Five Ways to Stop Procrastinating

In the past, I thought of my procrastination habit as a rather annoying but slightly amusing personality quirk. But it’s really not. As much fun as it is to switch report-writing for rearranging furniture, the truth is that when you waste time consistently, you’re effectively lowering both the amount and quality of the free time that you have.

This week’s TES article gives you the tools needed to stop procrastinating once and for all. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of guilt-free relaxation after a day of mega productivity.

My name is Jo and I am a procrastinator (in recovery).

It is as an age-old problem, described as “hateful” by Roman statesman Cicero in 44BC.

For the modern-day procrastinator, with the myriad of distractions available to us at all times, it can be much harder to avoid procrastination, and much harder to beat it.

But speaking from the viewpoint of a casualty in recovery, it is doable. Here’s how:

1. Get real about the cost

While it may seem like a rather amusing personality quirk, procrastination is no laughing matter. Not only are you missing out on guilt-free leisure, which only comes after you’ve done the thing you’re dreading, you also risk shelving other important “life stuff” as you’re forced to sit typing long into the evening hours. When you feel the urge to pause the report-writing in favour of scrolling through Facebook, ask yourself if it’s worth missing that bubble bath, phone call or family dinner later.

2. Apply a policy of ‘Worst First’

When you’re hell-bent on avoiding a particular task or project, it’s easy to trick yourself into doing something else; often a “something” that’s less important, non-urgent and a whole lot more fun. Arrange your tasks into the Eisenhower Matrix of urgent-important tasks to ensure that you don’t find yourself haunted by pressing matters at the end of a seemingly productive day.

3. Break large tasks into small steps

Many of us struggle to even start tasks simply because they appear overwhelming, but they don’t have to be. By setting smaller, achievable goals, tasks appear much more approachable. Let’s say you’re stuck with a huge set of assessments to mark – why not mark three per night? Or maybe you’ve got a unit of work to write – just focus on getting the first lesson done, or even the first starter task, perhaps with a lovely cup of coffee as your reward. Negotiate with your inner dilly-dallier until it’s at least willing to start. With any luck, momentum will do the rest!

4. Set clear, short time limits

As Cyril Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Give yourself an hour or three to plan a lesson and either way, you’ll fill your time and get the same results. No deadline at all? Then it’s very likely you’ll fall into the abyss of teacher resources online, endlessly searching for the perfect one. Use whatever technology is nearby to set yourself regular time limits and brain-breaks to keep you recharged and efficient.

5. Set yourself up for success

Observe your habits over the next week, taking note of what your triggers are before beginning to make small adjustments. Maybe you always end up chatting to a colleague in the workroom – could you work elsewhere? Perhaps your attention is constantly being pulled away by the pinging of emails. Why not put your phone away, allowing yourself to read these emails at a later point in the day? As with any addict trying to quit a bad habit, determination and willpower will only get you so far. Get a solid plan in place to ensure you don’t slide back into your old ways.

Teacher Wellbeing: Multiply your time!

This morning, I watched a really interesting TED talk by Rory Vaden, entitled ‘How to Multiply Your Time.’ There’s a wealth of information on the internet relating to work-life balance and I’m keen to try any new ideas or strategies that may help me find more peace both inside and outside of the classroom. Click here to watch the video. I’ve broken this down and suggested how this might apply to teaching professionals below, though it could be applied to any professional or indeed any human being who has stuff to do. I’ve already used the questioning to eliminate a few summer housework jobs!

Vaden discusses prioritising in the modern age and what he calls it ‘3D thinking.’ Before you start any task, he suggests that you consider these three questions:

  1. How much does it matter?

  2. How soon does it matter?

  3. How long will it matter for?

This is so simple but very effective. Often teachers find themselves so busy with day to day teaching, planning, marking, emails and admin, that they forget to actually ask anything before they sit down to work. I know that this isn’t part of my own working routine.

The ethos of a ‘time multiplier’, according to Vaden, is ‘Give yourself the emotional permission to spend time on things TODAY that will give you more time TOMORROW’ – Prioritise tasks that will result in less tasks or at least more efficiency down the line; do what is most significant first rather than what’s most urgent.

In order to decide what needs to be done and when, he applies the following thought processes before beginning tasks. He asks:

  1. Why am I doing this? Is it worth doing? Vaden talks about giving yourself permission to say no to certain things if they are not worthy of your time; he says that by saying yes to things that are unworthy, you’re inadvertently saying no to other things that would have been more useful and fulfilling.

For teaching staff, whatever your role in school, you will obviously have tasks that come first, even if you don’t think it’s worthy of your time. If your class assessment is due on Friday, you have to get this done and maintain your professionalism. There will be plenty of other times though, when you’re plodding along through your ‘to do list’: this is when you need to consider the why and the worth of what you’re about to do. Have you had something on your list for months (something that once completed might result in less work) that you’ve ignored, because you’ve been too busy marking day-to-day? Maybe you need to give yourself permission to get a little behind on your marking and use the time instead to create some peer and self-assessment resources so that you can reduce your marking workload in future.

  1. Can I eliminate/automate this process altogether?

When I look at my ‘to do list,’ I have things on there that I’ve had there for over a year. A year! If I bought a top that I didn’t wear for a year, I’d put it down to a bad impulse buy and give it to charity. Clearly, if a task is on your list for a year and it’s not even touched, it needs to go. Otherwise it will only haunt you and reinforce the whole mental dialogue of “I’m so busy all of the time but I never get anything done!”

