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I’ve been putting off this post for a while. Now is as good a time as any to get it done.
Now that I got the obvious joke out of the way it is time we discuss a serious issue facing us all: procrastination. When we least need it, our desire to finish, or even start, a task is put off. There are a variety of reasons for procrastination. The job might be distasteful, it might be a large project, or you might not fully understand the task.
Fear keeps us from acting. We all have had experiences where we put something off and put it off and put it off, only later to find out, once we started, the project wasn’t that bad after all. Many times procrastination begins when we are mentally overwhelmed by the task. Either your to-do list is longer than Santa’s on Christmas Eve or you started a task and hit a road block. Once that dreaded file is put to the side it is in a kind of purgatory. Starting again is almost impossible.
There are various tricks I use to get massive amounts of work out the door. Rather than focus on different scenarios, I will hone in on issues surrounding my office work. We will deal with email, phone calls, social media, and tax returns. Think of my stack of tax returns as the pile of work in your office or the long to-do list at home.
The Dreaded File
Beating procrastination starts with saying no. My gut reaction is to always help. I give advice; people pay me for that. Then they want me to actually handle the process I suggested. This leads to:
Keith’s Rule #178: (Yeah, I know I missed a bunch of rules, but if I went looking for the last Keith’s Rule # I might stop writing and never get this post out.) Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do it.
This has been a real issue since this blog began. The amount of work I can take on has exploded. Worse, when consulting I offer suggestions outside the normal workload my office handles. During weak moments I agree to facilitate the project. Because the task is not something I do often (I just know how it works) I don’t have resources to get the job done quickly. It turns into the dreaded file on the far corner of my desk I can’t get the ambition to start.
The second type of dreaded task is the stutter-start. This is where you take on a project, roll up the sleeves and have at it. Progress is made until you hit a roadblock. Figuring out the problem and restarting the task is hard so it gets put to the side when you have enough free time. That could be months! If ever.
The last dreaded project for me comes from overwhelm. It usually strikes during tax season, though emails qualify too any time of the year. It goes like this: Tax season starts and I am a rockin’ and a rollin’! I am knocking out return after return like a machine on a mission. Then I start to get tired. A tax return requiring research shows up and if I focus on that return several other returns will go unprepared. Overwhelm not only causes the problem file to get put to the side, but because I feel guilty, I try to force the issue on that return and end up not getting anything done. Now I have even more clients on the phone wanting an update.
Fixing the Problem between the Ears
Procrastination is all mental. All the dreaded projects listed above and any you face in your personal life are not as bad as first thought once the project is started. Once you begin it goes faster than anticipated. It feels good get the job done, but guilt is still involved because you left the client wait so long. We need to find a way to start. Once we start the rhythm takes over and we are back in the saddle killing our to-do list.
So how do we start? Since it is all a mental roadblock we need to change the way we think of a project. Rather than one big project, I break it down into very small pieces. Doing just one tiny piece of the task is progress even if I wait until tomorrow to take the next tiny step. Most of the time it is about getting started. The first tiny step takes only a few seconds or a minute. Once that minor victory is in the books I may as well do another small step. Before I know it I have the task finished and I feel relieved. I am always amazed at the feeling I have at the completion of a dreaded task. It was never as hard as I perceived it to be.
Email, Phone Calls, and Social Media
Modern society has given us a new plague. If email were around when Moses was explaining things to pharaoh, God would have saved the locusts and hit Egypt with an email blast. There is no doubt in my mind the email blast would have been more effective than locusts.
My email folder runs like ocean waves: at times the volume is manageable, other times it is Biblical. Weekends have improved. Weekdays I get 100 or more emails per day. As tax time approaches the number rockets to 300. If the emails were simple it wouldn’t be so bad, but emails I get have tax issues to deal with. Regular clients get a response as soon as possible. Other emails get read, but I respond to only a fraction. It feels cold. There is no way to 300 emails with the attention they deserve so I build walls.
Phone calls are not as bad as I have a better system in place to screen calls. You probably don’t have an administrative assistant as I do. I actually have three assistants: a full-time administrative assistant, a part-time seasonal admin, and an office manager. They are busy cooking the volume of requests into something I can digest.
In the past I always had someone else handle my social media. If you saw me on Facebook, Twitter, or the million other venues, it probably wasn’t me. Blog posts publish automatically and there were times in the past when more than 5 people were tasked with creating my online persona at one time. Social media is the way you promote and grow your company today. Since this blog started I have people communicating with me more via Facebook, et cetera. I still don’t put much on social media (my people do), but I do use it as a communications tool. My only defense is: They started it!
Now we need to find a way to break through all the mental obstacles to clear the inbox, phone calls, and projects cluttering our thoughts.
