Students who want a job or internship in June need to start looking in the winter. Those who wait until spring to search set themselves up to be bottom feeders in the job market. The hardest part of a search is starting. Here is a guide to help you start sooner.

Companies that are popular and prestigious offer internships that are snapped up by spring. An intern offers free or underpaid labor in exchange for a line on a resume. It's a raw deal, but don't underestimate that line.

At the end of college, students with great summer internships are in a separate category than everyone else. Most companies hire full-time staff from their pool of summer interns. Of course, an internship is not a sure bet to success, but it's a sure bet that you have a chance to prove yourself in an industry where you think you'll be happy.

Real-Life Jobs
Look, I don't want to be the one spreading this news, but someone's got to do it: Unless you're planning to go to grad school, or planning to camp out at your parents' home indefinitely, running an effective job hunt is as important as getting good grades during your last year in college. Hunting for a job is a full-time job. You need to send resumes out regularly, scour job listings and company listings, conduct regular soul-searching missions, and you need to leave time and energy to stress about your lack of success in all these areas.

You can take time now, during school to do this, or you can wait until June. In June, all the good jobs will be taken because the students obsessed with getting a great job start hunting in the winter, and top companies accommodate those students. You're going to have to suffer through a job hunt sooner or later, so why not do it when there are still great entry-level jobs to be had?

Your Strategy
Find companies you'd like to work for. Some companies have very structured application processes on their web site. Others will have very little. For the latter, find the name of the human resource manager and send a cover letter and resume asking for a summer internship or a job. If you get a job from a mere 40 resumes, you will be beating all the odds. You should send out 100, but I don't want to overwhelm you. And hey, don't forget all your parents' friends and your friends' parents' friends.

Most colleges have a career center. Use it.
My 21-year-old brother wrote a letter to his roommate's dad asking for an internship at his pharmaceutical company. My brother ended the letter with, “I look forward to your speedy reply.” Quick quiz: What is wrong with his ending? Answer: This is the way you sign a letter to someone who reports to you and is in trouble and needs pushing around. If you did not know that answer you should never send a letter out without a trained counselor reading it first.

If you did know the answer you should still go to your career center. The first rule of successes in business is to know how to leverage available help. The real world is not filled with career centers waiting for your visit. So go there now, while you can.

I have never seen such an honest, unabashed portrait of the difficulties women face in corporate America as I have seen in The Apprentice.

Unabashed truth #1: Men hire people who are like them.
It's the men who set the tone for corporate life, the same men who win The Apprentice. For those of you who do not watch the show, the final episode was between Kelly (white male, 37) and Jennifer (white female, 31). It didn't matter that the general consensus was that Jennifer has more passion than Kelly. It didn't matter that Jennifer delivered comparable results to Kelly in a world that is dominated by men and not women.

The only thing that mattered, in the end, was that Kelly was “proven” and “steady”. These are euphemisms for male. Proven, in this instance, means that people can count on him to act like a man. And “steady” in this context means that men are not as passionate as women and thank goodness because men are not used to dealing with that kind of passion except when they want to get laid.

Unabashed truth #2: Women must use sex well, but not too well.
Carolyn, Donald Trump's sidekick, is a hot blond who wears sleeveless shirts that reveal taut arms but never stray far from Brooks Brothers styling. Carolyn kisses Trump (on both cheeks) in situations in which Trumps second sidekick, George (older man) walks away without so much as a pat on the back. But Carolyn is presented on the show as someone powerful. It's a balancing act. If Carolyn were ugly, this setup would not work. If she were as old as George, then Trump would not look as good sitting between the two of them.

Carolyn is careful to condemn female contestants for using sex as a way to get ahead. She has to say that. Balance is everything for women right now. You need to be totally hot and totally oblivious to it.

Unabashed truth #3: Children impact women's careers more than men's.
A recent Congressional study found that professional men and women make the same amount of money for doing the same jobs until the men and women have kids. Then the women's' salaries fall behind. Likely explanations: Women take on the brunt of the household/childrearing duties even in homes where the spouses were equal earners before kids; women take less responsibility at work because they're overwhelmed by the balancing act; men do not cut back because the more money they make the more they are likely to have a wife (and probably a nanny, a maid, etc) at home enabling them.

The Apprentice is a realistic depiction of this problem. Women with kids are not likely to audition for fifteen weeks of living in an absurd, dorm-like arrangement without their kids. It is no surprise that in the most recent episode, the only Apprentices who had kids were men.

