Procrastination: How to stop drowning in a sea of details

June 21, 2013

Meet Linda Hollander, self-professed pinball procrastinator. Currently a freelance writer and mother living in the Netherlands, Linda began her career as a secretary. Bored with her job, she noticed that she procrastinated on even the smallest tasks, and chalked it up to lack of interest. After a few years, Linda quit to pursue a writing career. But even as a successful freelancer, her procrastination habits remain.

Linda’s story of extreme procrastination
“Whether it’s turkey or a crucifixion, all over the world people have their own way of celebrating Christmas on the 24th of December.” Yes, you read that right. It was Linda’s first sentence of her first article ever published — the result of some serious procrastination. Four years earlier, when an editor friend asked her to contribute a piece for the December issue of his magazine, Linda was ecstatic to officially begin pursuing her passion as a writer. Problem was, she didn’t know where to start. She spent all of October brainstorming, finally landing on the topic of worldwide Christmas traditions. By early November, she had 100,000 words worth of information to cram into a 2,000-word article. Then she caught the flu. At the height of her fever, her editor called, sending her into a panic. She frantically edited and rewrote her piece until she nearly passed out. A few days later, she discovered that all her work had been accidentally deleted. Feeling frustrated and flustered, and still working her dull day job, Linda put off rewriting her story until the night before it was due, finishing at 4 a.m. When the magazine hit stands in mid-December, Linda’s friend/editor stopped by to see if she’d read her article. Yes, she said, even though she hadn’t. Then he read aloud the first sentence. But Linda’s mortification didn’t end there. Each year her friends send her Christmas cards wishing her a merry 24th of December.

4 telltale signs that you’re acting like a pinball procrastinator
Like Linda, pinball procrastinators ricochet their way though a project, distracted by lights, bells, and bouncing balls as they aim for a high score. Ideas, details, and other distractions are equally important, so it’s hard to focus and finish anything. While every procrastination opportunity has its differences, Linda practices all of the common traits of a pinball procrastinator. Do you?

1. Overwhelmed by ideas and details. This is the biggest red flag. As the ideas percolate, the to-do list grows exponentially. “I have a huge to-do list, and when I start something, my mind goes into overdrive,” Linda says. When she gets stuck on one task, she moves to another, and another, and so on. Soon, she’s lost in all the things she’s doing — and that prevents her from getting anything done. 

2. Unable to effectively prioritize. Instead of ordering to-do’s by importance or deadline, pinball procrastinators tend to choose by interest, ease, or some other less-than-efficient reason. “I have trouble figuring out what to do first,” Linda says. “I’ll often do something else that’s simpler or that I enjoy because I’ll feel like I’ve gotten more things done if I do many small, easy things compared to one big thing. And yet, I’ll still be scrambling somehow.”

3. Delays decisions. Linda acts like a classic Waffler when she’s overwhelmed: Overthinking decisions until she’s paralyzed. So she puts off her choices until the last minute, believing that she works best under pressure.

4. Distracted by the next good idea. Pinball procrastinators tend to start and stop, getting diverted by another brainstorm or unexpected detail. For instance, Linda is currently working on a series about Dutch spelling and grammar. “Getting the basics is a lot of work,” she says. “While I’m busy collecting the info, wham!, I get this awesome idea for another website I’m writing for, and I get sidetracked with that.” 

Okay, that’s a lot to deal with. But the very good thing about pinball procrastinators is strong motivation — it’s usually just the approach that gets in the way of completion. To align your method with your desire, try any or all of the following four tips.

• Chunk it out. To herd your to-do’s into something manageable, first get them all in one place. Don’t worry about the order right away, just list everything you can possibly think of. Then rearrange your items into meaningful groups according to timeframe and importance. You might label your most urgent to-do’s as “High alert!” Other groupings could be: “Finish by Friday, “ “Can wait till tomorrow,” “When I have extra time.”  If you consider this master list an essential working tool that you refer to daily and revise as needed, you won’t feel nearly as overwhelmed.

• Micro-size your tasks. Completing something is one of the best motivators to complete something else. So to supercharge a steady stream of encouragement, try breaking your tasks down into smaller pieces. For example, if you need to research a sprinkler system for your lawn, your one assignment might turn into four to-do’s:
– Ask Roger about his new sprinkler system
– Order “Sunset’s Sprinkler and Drip Systems” from Amazon 
– Do price comparison on,, and 
– Compare products at Consumer Reports

• Apply pressure. If you believe you work better under pressure, there are ways you can create it without waiting until two minutes before deadline. Unstuck’s “Pros vs. Pros” tool helps you make decisions very quickly (you can download the free Unstuck iPad app here). Another effective form of stress is creating real consequences for unfinished work. But it only works if you hold yourself accountable, so you might want to find a friend who will help you out with that.

• Create a parking lot for your brainstorms. You’ve no shortage of new ideas and fresh things to do — an enviable trait for those of us with a less-active creative spark. The secret is to not let these interruptions get in the way of what you’re currently tackling. When inspiration strikes, record your thoughts in a place that’s easy to get to so you don’t lose them. It might be a wall of Post-it notes, a notebook, whiteboard, whatever works best for you. Then walk away and get back to the matter at hand. Later on, you can add ideas to your master list of to-do’s, but not the moment it occurs to you.

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #4: Tips for Pinball Procrastinators

Last week: What kind of procrastinator are you?
Next week: Hardcore put-upon procrastinator Arpan Patel describes his idea of “smart procrastination” and we give him four ways to not procrastinate at all.

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