  1.  Can I delegate this task?

If you’re a school leader of any kind, can you select individuals or teams of staff who can take on roles and responsibilities? If you’re teaching within a year group team at primary level, or within a department at secondary, have you shared out workload so that it plays to people’s strengths and is fairly distributed. Like many others, I find delegating tough… but as Vaden points out, you need to allow time and training for people to complete jobs effectively (like you hopefully had when you started doing things for the first time). In fact, you’re really doing them a disservice in not trusting them enough to learn new things.

For teachers, it worth pointing out here that you can also delegate to your students! This might be asking them to self or peer-mark pieces of work, telling you what and how they want to learn, tidying up and looking after equipment or doing general class admin around school. Set your expectations high; model how to complete tasks properly; tell them that this is a test of trust and responsibility; and allow them a good amount of time to get things wrong until they get it right. They might eventually prove more helpful than the adults you delegate to!

  1. Does the task need to be done NOW? If it needs to be done now, then you need focus and concentration.

I’ve come a long way in the last year by adopting an attitude of ‘do the worst first.’ Turn the TV off and move away from distractions. Do not check your phone or your email. Tell yourself you’ll spend 15 minutes starting the task and see where you go from there. Momentum is everything.

With the really tedious jobs – big marking jobs for example, that require highlighted grids, stamps and stickers, and half a page of comments for the kids not to read – are often better broken down into smaller jobs. In the first few years of my career, I used to tackle sets of books with blinkered determination; I had to wipe the job off my list at all costs, even if it meant spending the whole weekend marking. Feeling burnt out after only a few years, I realised that it’s much more sensible to have a good weekend and recharge my batteries, and mark 6 books each day for a week. I’m certain that this not only improved my quality of life, but also the quality of my marking and assessment.

  1. If the task doesn’t need to be done now, allow yourself to procrastinate on purpose.While Vaden reminds us that procrastination is still ‘the killer or all success,’ he distinguishes this final step from the latter as a conscious choice to put something off until a more appropriate time, or until it fits into one of the other stages above. He talks about this as a means of ‘mitigating the unexpected change cost.’

I love this last idea! Education is plagued with change – change dictated from above (often by people who haven’t and couldn’t teach themselves); it’s rarely useful; it’s frequently harmful towards children, staff and the profession; and mostly it’s just unnecessary. From a personal point of view, this ‘change for change’s sake’ resulted in so much wasted time when my completed tasks/projects/resources/lesson plans /initiatives/ presentations/ displays/paperwork were binned after a term to make way for yet another new ‘drive for improvement’ or ‘success initiative.’

When I get behind an idea, I tend to go in full force with my heart and my soul. I believe in a job well done. I enjoy this: it’s who I am. But I’m also aware that if I don’t hold back a little with the way things are, I’m in danger of become extremely frustrated and cynical. In a three-round fight, if you throw all of your weight into every punch, you’re going to run out of steam in the first round. You need to throw a few jabs too. You need to be efficient with your energy and your power if you want to win, or even survive. Within the context of the classroom, this might mean doing only what is required when the latest initiative is introduced, and waiting to see if it’s still around in 6 months before you really hit the planning/displays/resources with some gusto.

Teaching is a truly exhausting job: use your energy efficiently.

If you want to read more from the Rory Vaden himself, please check out his blog here. Watching, reading and writing about this has definitely made me think about how and why I approach my workload in the way that I do, and inspired me make a few changes next time I sit down to work.


Teacher Wellbeing: Mindfulness over multi-tasking

I’ve often read that one of the keys to mindfulness, and indeed happiness, is to do one thing and one time. Pure focus and concentration on that one thing. 

Still…I find it so unbelievable hard to put this into practice.

It’s often joked about that women are used to multitasking; in some ways, ‘we’ almost hold it over men and laugh at them, because they can’t do three things at once like us. In the teaching community, many of us wear our multitasking abilities like a badge of pride, bragging and moaning at the same time about how much we’ve done by 9AM and how much more we have to do.

Yes, we get an unbelievable amount done… but is it good for us? I doubt it.

Teachers often complain that ‘kids these days’ have 3 minute attention spans; that they’re overstimulated by technology. Yet, I know so many teachers that tell me that they can’t get through a TV show without thinking about their ‘to do’ list; that they wake up at 3AM thinking about seating plans and checking emails on their phone; that are continuously accused of ‘being somewhere else’ even when they’re in the room.

There’s no wonder that many people say it takes them a couple of weeks into summer before they can even calm down and relax.

Summer holidays though are a great opportunity to embrace the art of doing just one thing; to sit and read a book outside, with the sun on your face and the breeze in your hair, and the noises of holidays all around you.  There are endless opportunities to practise mindfulness – to listen, touch, taste, smell, see and feel all the things that are normally there, but aren’t normally acknowledged because your mind is somewhere else – to exist in the present moment.

Throughout my holiday, I’m going to strive to pay attention as much as possible, and just do one thing at a time. This is going to mean breaking a few bad habits and I don’t expect it be to an entirely smooth ride, but I’ll do my best, safe in the knowledge that my brain really needs a holiday too. She’s had a really hard year. She really deserves to truly relax.

Editor’s update (20.11.17): Since writing this post, I’ve read a number of books about Mindfulness and watched some fascinating talks promoting it’s scientifically-proven benefits. As a result, I’m now signed up to a course with the British Institute of Mindfulness in January 2018, so that I can pass this information onto my students. The more I’ve learnt about this topic, the more I’ve become convinced of the need for it to be taught as a means of battling the anxiety and depression that has become prevalent in our schools. And I’m not just thinking of the students! Look out for more Mindfulness coming your way soon…