Unabashed truth #4: Most powerful women with kids have a husband taking care of them.
Every so often a business publication will feature an article about how women get to the top, or the ten most powerful women, or women who broke through the glass ceiling. In each article, women who refuse to be identified by name cite the fact that their husband takes care of their home and kids as crucial to her ability to succeed at the office.

Carolyn is no exception. She is the most powerful woman on The Apprentice, and her husband is the primary caretaker for her two kids.

So if you want to get an accurate sense of how far women have come in corporate life, take a look at The Apprentice. And don't be shocked that men keep winning. If you want to make a difference in your career, I would not advise acting like a man (not believable) or getting plastic surgery (you don't need to be THAT hot). But I would advise that whether you're male or female, make sure you have a spouse who is willing to take care of home duties while you build a powerhouse career.

Even though you know you need eight hours of sleep a night, you probably sleep much less than that. Me, too. Tonight, for example, when I should have been going to bed I made cupcakes for my son's classroom. I was so tired that I doubled the amount of sugar, and baked them anyway. They came out squishy from so much sugar, but, per my son's request, I added green frosting and silver sprinkles on top anyway. I said to myself, “These are absolutely the most disgusting cupcakes ever.” Then, two hours later, when I feared I was too tired to stay up to write a column, I ate three cupcakes.

I told myself I would never stay up late for work again. But then I worried that I was probably lying to myself. So in an effort to really reform myself I have constructed a list of things to remember next time I see the clock strike 10 p.m. and I make no move to go to bed.

1. Sleep deprivation makes you act drunk. Occupational and Environmental Medicine reported that if you stay up for 18 — 20 hours in a row, your mental capacities are the same as those with a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent, which is the legal driving limit.

2. You are smarter if you sleep enough. Scientists at the University of Luebeck found that when you sleep eight hours you solve problems that you cannot solve when you have not slept enough. So pulling an all-nighter seems fine, if you don't have to be smart the next day. But a lot of sleep-short nights mean a lot of stupid days. And sooner or later, it won't matter if you have the capacity, somewhere, to be brilliant. If you don't ever exhibit it because you never sleep, then for all intents and purposes, you are a slow thinker.

3. Creativity happens after a good sleep. Maybe the manic can get away with no sleep, but for the typically calibrated worker, sleep allows the brain to synthesize in ways that precede a great idea. Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the periodic table of elements by dreaming it. And Laurie Halse Anderson won a National Book Award Nomination for Speak, a book she dreamed and then woke up and wrote.

4. People who don't sleep are in denial. I have heard so many people say, “I don't need eight hours.” Okay. Fine. You need seven. But unless you're over 65, you need at least seven hours. You lie to yourself when you say you don't need the sleep, and the person who is hurt by the lie is you, because you never allow yourself to be your best self during the day. You never get to see what you can really do.

4a. I, by the way am not one of those people who says I don't need sleep. I always want more sleep. But I'm still in denial. I am in denial all day, leading up to the sleep deprivation. I have opportunities to get the most important stuff done but instead, I do easy, unimportant things, like answer random emails. I keep saying to myself, “I have time, I have time.” But I don't have time. Not if I'm going to get eight hours sleep.

5. The just-before-sleep part is magic. One of my favorite sensations is lying down to sleep but not falling asleep right away. My mind clears up, and I see all kinds of things that the tumult of the day obscured. Lying on the pillow with nothing to do is a luxurious feeling. But if I'm not getting enough sleep, that time is gone; I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow.

Like all good addicts, I am telling myself, as I do this sleep deprivation thing tonight, that I'll never do it again. But really, I think getting enough sleep takes a huge commitment. You need to reorganize your life so that when it's time to go to bed, you've finished all the essentials. And you need to make getting enough sleep and essential. I say “you” because I'm not quite sure that I'm there yet. But now at least I have a list of reminders for next time I see my bedtime slipping by.

All managers have one, shared goal: Get a promotion. But many times, the job of a manger is so multifaceted and detail-laden that the manager loses site of that big picture. Here are five jobs of a manager that are often lost in the muddle of managing smaller, day-to-day issues.

1. Manage conflict
Avoiding conflict is for people who want to lay low and move up by dint of inertia. This plan will take you only so far. At some point you have to meet conflict head on and show that you can resolve it. Think about this: At the highest levels of management, leaders are essentially gathering competing opinions from the very informed and making a decision based on conflicting recommendations. Conflict at your level, e.g. “Karen is late on every project and I don't want to work with her on the next one,” is preparation for the next level. Don't shrink from this stepping-stone by hiding in the sand until the conflict resolves itself. Managing conflict allows you to become an arbitrator and negotiator, and most of all, someone who has developed good judgment on hard calls.

