Starter Steps [to stop procrastinating]

Sunday, June 15, 2008; N04

Are you better at putting things off than getting things done? If so, check out these suggestions from the experts on turning it around:

Accept imperfection. Procrastinators are often put off by their expectation that they must perform at their peak at all times, says Neil Fiore, a California-based psychologist and author of the book "The Now Habit." Fiore advises starting with the understanding that you won't create a finished product right away. A bonus: The earlier you start, the more time you'll have to polish later on.

Accept discomfort. Some things will bore you. Some will require you to think more than you'd like. Force yourself to get past your initial resistance often enough and the practice "becomes habitual," psychologist Bill Knaus says. "You replace procrastination with a 'do it now' process."

Remove obstacles. Turn off "American Idol." Stop checking Facebook. Don't even think about Gmail. Easier said than done, especially when you're looking to avoid something. Most people will need to put up barriers to such temptations. "It's more than turning off the TV," Fiore says. "I take the batteries out of the remote and unplug the television."

E-mail is harder to avoid. Fiore recommends silencing that little ding that tells you when mail has arrived.

Choose to start. If there's one phrase that stops people cold in their tracks, it's "I have to finish," Fiore says. When they hear it, many people have a sense of being controlled or feel overwhelmed or uncertain about what to do once they start.

"It's much more effective to tell your mind and body when to start and that you're choosing to start," he says. Set a time frame for a task. Even a five-minute commitment can work, Knaus says. "At the end of five minutes, you decide whether you're going to continue."

Break it up. Choosing to start is a lot more appealing if the end is in sight. For larger projects, the only way to see the end is to break up the task into manageable chunks. Commit to the first step, and schedule the rest for later. "A little a day keeps the procrastination away," psychologist Elyse Goldstein says.

You can also help squelch that "Lord help me" feeling by setting a limit on how long you'll work without interruption. Fiore advises starting with 30 minutes.

Get in the zone. With only 30 (or maybe 60) minutes to work, it's critical that you spend that time working. To get into the zone, Fiore suggests taking three to 12 deep breaths (inhale, hold, exhale; repeat) to "create a kind of sanctuary" that allows you to focus.

Reward yourself. Fiore suggests the "unschedule" method to ensure you have time for work and play: "You look at your schedule and fill in your sleep time, your meal time, your play time, going to the gym, playing tennis, holidays. That is all protected time," he explains. What's left goes to work. "You begin to see that you're not procrastinating on living, you're not a slave. But you actually are going to focus and do some productive work."

Also, reward yourself for being focused. After your 30-minute block, allow yourself to check e-mail, call a friend or just take a breather.

-- Christina Breda Antoniades