How to Stop Putting Things Off!

13 Dec 2011

Living in procrastination hell? A new book says it’s easy to knock faffing on the head in just fifteen minutes

It took me exactly 21 minutes to start typing this sentence. During those 21 minutes, I checked Facebook three times, got two glasses of water and asked a colleague a series of inane questions purely to put off deciding how to tackle the subject of procrastination (no, the irony isn’t lost on me).

Give me a simple task to do, and I’ll put it off for as long as is humanly possible. Order takeout, you say? Great, I’ll do that when I’ve just had a think about what I want to eat and where I want to order from. In fact, I’ll just put some washing on quickly because that should have been done earlier and now the more I ruminate over it, do I actually want takeout anyway as perhaps cooking would be easier? Should I go to Spinney’s or just use what’s in the fridge? Actually…am I even hungry?

Though my ability to procrastinate takes things to the extreme, most people I know have mastered the art of ‘putting-off’. From filling out important mortgage forms to choosing what to have for lunch, no task big or small is free from the take-your-time-trap. My best friend recently confessed that her daughter almost missed out on a place at the local high school because she put off filling in the application for so long, while my partner has a whole suitcase of clothes under the bed that he hasn’t unpacked since he arrived here two years ago (two years I tell you!). And while our behaviour might seem perfectly reasonable to us, the reality of faffing is actually affecting us far more than we realise.

Apart from the fact that we never get anything done quickly, according to Caroline Buchanan, a certified counsellor and author of a new decision making guide The 15 Minute Rule (Dhs36,, putting things off can prevent us from achieving our goals, as well as leaving us with never-finished ‘to do’ lists and endless half-done chores.

And the good news just keeps coming. According to a recent study by Leadership IQ, one of the world’s top providers of leadership training, women feel less urgency to achieve their goals than men do, meaning that we really are the champions when it comes to procrastinating. Couple this with the fact that women today are juggling more tasks than ever before, and it’s no surprise that putting things off is causing us some serious stress. “We all procrastinate at some point or the other and many of us get away with it without suffering from any mental health related consequences,” explains Dina Zalami, clinical counsellor at LifeWorks Dubai. “However, it’s when people tend to put things off or escape from doing things on a regular basis that problems start to occur.”

The worst thing about procrastinating is that, in general, we are well aware that we are doing it. My house is never tidier than when I have a lot on at work; although I know that re-organising the spice rack isn’t really a priority (especially since I haven’t used most of the spices since 2009). However, I still manage to use this as an excuse for not getting on with far more important tasks.

Zalami continues, “As a result [of procrastinating] we may feel guilt, shame, self-directed anger and helplessness. Such feelings can have a negative toll on our self-esteem and in turn, this may lead us to develop anxiety and in some cases, depression. In fact, low self-esteem is a root cause of many mental health related issues as many of us develop maladaptive behaviors (i.e. addictions, eating disorders) to cope with feelings that low self-esteem give us.”

And it doesn’t end there. As well as affecting our wellbeing, a failure to just get on with the tasks facing us can also spill into other areas of our lives such as work, friendships and relationships; meaning that we irresolute folk are shooting ourselves (and our long-suffering partners, friends and colleagues) in the foot every time we dither over doing something.

So why do we do it? Buchanan explains: “Reasons for procrastination are many and varied but unless you’re bone idle, most of them will stem from an emotional reaction. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of missing out, fear of not being responsible enough, fear of not coping, fear of what you might find, fear of anger, guilt, sadness, boredom - whatever it is that’s stopping you getting on will almost certainly have fear behind it.”

I’m not entirely sure that my putting off mailing letters or doing the dishes is motivated by fear (although this is certainly an excuse I’ll be using in future), but procrastinating over bigger decisions is certainly something I’d put down to worry. After all - if I choose the wrong pizza topping, no one suffers, but if I make a mistake at work or give a friend bad advice, that could have longer lasting ramifications.

This procrastination, and the worry that accompanies it, apparently slots me neatly into one of the two different ‘types’ of people in the world: maximisers and satisficers - a term coined by American psychologist and professor Herbert Simon.

