How to stop leaving things to the last minute

The topic of leaving things until the last minute came up recently with a client, and not for the first time. The world seems to be split into those who plan ahead and diligently make progress on things, and then the rest of us who have a tendency to cram things into the last minute. Sometimes we tell ourselves that we do it because we work better under pressure, but how true is that really? Sure, we might work faster and be more productive with a clear focus and a deadline, but we might also have to cut corners or leave ourselves with less time for other things when a deadline is looming.

So why do we really do it? Well sometimes the honest answer is a lack of motivation or self-discipline; especially with things that aren’t very exciting. In my experience another surprisingly common answer is self-sabotage, particularly among intelligent, successful people who are approaching something new or different. Why? Because intelligent, successful people often find it really hard to risk failing at anything.  

If you know you’ve left it late you give yourself an ‘out’ clause, meaning that if the result isn’t perfect you can excuse it. You can tell yourself that if you’d had more time you would have done a better job, and you don’t have to see it as a reflection of you and your capability. Essentially you are protecting yourself from having to confront the feeling of being a failure – but in doing so, you don’t get to find out just how good a job you could do. If this sounds like you, here are four strategies which could help.

Find a way to make it enjoyable. It’s much easier to get (and stay) motivated when work is enjoyable. If it feels more of a slog then consider how you can inject some lightness or fun. It could be splitting it into smaller chunks so you don’t have to face a whole morning of the same thing. It could be as simple as working in a different environment – a café or co-working environment can feel more motivating than the same four walls you usually face.

Remind yourself of past failures. This might seem a bit of a weird one, but bear with me. Reminding yourself of that feeling when you didn’t achieve to your full potential in the past can be enough to spur you on. If you delivered and under-rehearsed presentation and it didn’t go well, it can help to keep that feeling front of mind as something you want to avoid.

Think beyond the work you’re doing. This approach can work in two ways. If you know that what you’re doing is a stepping stone, then the stakes can be raised and a sense of obligation can kick in. In the same way that knowing your exam results would be on your c.v. forever more might have finally kicked you into gear to revise, (or maybe that was just me?!) considering the longer term implications of the piece of work you are doing can remind you why it is important to do your best with it.

Equally, if you’re nervous of failing then reminding yourself of what you need to learn to get where you are headed can take some of the fear away. If the only way to learn is to get stuck in and do something, then reminding yourself of the purpose behind the effort can give a real lift.

Get support in place around you. There’s no denying that the people we surround ourselves with have a huge impact on how we behave. You’ve almost certainly got some people in your life who will let you excuse yourself more easily than others. If something is important, being around people who are more driven and hardworking and less prone to making excuses themselves is way more helpful than being around people who will let you off the hook too easily. It can also be helpful to create staged deadlines and communicate them to other people; if I am developing a training workshop I often make a commitment to someone else about when I will have the handout notes ready. That way, I have to have the training planned in advance and I don’t have the option to procrastinate on it!

If you recognise yourself as someone who leaves things to the last minute I’d love to hear what strategies have worked for you. And if you need some help with getting out of the cycle and some accountability to make things happen then get in touch to explore how coaching could help.


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