2. Manage your personal life.
You are kidding yourself if you think people don't see what's going on with you at home. Are you getting drunk every night? Are your finances a mess? You might live a fantasy that you are hiding bad behavior from co-workers, but stress shows up in nonverbal, unexpected ways that make people uncomfortable to be with you and worried about your competence. People who seem to have shaky lives at home seem like time bombs at work. So instead of trying to hide your personal life, redirect that energy toward improving your personal life. You might not have as much focus for work in the short term, but in the long term you'll be in better shape to manage effectively.

3. Manage hearts and minds
Sure, you need to manage budgets, schedules, and strategy. But if you don't have peoples' hearts on your side, your team won't over perform for you. The easiest way to win the hearts of your team members is to genuinely care about them. You can't fake this. So if you don't genuinely care about people who work for you, ask yourself why you are in management. (There are plenty of big, rewarding careers that don't include management.) Management is about helping people to be their best. Once you genuinely care about people, you will be able to find out what excites them, and you will help them reach their goals at work. Which, invariably, will shine favorably on your own workplace performance.

4. Manage diversity'
Diversity is not popular right now, when so many people worry about their job going overseas. But study after study shows that diverse teams perform better than homogenous teams. And besides, diversity doesn't mean hiring someone in Mumbai. Managing diversity starts by hiring someone who is not like everyone else on your team. Then do it again and again and find a way to make the team gel. Diverse teams are more difficult to manage — there are more opinions, more preconceptions, more quirks, and more conflicts. But top managers can leverage these difficulties as a means to establish more innovative planning. After all, no one became great by surrounding themselves with people who think like everyone else.

5. Manage a successor
If you're doing a good job, it's hard to convince your boss to promote you; he has no idea who will take your place, and he risks his own job performance by letting you replace yourself with someone who might not be as capable. Instead, train someone in-house to take over your job as soon as you have a handle on it yourself. The person should be practically doing your job so that you can find areas where you can take on more responsibility before you ask for a promotion. Managing a successor allows you to first lead without the title, and then to ask for the new title. And more money.

Those who have mentors are twice as likely to be promoted as those who don’t, says Ellen Fagenson Eland, professor at George Mason University and 2003 Winner of the Mentoring Best Practices Award. So start taking the mentoring process very seriously — it should be a cornerstone of your overall career strategy. Here’s a plan to get you started:

Step 1: Identify a potential mentor. This person can be any age, but the most effective mentor is someone approximately five years ahead of you in your career. A person at this level will know how to navigate your organization at the spot you’re in, and the person will remember what it is like to be where you are. This person should be someone you admire and someone who has good communication skills.

Step 2: Have good questions. Would-be mentors are most receptive to people who ask good questions. What makes a good question? It should reveal that you are both directed and driven. But the question should also demonstrate that you understand the mentor’s expertise and you can use it well. So, a question like, “What should I do with my life?” would be out.

Step 3: Don’t expect miracles. A mentor is not going to rescue your whole career, even if she can. People want to mentor a rising star, so look like you’re on track when you ask for help. Ask, “What skills should I develop to earn an education policy analyst job with a Senator?” rather than, “Can you get me a job with a Senator?” even if the mentor is Caroline Kennedy.

Step 4: Be a good listener. This person is not your therapist. You ask a question, and then listen. If the mentor needs to know more, he’ll ask. Do not tell your life story. It is not interesting. If it were, you’d be writing a book or doing standup, right? If you find yourself talking more than the mentor, then get a therapist before you scare your mentor away.

Step 5: Prove you’re serious. You can demonstrate that you’re hungry for counsel by implementing the advice your mentor gave, showing the result, and then going back for more. So, if your mentor suggests you get on project X, get yourself there, do a good job, and report back to your mentor that you are grateful for the advice because you were able to learn a lot and shine. Your mentor will be much more willing to give you her time and energy after you’ve proven yourself to be a quick and eager study.

Step 6: Always be on the lookout. One is not enough. Each person needs a few mentors, because no mentor lasts forever, and each has a different expertise. Two of my best mentors were very different from each other. One helped me to fit in with the guys so that I could succeed at a company where I was the only woman in management. Another mentor helped me to keep my sanity and my focus when balancing work and children seemed totally impossible.

Step 7: Give back. The best way to learn how to rope in a mentor is to be a mentor yourself. You’ll find out first hand what makes a protégée annoying, which will, in turn, make you a less annoying protégée. You’ll also discover why helping someone else grow is so rewarding, which will give you the courage to ask people to help you.

