memories. Being able to forget things is one of the techniques people use to procrastinate.
One of the things I have noticed is that since taking more control by using a list my memory has improved. Why that is, I don't really know. My guess would be is because it less cluttered - once what I need to remember is on my list, I can stop paying it so much attention, which frees up my mind for other things.
And now for a downside. I also get times when my list is empty, which would be great except for the "What shall I do now?" feeling. It's really important to not let your list convince you that you need to be constantly getting things done, and to allow yourself time off.
This article is the result of experimenting and paying attention to the 'results'. And like me, you may find you need to do some of your own experimenting to make lists matter for you.
main photo by Unsplash via pixabay.com
Mcleod (2008) Systematic Desensitisation via SimplyPsychology.org
Is procrastination getting in the way?
I am an experienced counsellor in private practice in the Southampton area of England, UK. Building your awareness around why you put things off, can help you to work out ways to cope better.