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Career Advice: Just Do It

Any task gets easier once you're under way. Before long, you'll be surprised at how far you've come.

I once asked a group of top executives how many of them consider themselves to be serious procrastinators. Just 25% raised a hand. But when I put that question to groups of unemployed job seekers, 80% of the hands went up. That's consistent with what I've found in my 18 years as a career coach: Too often, procrastination can kill a career. Do you find that you're always putting things off? If so, I've learned a few things about getting out of this rut.

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School daze. Many people learn procrastination in school. They wait until the last minute to write a paper or to study for a test, but, thanks to grade inflation, they still end up with a decent grade. That gets them by until they land in higher-level jobs, where there's no such thing as grade inflation to bail them out of their bad habits. Knowing that putting things off may be rooted in patterns acquired during school should give procrastinators hope that they can change.

Some people procrastinate to avoid failure. That should be a warning that you need to get help or that a task is inappropriate. If too many tasks are inappropriate, it could be time to change jobs.

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Others procrastinate because they're hedonists who try to avoid work, especially work imposed on them by others. They are often helped by realizing that they're more likely to achieve the pleasure they seek -- not to mention a higher salary -- by getting their work done, rather than living with the guilt of putting it off.

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Whatever the cause, my clients find the following approach helpful in overcoming procrastination. Ask yourself, "Is it in my interest to start on this task now? And if not now, when?" There's always a moment, usually unconscious, when you decide whether to start a project. If you make that decision consciously, you'll often choose to start working right away. Picture the benefits of finishing the task. Imagine how good you'll feel not having to bring home last-minute work.

Once you've decided you want to do the job, ask yourself, ÒDo I know how to do it?Ó If not, seek help immediately -- for example, ask for assistance in developing a step-by-step plan for tackling the work. Seeing the whole project laid out in incremental steps can help you overcome inertia. And if the task seems insurmountable, begin with a single step -- open the book, pick up the phone, start typing, whatever.

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Any task gets easier once you're under way. Just like climbing a mountain, taking those first steps builds momentum. Before long, you'll look down in surprise at how far you've come.

There's no need to be a perfectionist, especially when you're taking your first crack at a project. When writing a first draft, good is good enough. Just keep working until you've finished a rough version. Then go back and turn good into excellent.

Promise yourself a reward for completing the job, or use psychological incentives. When my wife was working on her dissertation, we hung a paper thermometer on the refrigerator, listing all the small steps required to complete the project. Each time she finished a step, we'd fill in that part of the thermometer with purple ink and celebrate. A simple idea, true, but seeing her progress reassured both of us.

Up against a wall. When you reach a difficult part of a job, don't consume too much time struggling. If you haven't made progress after a bit, chances are you won't. Get help from a co-worker or an outside expert. Sometimes even an Internet search may give you just the insight or idea you need to keep going.

At the end of my first session with a new client, I make it a point to ask, "What are the chances you'll do your homework?" If the answer is less than 95%, I recommend that the client try these cures for procrastination.

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