Procrastinating Responsibly: Tame the Elephant, Leave the Ants

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I was watching a documentary on Netflix the other night that was discussing how terrified elephants are of ants. According to Dr. Todd Palmer of the Mpala Research Center in Kenya, elephants will avoid trees and areas where there are swarms of ants. “The elephants avoided those trees like a kid avoids broccoli.”  Often, when approaching our daily work duties, we too become distracted by all the little tasks we have to take care of and avoid taking care of the major things that need to be done. We wander around, stomping ants, saying that once we get rid of all the ants we will start on the big tasks.

When I was in high school, I remember my little sister put off a major project until the very last night before it was due. Stressed and crying, she said she felt like she needed to complete everything else first, before doing this project.  Everything else included cleaning her room, reading fashion magazines, and providing toenail painting services to all the girls in my family (there were 4 of us still at home).  All I could think to say was, “You have to learn how to procrastinate responsibly!”  This phrase became popular in our home.  Because book learning and school concepts did not come as quickly to me as they did to some of my siblings, I had to develop a system that would help me complete the things that really needed to be done, while not becoming overwhelmed by all the tasks that had to be done.  I called this system “Responsible Procrastination.” Now, I know what you are thinking. Procrastination = naughty word. But procrastination is not always a bad thing. Let me demonstrate how.

Answering emails in the morning is like stomping ants. More always appear.
Answering emails first thing in the morning—while tempting—may actually impair your day’s productivity, causing you to procrastinate the more important things you need to complete. We always say, “Oh, I’ll just answer these three emails and then move on to the tasks at hand.”  WRONG! Three emails turn into 25, and by the time you look at the clock again, half your day is gone.  There is a really great book I recently purchased called Never Check E-Mail in the Morning and Other Unexpected Strategies for Making Your Work Life Work by Julie Morgenstern.  When I moved into the position of Medical Transcription/Editor Instructor here at Career Step, not only did my workload double, it felt like I had less time to complete everything.  That is when I began designating specific times during the day to focus solely on answering emails, rather than working on them sporadically throughout the day. I found that once I implemented designated email times, I suddenly had plenty of time with which to complete everything I needed to in order to provide the best support to my students. When working as a medical transcriptionist and editor, your job is not to answer emails. Work on your top priorities first—getting your lines in—and go from there.

The to-do list is your friend. Embrace it.
To-do lists are my constant companions. As my officemate knows, I have a small green planner that sits open on my desk all day.  Each day, my to-do list is entered in order of true priority: the first being to support students working through the program!  As a future (or current) medical transcriptionist/editor, your main task is transcription and editing. That should always be your first priority.  After you have your true priorities ordered, put down your “nice to get done today” list below it.  I have been using the same planner brand for the past 4 years and it works great for me, so I thought I’d share it with all of you. It is called Planner Pad (www.plannerpads.com), and it uses a really cool funnel system to help focus my daily to-dos.  Yep, I’m old-school and like a paper planner. Some people like to use their computer calendars, and those are great too.  I know that Apple and Android also have a lot of great to-do list apps to help you get organized. Whatever your tracking style is―whether it is paper, computer, or mobile device―find something that works well for you and start using it to make your to-do lists! Also, a lot of people say that checking off a task on a to-do list releases endorphins that ward off anxiety and feelings of depression.  I would concur with that assessment!

Take breaks. You can’t manage everything without the mind power to do so.
Did you know you are actually 13% more accurate, on average, if you take micro breaks and are less likely to injure yourself? According to a study conducted by Cornell University, “People can measurably improve their computer productivity and substantially reduce their risk of repetitive stress injuries if they would simply work smarter…”

Taking breaks allows your mind to refocus and gives you a renewed sense of accomplishment. Take a quick three-minute break every hour and you will find your productivity will increase!

Though I am much older and wiser (debatable) than I was back in high school, the principle of responsible procrastination still rings true. Try tackling the elephant first, and you will find the elephant just might take care of the ants for you.

- Alesa Little
MT/MTE Instructor


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  1. Leigh August 29, 2013

    Thanks for stopping me from doing all the little things first to “get ready” to start.  I am not at the level of “responsible” proscrastination yet; starting with “sane” procrastination.  Reminders welcome!


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