The other day, one of my coaching students emailed me about his dilemma — something that’s all too common in our business.
“Too many times,” he said, “I’ve known what I needed to do, and I always end up waiting weeks on end to do it.” He asked, “How do you cope with procrastination?”
Procrastination is indubitably the copywriter’s most stifling problem. Since our job is fraught with deadlines, procrastination can be one of the costliest problems in the copywriting business. It can murder your reputation…
… And your career!
So, how do you cope with procrastination? Even better, how do you overcome it? Here are six tips I use, which helps me to get more done faster.
Procrastination plagues even the best of us. We all do it from time to time. We wait, make excuses, get distracted.
Some people blame it on ADD. Others blame it on the freedom of being a self-employed freelance copywriter without any of the usual work rules we see in a corporate job.
But whatever the reason may be, they are no different than the excuses we use to keep putting off until tomorrow what can — and needs to — be done today.
As Dr. Robert Anthony said: “Waiting is a trap. There will always be reasons to wait. The truth is, there are only two things in life, reasons and results, and reasons simply don’t count.”
Admittedly, there are some deep-seated, psychological factors behind procrastination — such as low self-esteem, anxiety, fear, addiction, even depression.
But these often refer to chronic procrastination, which is a whole other ball of wax and beyond the scope of this article.
Some people will blame it on being a perfectionist. While perfectionism is a challenge in itself, it’s often just another excuse to procrastinate.
The more we focus on trying to perfect whatever task is at hand, the less we need to concentrate on getting it done on time.
(I submit that writer’s block falls in the same category, and probably does so more times than we care to admit.)
Nevertheless, I’m a copywriter for the better part of two decades, not a psychologist. So my advice here is limited to the more practical workarounds to defeat the most common form of procrastination in our business.
And that’s laziness.
Admittedly, we are lazy for different reasons, too. Perhaps we hate the project or the client we’re working with. Perhaps we fail to plan and prioritize properly. But again, these are reasons, not results.
Once you stop making excuses and start taking action, even if they’re little steps, you will be a step closer to your goal. And taking little steps is a lot better than taking no steps at all. Which leads me to my next point…
C. Northcote Parkinson once said, “Work either expands or contracts in order to fill the time available.” This is often referred to as “Parkinson’s Law.”
Also known as the Law of Contraction (or the Law of Forced Efficiency), it means that activity will expand or contract to meet its imposed deadline.
In other words, you will either take your time or hurry up depending on the deadline you have and the time you have at your disposal. (Take students who cram just before exam time, for example.)
If you have seven weeks to write a salesletter, chances are you will take all seven weeks. You will take your time because there’s plenty of it.
But if you have only four days, you will do what you can to get it done within those four days. You will cut out irrelevant tasks, outsource the rest, focus strictly on that letter, work double time, even pull allnighters if you have to.
In short, you will do whatever it takes.
In fact, I noticed that my best sales letters (the ones that produced the best results) were those done working under very tight deadlines.
Why? Because a rapidly advancing deadline not only kicks me into gear, but also forces me to tune out distractions… clear my environment… organize other work around it… ignore the phone and e-mail… avoid interruptions… prioritize my tasks… and truly concentrate on the work at hand.
With this heightened sense of awareness and focus, I’m “in the zone” and kick my creativity up a few notches. Like a sponge that’s squeezed under pressure, a looming deadline squeezes out my best ideas, writing, and strategies.
Now, I don’t recommend to purposefully wait until the last minute. (Admittedly, I do that sometimes.) But you can still benefit from this extra boost in creativity and efficiency. Here’s how…
The idea is to turn a potential nightmare — a deadline — into your best friend.
The way to do that is to break down a major deadline into smaller deadlines (or “mini-deadlines”). In other words, the goal is to break down larger projects into smaller, easier-to-digest, bite-sized chunks.
Basically, you cut up the project into smaller pieces and add deadlines to each piece. This way, it makes each piece more urgent and real.
These mini-deadlines also act like milestones throughout the course of the project, enabling you to see, at a glance, where you’re supposed to be, what you’ve done so far, and what needs to be done at any given time.
As the Confucian saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But in this case, the journey is not a thousand miles but smaller, one-mile journeys of a thousand steps each, so to speak.
Each small deadline reached is just one step closer to the ultimate deadline. And each step becomes much less intimidating, too.
