Three ways to spot the difference between planning and procrastination (and how to manage them)

If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail!
— Benjamin Franklin

If you are the type pf person who created an elaborate colour-coded revision guide at school rather than ACTUALLY DOING REVISION then you will know what I am talking about here. And yet planning is a vital part of keeping your business moving forward so that you don't end up working “in” the business rather than “on” the business. So how do you know when planning is being used to put off important tasks (revision guide syndrome) compared to a strategic activity designed to set the course for the coming months or years?

1. Have you scheduled the planning?

“What is this devilry?” I hear you cry. “Do we now have to plan to plan?”

Well, yes, kind of. One way to become clearer on whether your planning is justified is to consider whether it's a deliberately planned session or if it's something that you have decided to do on the spur of the moment. If it has been planned for days, weeks or even months then it's not likely to be a procrastination activity because you can't have known that far in advance that you would want to procrastinate at that specific time.

However if you didn't expect to be planning and all of a sudden you're right in the middle of it, then there's a good chance that you could be trying to distract yourself from a more pressing matter. The planning done in this time is likely to be less effective compared to during planning sessions with a clear goal or agenda.

2. Are you feeling out of control?

When you work on scheduled planning then you should feel calm and in control as you are proactively mapping out the strategic future of your business or deciding the content to feature in your blog posts, for example. But if you're planning in order to procrastinate then you may have a feeling of spiralling out of control or being overwhelmed, especially before you start.

Once you begin planning you may feel a (temporary) relief from this overwhelm as it can give you a sense of control in an otherwise chaotic situation. Be aware though that it may only be a quick fix. As soon as you have finished your planning, those vital tasks will still be there and the fear and overwhelm can begin to creep back in.

3. Do you have an impending deadline?

This may be the clearest indicator of all as to whether your planning is in fact procrastination! If you have a particularly time-sensitive task that you know needs to be done for tomorrow then now is not the time to be installing a new task management app on your phone.

As the clock counts down towards your deadline, you begin to tell yourself that the task you thought would take three hours will suddenly now just take two hours. How will you achieve this? Well, as part of your planning you're going to do some research into being more productive and that will allow you to bend the laws of time and space, of course. Right?

So how do you manage your planning and procrastination?

The simplest step is to have regular scheduled opportunities to plan, and to zealously guard this time with your life. Book the time in your calendar and treat it like an important client meeting, except in this case the client is yourself. Sometimes it can help to work in a different environment to avoid the traps and temptations from habits or distractions in your normal places of work. Try to choose a place that makes you feel calm, empowered, inspired or creative.

Consider the days or times that would work best for this session (it doesn't have to be a full day, even a couple of hours is better than nothing). For me, I know that Fridays are not good for planning or content creation as despite my best intentions, all the week's work tends to pile up. As a result I now deliberately try to keep my calendar clear on Fridays, using them instead as my “mop-up” days. Mondays also tend to be busy for me as a lot of my clients contact me on the weekend (often because they are working full time whilst starting a new project in their spare time). I have identified Tuesdays as being generally the quietest so that would be a good day for me to have a planning session.

It may also be worth thinking about the times of day when you are most effective. Are you a morning person or a night owl? Work to your strengths and schedule your planning times accordingly. Having said this, a slightly controversial approach to your planning could actually be to work WITH your procrastination tendencies. If you find that you always tend to procrastinate between 2-4pm each day then try scheduling your planning for that time. With this option it's vital to make sure you are very clear on what you will do in this session otherwise it will risk becoming ineffective. Experiment with different strategies and times and don't be afraid to fail.

Sometimes if the real fear has set in around an important task and you are feeling that overwhelm then an “express” planning burst can actually be helpful to kickstart your work. This is different to the leisurely “Oh wouldn't this be nice...” type of planning which normally creeps in when you're procrastinating. Set a timer for 15 minutes and if you have a piece of work that you are putting off then write down what needs to be achieved by the deadline. For me this could be “Send a link to the draft website to the client” for example. A lot of procrastination is caused by vague next steps or a project seeming too large or amorphous (good word, huh?) to tackle, so now you are going to break this goal down in to smaller, achievable chunks.

Using my website example above, I can't send a link to the client until the draft has been completed, so what are the next steps to achieve this? Assuming that I haven't started yet, the first step could be to set up a Squarespace account for that project. I would then want to update the website title and basic information including the built in Squarespace domain name so it's easier for the client (and me) to remember. After this I would probably want to add some actual or placeholder content to create pages and a structure for the site, so in order to do this I will need to find all of the relevant information that the client has sent to me. I use Trello to store any information emailed over unless it's a Dropbox folder that the client has shared with me so there are only two places that I need to look.

Next I will want to work on the design for the website, which again will require information shared with me by the client. However “work on the design” is still a bit vague so I could break it down further to include choosing a font, selecting a template, planning a colour scheme and formatting the text. Other tasks that I would want to do before sending the draft would be to test the website on different browsers and devices and also write a summary to give the client a clear understanding of what I have done, and why I have made certain choices. Having lots of smaller, manageable sub-tasks also means that after you complete each one you can tick it off your list, giving you a sense of progress and accomplishment (great antidotes for procrastination).

It took me less than 15 minutes to write the paragraph above and that was for what I would consider to be quite a large task, so you should be able to easily break down most tasks within that time. If you have lots of small tasks then rather than breaking them down, go through each one and ask yourself if it's clear what the next action is that you will take to complete it. If it isn't clear, make it clear! 

If this approach makes a lot of sense to you then I would suggest you read Getting Things Done by David Allen. Some of it is a little bit “corporate” and unless it's been updated recently it's quite paper-based, but don't be put off if you prefer working electronically, the underlying principles are sound and easy to replicate by using an app or your favourite note-taking programme. I really like Any.Do and Quip, and I have already mentioned Trello

Now stop reading this and get back to work!