“Maximisers are those who tend to look for the ideal/best option when making decisions, while satisficers tend to look for a ‘good enough’ option,” explains Zalami. “Therefore, maximisers usually spend more time than satisficers do making decisions,” she adds.

The answer, Buchanan says, is that rather than putting off the tasks that you need to do, break up your time into 15 minute sections. So, if you’ve got annoying paperwork to do, drains to grout or a project to begin, set a timer and spend just 15 minutes on it. “First,” she says, “get ready for the task with 15 minutes prep. Divide this prep into five minutes - use the first five minutes to deal with anything urgent that will stop you doing it (e.g. sending an important email, NOT calling your friend for a chat), the second five minutes to jot down other important things you need to do, and the final five minutes getting things prepared for the task.”

Fully prepped you can then dedicate15 whole minutes to the task without getting distracted by urgent things (you did those in the first five minutes) or by head noise telling you to do something else (that’ll be the second five minutes). Once you start, you only have to do the task for 15 minutes at a time - earning yourself some guilt free downtime afterwards.

“Think of all the energy you spend stressing about the things you mean to achieve, or the energy you spend trying not to worry about something,” Buchanan explains. “If you’re feeling exhausted, miserable, depressed or unmotivated, doing nothing can seem very appealing. But if you keep on doing nothing, you will only get more of the same. If you want to feel better then you need to try something else and sticking to the 15-minute rule with keep you feeling motivated.”

With this in mind, I decided to use the rule to tackle what is referred to in my house as ‘the cupboard of doom’. In addition to the usual things you’d expect to find in a kitchen cupboard, I have filled one particular space with every piece of tat I have come into contact with over the last seven years. Yes, I need to clean it out, but the thought of actually sorting through it fills me with doom - hence the name.

As per Buchanan’s advice, I set a timer and give myself 15 minutes to sort through the pile of mess. During that time, I find a long lost pair of shoes and some bank statements I have been looking for. I also find that the time goes quickly, and though I’m not willing to commit more than 15 minutes at a time to the doom cupboard, if I just do a clear out once a week, I’ll be done in no time. The lesson? Stop procrastinating and just do it.

Are you a maximiser or a satisfier?

our quick quiz to find out if procrastinating is causing you problems

1. You need a new outfit for a friend’s
wedding. You find something perfect in the first shop you come to. Do you:
Buy it immediately, it’s perfect.
B. Keep it as a backup and check
there isn’t anything better elsewhere.

2. You are asked to organize the
offi ce Christmas party. Do you:
Check out several venues, caterers and themes before choosing
something just right.
B. Pick the local venue round the corner since you’re likely
to end up there anyway.

3. You are hosting a dinner party
for a few friends and burn the main dish. Do you:
Feel that the evening has been ruined, since your guests won’t
have anything to eat.
B. Make a joke of it and order pizza - they are there to see
you, not the food.

4. People are most likely to compliment
you on:
Your laid-back approach to life.
B. The way you manage to juggle so
many things.

5. You would rather:
Regret something you did rather than not do it at all.
B. Avoid
making a choice you would be likely to regret in future.

Add up your scores below:

1) A. 2 B. 1

2) A. 1 B. 2

3) A. 1 B. 2

4) A. 2 B. 1

5) A. 2 B. 1

Mostly 1s:
You are likely to be a perfectionist who wants everything to be
just right. As such, you spend time weighing up the outcomes of various situations and can put off
doing things in case they go wrong. You may also experience some anxiety about
not getting things right, which can  encourage
procrastination. Though your tendency to want perfection can serve you well in
many areas (such a work), try to settle for ‘good enough’ when dealing
with smaller tasks (such as the shopping, which fi lm to see at the cinema

Mostly 2s:
Satisfactory is fi ne by you. You don’t feel that looking around
for something better will improve anything and have the ability to make quick
decisions, in which you are usually confi dent. Although you are less likely to procrastinate, your quick decision
making can mean that you sometimes settle for ‘okay’ when you could achieve
much better. When you’re working on an important project, try to look at several ways of doing things
before choosing just one - you may be surprised by what you fi nd.