But the best part is, by placing shorter deadlines on smaller, bite-sized steps, you allow Parkinson’s Law to kick in. The deadlines become closer and more urgent. And work, therefore, contracts to meet them.
(And it happens almost unconsciously, too.)
Plus, each mini-deadline is a constant reminder that, if you don’t meet the smaller deadline, you’ll have two or more to contend with if you keep waiting.
I personally dread this “piling on” effect, so doing it this way helps me to kick myself into gear. If I’m late and miss one mini-deadline, I force myself to complete it so I can start — even hurry up to finish — the next one in line.
However, there’s an important, more positive reason in doing it this way, too.
After accomplishing each step, it makes you feel good about yourself knowing that things are indeed getting done and the project is advancing. Which brings me to my next point…
Write it down. Don’t just think it up. Make sure it’s printed somewhere.
The reason is, creating a visual interface allows you to see, at a glance, where you are and what you need to do, at any given time — rather than dealing with a single, intimidating deadline that’s constantly menacing you.
Whether it’s on paper, in your agenda, on a calendar, or on your computer with the help of software, your mini-deadlines visually prod you along the way.
(Personally, I use BaseCamp as my project management software.)
Each milestone is like a small reward in itself. Knowing where you are, how far you’ve gone and what you’ve accomplished along the way gives you both momentum and motivation to keep going.
Plus, it’s a easier to deal with the small rewards from reaching milestones than it is with the threat of a larger punishment from not reaching a deadline.
When you begin, chunk your project into as many small pieces as you wish.
For now, let’s call them “phases” rather than “steps.” Why? Because at first these steps will appear specific to you when in fact they can be broken down even more. Which brings me to the next tip…
Once you’ve broken your project down (i.e., by separating your project into phases), go back and try to break it down some more, and denominate all the steps required for each phase.
Give each step a mini-deadline — a specific day on which the task will be carried out (rather than a specific time by which it needs to be accomplished).
That way, you instantly know what tasks need to get started on a specific day rather than by when they need to be done. (That’s why I prefer to call them “milestones.” It’s easier to reach a milestone than it is to meet a deadline.)
Remember the previous tip: document it!
It doesn’t matter what you use, whether it’s software or plain-old pen and paper. Just remember that you need to be specific.
A task like “write letter” is not enough. Even “writing initial draft.” These are phases, not steps. Each step must be as clear and as specific as possible.
Let me give you an example:
Major project: Write sales letter for client.
Major phases: Research, create rough draft, finalize initial draft, revisions per client, and final draft and delivery.
For this example, a final deadline may be, say, one month. The next step is to add a deadline for each major phase of the project. Using the same example above:
- Week #1: Research
- Week #2: Create rough draft
- Week #3: Finalize initial draft
- Week #4: Revisions per client
- End of Week #4: Final draft and delivery
Put differently, you’re breaking the larger deadline down into smaller, mini-deadlines. (Or as I mentioned earlier, “milestones.”)
Now, break down each phase into smaller, bite-sized chunks. For example, let’s take “research” to be done during the first week, and break it down some more:
- Day #1: Compile client questionnaire
- Day #2: Review and clarify answers
- Day #3: Initial product run-through
- Day #4: Interview client or principals
- Day #5: Perform competitive analyses
- Day #6: Brainstorming session
… And so on.
Then you repeat the process for each phase of the project. Above all…
The above is just one example and not the example.
Keep in mind that many steps can be accomplished in the same day, while others can take several days. So don’t pigeonhole yourself. Be flexible, and be prepared to make course corrections along the way.
For example, let’s say you need several days to come up with a good headline. If so, then break that down to, say, writing 10-20 headlines a day, or take an extra day for doing additional research and brainstorming new ones.
Do what you feel comfortable with. Don’t overwhelm yourself to the point that following this process becomes a nightmare in itself. It’s only a tool to help you get more done faster. It should never be a bottleneck.
The bottom line is, it doesn’t matter how you tackle a project. What matters is that you apply the Law of Contraction, and break down your project into smaller, easier-to-digest, bite-sized chunks.
That way, you have closer deadlines to work with, with more manageable tasks at hand. You will be focusing on putting smaller things into action, one step at a time, rather than on getting everything done by a specific deadline.
This may take a while the first time, I admit. But do this again and again, even for smaller projects, and you’ll soon get the hang of it.
As Jim Rohn once said, “Life asks us to make measurable progress in reasonable time. That’s why they make those fourth grade chairs so small.”