Vickie Austin didn't put off her Christmas shopping to the last minute this year.

A full 10 days before the holiday, her presents were bought, wrapped, mailed and sitting under her relatives' Christmas trees.

“For the first time in years, I didn't pay more for postage than gifts,” she says, laughing. “Last year, I procrastinated. I spent a fortune on Priority Mail and it still didn't get there on time.”

Austin, a business coach, credits a “Procrastination Cessation” seminar by time-management consultant Marianna Swallow for her turnaround this year.

“When there's a group like that in a seminar setting, you get a sense of ‘You're not the only one.' I don't think anybody completely overcomes procrastination; it's something that goes in waves.”

As people start thinking about how to change their lives in the new year, getting a grip on procrastination is one way to find some peace, says Swallow, president of M. Runge and Associates.

“How important is it for you to save that time?” she asks. “How important is it for you to get those things done and not have it hanging over your head when you go to bed at midnight tonight?”

Even if she were in bed before midnight, Maria Burud would find herself waking up with concerns about the coming day.

Four years ago, she launched her own sales training and consulting firm, the Zanon Group, after years as an executive with technology companies. She no longer had an assistant to keep her on track. Plus, she was a single mom juggling her three children's sports and musical activities.

She hired Swallow in 2004 for one-on-one sessions to help her get organized and stop procrastinating. Burud says a key tip that Swallow suggested was to break her tasks down into small steps to avoid discouragement.

“Before, I would put on my to-do list: ‘Create sales handbook for Client XYZ.' Well, there's like nine distinct items in that one statement,” Burud says.

Now, her to-do list might say: Write copy for handbook. Create Power Point. Send handbook to printer. Buy binders. Pick up handbooks from printer. Assemble binders.

She also has gotten better organized, she says, using her PDA for long-term appointments and a hardcover notebook to track daily activities. (Swallow told her to buy a notebook she found visually attractive so she would enjoy using it.)

“I get things done faster,” Burud says, “with less stress.”

Swallow says we all deal with varying degrees of procrastination. But a turning point for her came when she paid off a credit card (or so she thought), only to get a statement showing she still owed 98 cents. She intended to fight it and put the bill in a pile of papers, then forgot about it. A month went by, and the new bill came with a $28 late fee.

“I've never been late with a payment again,” she says.

Laura Thoma, a former professional dancer who is now a creativity coach and jewelry designer, wasn't feeling overwhelmed by the size of one project – she simply was buried with too many projects going at once.

“Usually I would multitask until I was completely overwhelmed and no task was completed,” she says.

At Swallow's October seminar, she suggested that Thoma drop multitasking and focus on one role at a time.

“It has really made a difference,” Thoma says. “I truly get more done in less time.”

Swallow says there is no one-size-fits-all approach for overcoming procrastination.

“I know one girlfriend who keeps all of her ‘to-do's' on her cell phone. She can't stand [desk planners] and she can't stand the computer, but her cell phone works.”

If you're able to make progress on your procrastination, you'll find the reward goes beyond having more time, she says.

“You can fully enjoy your evening and your time with family and friends,” Swallow says. “It allows you to be a lot more present – even if you just want a quiet night for reading a book by yourself.”

Swallow offers a few common tips to deal with putting things off:

– Identify your bugaboo, the thing that drives you nuts. What is the one thing that you're constantly thinking about?

– What is procrastination costing you? One of Swallow's seminar participants put off paying a traffic ticket – for the third time – and wound up with her license suspended.

– Find the tiniest step you can find to get started on the project.

– Make an easily achievable goal to give yourself a mental jump-start.

– Give yourself the freedom to delete minor, unfulfilled projects from the edges of your list.

© 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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