Stop Procrastinating by Organizing Your Priorities

When I ask first- and second-year college students to name one thing that they wish they could work on, about half of them answer "stop procrastinating." But this is sort of like willing yourself to be happier. It is an aimless and objectless goal. The problem with "stop procrastinating" is that there is no explicit behavior to be changed. There is no objective. You must first answer the question: What is important enough to spend my time doing? Once you can answer that, procrastination disappears. 

I think that most people procrastinate because they fill their schedules with activities and responsibilities that they don't really care about. For example, I have a short list of home improvement activities that I can never seem to get around to doing. Some of them are given to me by my wife. Others are things I notice need fixing. I typically wait for these tasks to become emergencies, then I ruin entire weeks or weekends rushing around to fix them. In order to stop this inevitability, I need to take a careful look at my priorities.

Here is a list of things I feel pressured to do. Some of them are household chores. Others are professional or personal:

  • Tear down tiki bar and remove from property
  • Finish writing book Supporting Student Autonomy
  • Finish writing book Forgetting How to Teach
  • Mail graduation card to younger cousin
  • Mail book and letter of thanks to friends
  • Run ~60 miles this week
  • Repair drywall in bedroom
  • Add electrical box to connection point in crawl space
As items on my to-do list, several of these have been around for months and months. Now notice what happens when I tie these in with important priorities in my life:
  • Tear down tiki bar and remove from property --> Be a supportive husband (This is my wife's project, but it is unsafe for her to do it. But that doesn't mean that I have to take care of it all on my own, resenting her for it. We can work on it together by planning when we have time to do it, then helping each other tear it down and removing it. This will allow us to spend time together in a mutually supportive way. I don't care that much about having it gone. But I do care about investing in my marriage. That is something I can look forward to.)
    • Finish writing book Supporting Student Autonomy --> Help college faculty have a more satisfying and positive experience in the classroom. (I have already decided that I don't need to write books for my own ego. So if it is between having another book on my CV or playing video games, then I will probably just play video games. But I do care about the pride and personal satisfaction that other college professors derive from their work. I want to nurture that if I am able, and I think that this book will do just that.)
    • Finish writing book Forgetting How to Teach --> Clarify my own understanding of teaching and learning. (It is important to me to clarify for myself where my convictions have landed and where they come from. This has been a worthwhile practice of self-discovery akin to journaling.)
    • Mail graduation card to younger cousin --> Show my appreciation to others. (I don't care about being a good family member, but it is important to me to let others know when they have done something that I appreciate. I am never disappointed when I do this.)
    • Mail book and letter of thanks to friends --> Show my appreciation to others. (I don't care about being a good friend, but..., and so on.)
    • Run ~60 miles this week --> Practice self-discipline (I have reached a point where I will probably never improve my speed or race times as a runner. But self-discipline is important to me. Going for a 15 mile run when I don't want to shows me that I can get through difficult periods, and that I can even have fun while doing so. Plus I really enjoy running.)
    • Repair drywall in bedroom --> Pure Ego (My wife doesn't care about the messy looking section of drywall. I'm embarrassed that someone will see it and think me a lazy homeowner, which I am. But I know that this isn't a real reason to go through the hassle of buying a patch kit, tearing out the hole, covering it, spackling it, sanding and painting it.)
    • Add electrical box to connection point in crawl space --> Pure Ego (This is a safety hazard if people are routinely milling about in the crawl space. But they aren't. In any event, I can fix this the next time I am down there if I set the tools aside in advance. I go down there about once a year.)
    I can go ahead and cross out the items in red. I don't need to spend any more time worrying about finishing them. I can focus instead on the items in blue, because these items are tied to important life goals.

    Here's How You Can Do It

    Determine your Values: Think about the most important principles that you live by. These are the values that guide your decisions. How do you want to be remembered by your friends? What do you want your peers and work colleagues to think of when they think of you. What is really important to you? This step is clarified more in the post about Putting First Things First. 

    Identify your guiding values/principles for your Personal Life, Professional Life, Family Life, and maybe Community Life. Be honest.

    Now make your to-do list: Write down everything that you feel pressure to finish or do. All of those mental airplanes flying around above your head waiting to land. 

    Connect items on your to-do list with your value system: Do as I have done above and link your person life-values with each item on the to-do list. If you cannot link one, then either cross the item off or reconsider what it means to you. Is there a value that you are ignoring? Is it a value someone else has given you, but which you don't really hold yourself? Have an honest self-dialogue about it.

    If you feel divided or conflicted: You might find that there is an item on your to-do list that you feel very strongly about, but cannot figure out why. This means that you have probably swallowed somebody else's value without realizing it. There is a good chance that the value belongs to a mom or dad or some kind of mentor figure--someone you would like to impress or someone you'd like to think highly of you. Once you have figured that out, you will have to decide if it is more important to live for them or for yourself.