I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions; they’re too easily forgotten. I am a fan of continuous improvement—that is, working to improve ourselves every single day. But one thing that stands in the way for me, and I suspect for many of you as well, is procrastination.
I can be a champion procrastinator, waiting months to try an unusual reaction that I’ve been thinking about, or weeks to write an important email or make that critical phone call. I’m not pointing fingers, but I will bet that we all have half-written manuscripts hiding in our files or postdoctoral fellowship applications that are sitting unsent or incomplete résumés or cover letters that are waiting to be polished.
Fortunately, many tools are out there to help you overcome procrastination. Some folks resort to web apps that lock them out of their favorite time-wasting websites, like Facebook and Twitter. Others follow the Pomodoro Technique, named after the tomato-shaped timer that the Italian originator of this method used. After determining a task, you set a timer to 25 minutes and focus on the task; then you take a five-minute break before the next 25-minute interval. These short sprints of mental activity can help build endurance and maintain your productivity.
One area in which I procrastinate the most is in contacting people for the first time. I’m not sure what it is about the process that stops me. When contacting friends, coworkers, or associates, I have no problem coming up with what to say. But when I’m reaching out to people outside my circle, I find myself more tongue-tied; and so the procrastination begins. A day will go by, and then two, and then a week. Sometimes, I will make a list of things to do, cross off all those tasks, and strangely, “Send email to request a donation” is still sitting unanswered. The most dreaded kind of email is the one where you are asking for something, be it funding, a job opportunity, or even an informational interview.
A friend of mine suggests rewarding oneself, like with a small piece of chocolate, after writing an email where the words don’t flow easily. Regularly feeding myself candy would probably do more harm than good, so I’ve figured out other ways to coax the words out. Quite often, I have found myself speaking the words that I want to write—simulating the conversation with the person I’m trying to reach. This is especially helpful when I’m typing an email and, in a fit of self-doubt, start erasing what I’ve written. I find that my computer’s voice-to-text application can help me force my words onto the screen. If a task starts to feel overwhelming, I’ll break it down into smaller, more manageable action items, like “Fill out the timeline in my résumé” or “Write a good summary of my undergraduate years.”
Even after you have polished that email, cover letter, or résumé, there is almost always some hesitation to send it. Will it be well received? Will it be rejected summarily? Will an angry response result? It’s often our inability to control how others respond to our entreaties that stops us. But remember that people aren’t like chemicals, and we can’t model or predict how they will react to our requests. We can control only our reactions. And so, the next time you find yourself procrastinating on an email, or anything else, consider the opportunities you might be procrastinating on getting. Take a deep breath, and press “Send.”
Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.