The type of project does not matter when using tricks to destroy procrastination. Whether it is tax returns piling up, email, phone calls, or cleaning the garage, the most important step is starting. The only way to start is to take a large project or pile of tasks and break it into small pieces. Cleaning the garage is an afternoon project. Rather than think of it as this 4-hour task, start with something as simple as putting one bag of garbage in the barrel. You don’t have to write out the task. Just commit to looking at the job—the smallest of all steps. Look at the garage and find one small thing to do to move the project forward. Once the first small victory is in hand look for the second step. Soon the task will take on a life of its own. With each victory the burden lifts from your shoulders. Before you know it, the job is done.
The same applies to email and phone. Commit to doing just one. Make one phone call, deal with one email. Make it an easy one. A quick 20 second phone call or an email that needs no response is perfect. In less than a minute your workload is one less.
Here are more suggestions:
Whack-a-Mole: Phone calls and email can feel like Whack-a-mole. Deal with one email and two more pop up. It leads to overwhelm and procrastination. Close the door when dealing with email. Working on email offline is simple and keeps distractions away. Email is a distraction that can be distracted by more email, meaning you don’t get your email done. Just writing that gives me vertigo.
The same applies to phone calls. When on the phone turn off the ringer and turn on voice mail. Make your phone calls where you can’t see if new calls are coming in. Leave a message if you get no answer. If they call back they end up on voice mail and in the next batch of phone calls.
Start Small: I handle the most complex tax returns in my office. After a while the mind goes to mush. Lack of sleep and too much sitting take a toll. Rather than allowing myself to bog down, I grab a simple return or three to get momentum back. Working a full day and not seeing a single tax return completed while 30 more returns came in the door is a massive form of distraction. My team can get most tax returns done, but I grab some of their returns anyway when I need motivation. When I see I finished three returns in an hour I know I finished something for the day and it isn’t even 6:00 a.m. yet. Even if I don’t finish the big return on my desk I still feel good. I got three returns out early in the morning.
Make it a Game: Back to email. What happens when you get bogged down? Instead of doing what you want to do (should do), you turn to a video game or dick around on Facebook. I know you; I’ve been watching. Well, as long as games are how you procrastinate, how about an email game? The link is to an online program which forces you to handle your email in order and fast. The whole thing is turned into a game where you earn points. So, instead of another Sudoku puzzle, you can play the email game and get work done at the same time.
Phone: The cell phone is a massive distraction and procrastination tool. Take social media off your phone! I never have and never will look at Facebook or Twitter on my phone. There is no reason. Turn the phone off when you are working. No buzzer either. I know, I know, it might be important. Well, if your house is burning down they should call the fire department, not you. What are you gonna do, carry a bucket of water? If someone has died, it can wait. Unless you can perform a resurrection there is no reason you must take the call now.
I can hear you through my computer yelling: HYPOCRITE!
Yes, your favorite accountant is a major fuck up in this area. The blog made it worse by bringing in greater volumes of work. I am still building the infrastructure to handle it. I’ll get there. But that is not the confession I want to make.
I have one of those dreaded files on my desk right now. It has been sitting there a while and I need to explain how I got to this point and how I intend to remedy the issue. First I have to make a disclosure. The client I am talking about reads this blog. I will never share names or details which could lead anyone to know it was a certain client. My goal is to provide solutions other can use; to learn from my mistakes. That said, don’t take it personal if you are the subject of my story. I am never upset with a client who wants their stuff done. Trust me when I say I want it off my desk worse than you want it done. Each passing day causes my guilt to grow.
What Happened: A regular tax client asked for a consultation on finances. It was determined a hodgepodge of investments needed consolidation into index funds at Vanguard. Moving the variety of high fee accounts will take time and work. I agreed to help with the transfers. (I consult on many issues. I need to stop volunteering to do the work.)
The Mistake: Back in the 1990s when I sold investments, I had a back office to handle all this stuff. I no longer have a back office at a brokerage firm to handle details. I also don’t have access to resources to move funds fast and easy like I do with tax issues. I took the job because brokers will want to put the client is their fee-based products which means they may as well stay where they are at. I end up the only one in the office who can do the job and no third parties that handles this type of account either. Remember Keith’s Rule above.
Roadblock: I took the project before Labor Day! I needed to talk with Vanguard to handle transfer issues. First I was told the client had to be present so I set an appointment. During the appointment Vanguard had high phone volume so we ended up on hold until we gave up.
Now the problem was pushed to the side. Taking the next step is mentally difficult. A half day was wasted already with zero progress. Where to begin is the first question.
The Plan: This thing has been sitting there long enough. Rather than think of this as one huge project, I need to break it down. A personal account, several retirement accounts and a kid’s account all need service. It is overwhelming! My commitment today is to give 15 minutes and work on their non-qualified account only. If I can complete one small step I should be on my way. Completing one transfer will make the client happier; it will make me happier.
Outcome: When this project is done I will wonder why I waited so long. Once I get started I know it will go faster than anticipated. If I remember I will give an update.
Time to end this post I have been putting off priorities long enough. All I need to do is take one small step and I am back in the driver’s seat.