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Do you often put things off? Do you wait until you’re up against a deadline before starting a project? If you answered “yes,” you’re probably one of the estimated 20% of Americans who are chronic procrastinators.

Traditional time-management tips tend not to work for chronic procrastinators. That’s because chronic procrastination does not stem from poor time management but from one of a number of deeply rooted psychological issues.

Here’s a look at five different types of procrastinators and a few steps each can take to overcome his/her problem. (Some procrastinators fit into more than one category.)

The Perfectionist

Perfectionists tend to work too long on a task, seeking to achieve perfection—which makes it difficult to get anything done on schedule. Some perfectionists struggle even to begin projects—their need to meet impossibly high standards makes every task seem like an oppressive burden that they would like to avoid. What to do…

Set time limits for projects, or ask others to do so for you. Redefine perfection as “the best I can achieve within this time frame.”

Avoid extremes in your speech and mental self-talk. Perfectionists tend to think something is either wonderful or horrible. But the vast majority of events actually fall between these ­extremes. When you catch yourself using extreme terms, replace them with more measured descriptions such as “pretty good” or “pretty bad.”

Make one deliberate mistake each day. Choose something that has limited repercussions, forcing yourself to intentionally get it wrong. Watch how little difference this actually makes.

Examples: A perfectionist made her bed with the comforter upside down. This initially filled her with anxiety—but as time passed, she relaxed when she became aware that her husband never even noticed.

Another perfectionist, who was always early, decided to arrive 20 minutes late to a social engagement, finding it a liberating experience.

The Dreamer

Dreamers have a strong desire to live in the world of ideas…and a strong aversion to completing the real-world steps required to turn these ideas into reality. They are vague in their thinking, hazy with deadlines and often expect fate to intervene and make hard work unnecessary. What to do…

Develop a detailed to-do list. Create to-do lists that include not just what you need to do but also time lines and deadlines for each listing.

Start turning your dreams into reality. Dreamers frequently fantasize about a version of reality in which they are far more important or successful than they actually are. Occasional daydreams are fine, but chronically indulging in these reveries can take the place of doing things that could improve your life. If you catch yourself living in a fantasy world, stop. Consider your life as it actually is, then think of a step you could take right now to move toward making your dreams a reality.

Change your “I’ll try to…” to “I will” or “I am.” With most everyday tasks, there is no trying—either you do it or you don’t. When you say you’ll “try to,” you’re just giving yourself the option of opting out of tasks that need to get done.

The Worrier

Anxieties about all that could go wrong prevent worriers from moving forward. What to do…

Remind yourself that not making a decision is a decision. When your anxieties cause stagnation, say to yourself, I am choosing to take no action. Is this really the path I want to select? 

Take a baby step that does not trigger great fear. Taking even a very small step forward can be a huge step for a worrier. When action replaces anxiety, the worrier is reminded how wonderful it feels to make progress toward a goal.

Replace pessimism with optimism. Worriers often feel overwhelmed by what they don’t know. Hence, every time you think or say, “I don’t know…” follow it up with, “But one thing I do know is…” Or when you say, “I can’t…” follow it up with, “But one thing I can do is…”

The Crisis Maker

Crisis makers delay working on projects until deadlines loom—they need the adrenaline rush of a deadline to get them moving. They don’t consider that this makes life difficult for their colleagues and loved ones…or that it could lead to missed deadlines if a single thing goes wrong. They also don’t appreciate that they would do even better work if they focused on projects before their backs were up against a wall. What to do…

Find motivators other than stress and adrenaline. Looming deadlines might be an effective motivator for you, but that doesn’t mean that they are the only motivator. Reflect on what is truly and deeply meaningful to you. It might be providing for your family…behaving ethically…being viewed as someone people can trust…earning money…earning praise and promotion…or something else entirely. When you catch yourself delaying a responsibility until the last minute, call an alternate motivator to mind and reflect on how starting work immediately serves this cause.

Example: It’s important that people you respect view you as someone they can trust. Remind yourself that these people will consider you trustworthy if you fulfill your responsibilities promptly rather than leave them until the last moment.

Get your adrenaline rush in your free time. Competitive games and athletics could fill this need for you.

Play “beat the clock” to get tasks done that aren’t inherently interesting to you. Set a timer, and then see if you can create your own personal victory by completing a task in record time.

Example: You might finally create some organization to the mess on your desk by setting your timer for 10 minutes and seeing what you can accomplish in that limited amount of time.

The Defier

Defiers view their responsibilities as impositions on their time forced upon them by unjust systems or authority figures. They might respond to these impositions with direct defiance…or they might indirectly defy by procrastinating, a form of passive-aggressive rebellion. What to do…

Act, don’t react. When you feel yourself becoming upset about one of your responsibilities, remind yourself that “complain and defy” is the response of an impotent child. “Decide and do” is the approach of a powerful adult. Ask yourself what constructive and cooperative steps you could take to improve the situation, such as suggesting a streamlined way to take care of a task.

See yourself as part of a team, not apart from a team. You’re not a victim of a system that is forcing you to complete a task—you’re a member of a team that’s working together to achieve some larger goal. This team might be your family…your company…or your community. You’re much less likely to rebel against a task if you frame it this way in your mind.

Mentally review your options. Reminding yourself that you have options is another good way to contain a rebellious streak and reclaim a sense of control when you feel unfair demands are being imposed upon you. In most situations, when you think about it, you do have options.

Examples: Your wife expects you to take out the garbage, and you don’t want to. See if you can trade tasks with your wife or older children.

Or your supervisor expects you to hand in a review of what you have accomplished every week. You find this review takes more time than it is worth. Suggest that a weekly review be changed to a monthly one. Show how much more time-effective that would be.

Are You a Pleaser?

Pleasers can’t bring themselves to say “no” to whatever is asked of them. When their schedules inevitably become overbooked, their own responsibilities tend to get put off. What to do…

Learn to say no without causing offense. This isn’t as hard as you imagine—just add a heartfelt “but thank you so much for thinking of me” after declining a request.

Include all your personal priorities in your schedule. Your priorities are at least as important as everyone else’s. Schedule time for them, then treat what you want (or need) to do as important obligations that can be postponed only under extreme ­circumstances.

Create contingency plans before they are needed. If there’s a lot on your plate, there’s a lot that could go wrong—and little extra time available to set it right. Have a plan in place for what you will do to get back on schedule if something unforeseen occurs.

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