Even though I rarely tell you about the letters I receive from readers, I do receive a lot of mail. Almost all of it is thoughtful and intelligent, and the mail does influence what I choose to write about. Many times I answer questions directly, but today I'm going to answer a reader email in the column. My hope is that if you see how I answer a question, then you can answer your own questions using a very basic but tried-and-true Penelope formula.

The woman, I'll call her Darcy, wrote that she is a PhD who was hired to do research and present numbers to the Board of her company. The letter is much longer than that one sentence, but the basic point is that the board was getting inaccurate numbers from a lesser-qualified person so the board hired a PhD to make sure the information was completely accurate. Fair enough, especially in the wake of Enron and Aon and all the other number-hiding companies that crashed in recent history.

The problem is that, according to Darcy, the board is frustrated by Darcy's inability to come up with a way to present the numbers that the board likes. And Darcy is frustrated by the board's need to have numbers that are not exactly what she comes up with. After all, wasn't she hired to come up with the truth?

Here is some insight into how Penelope thinks: I look at the letter and say to myself, why is this Darcy's fault? You might think, Penelope you are so unreasonable to always blame the letter-writer. But face reality: You are not going to make a board change. You're not going to make a boss change. The people who write letters to me are generally having trouble with people who are not going to change. So there's no point in saying, “Wow, you sure do work with difficult people. Sorry. Love, Penelope.” Or, worse yet, saying, “Yes. This is a very bad situation. You should quit. That'll really teach your company a lesson. Good luck with unemployment. Love, Penelope.”

The best advice I can give is how the person with the problem can solve the problem herself. In the case of Darcy, she needs to recognize that she has an impossible job. There's a reason why very few Ph.Ds are CEOs. The former is all about detail and accuracy. The latter is all about big-picture and spin. Not that both titles don't require big picture AND accuracy, but very few people can focus on big picture and accuracy at the same time.

Probably, Darcy is never going to be able to re-jigger numbers for public relations spin. My first advice would be for her to extract herself from the spin part of the job — give the numbers to a public relations person before the numbers go to the board, for example. But maybe Darcy really wants to step up and deliver the numbers in a way that the board wants. In truth, people who can juggle details and big-picture go very far in corporate life. So maybe Darcy can do this, but then she needs to stop complaining about what the board wants, and learn to deliver it. Let the board decide if it's proper or not. (Note to ethics mavens: Darcy is definitely at the beginning of her career and in no position to be questioning her board's ethics. She would be ignored and then fired.)

But let's take a step back. Because almost all of my “What should I do?” emails from readers are like this one. When you have a problem with how other people in the office are treating you, figure out how you can change. When you have a problem with how people want you to do your job, change your approach, or change your job description, but don't blame someone else for what they want. This is not going to get you anywhere.

People in corporate life get promoted for their ability to take control of a problem and solve it. If you cannot take control of problems within your own job, you are not going to persuade people you can take care of corporate problems. So on some level, you have to look at your problems like I would look at your problems: Blame yourself first.

It is possible to work fewer hours without hurting your career, but you need to get serious about systematically changing how you approach your work. First, don't blame your long hours on your boss, your CEO, or your underlings. Someone who does not make a conscious, organized effort to take responsibility for the number of hours they work can be thrown off course by anyone. But the person who systematically follows the steps below will not be thrown off course, even by a workaholic boss in a workaholic industry.

1. Concentrate on quality of work over quantity.
The person who builds a career on doing the most work commits to living on a treadmill. The work will never be done, and you will become known among your co-workers as someone who never turns down an assignment. Read: dumping ground.

Quality is what matters: people don't lose a job for not working unpaid overtime, they lose a job for not performing well at the most important times; and a resume is not a list of hours worked, it is a list of big accomplishments.

2. Know the goals of your job.
You need to know the equivalent of a home run in your job. Get a list of goals from your boss, and understand how they fit into the big picture. Judge if your work is high quality by what people need from you and how they measure success. Be sure to get goals that are quality oriented and not hours oriented. Suggest replacing, “Devote eight hours a week to cold-calling” to “Find six qualified leads in three months.”

3. Refuse bad assignments.
Figure out what matters, and spend your time on that. Once you have clear short-term and long-term goals, it's easy to spot the person you don't need to impress, the project that will never hit your resume, or the hours worked that no one will notice.

And then say no. Constantly. The best way to say no is to tell people what is most important on your plate so they see that, for you, they are a low priority. Prioritizing is a way to help your company, your boss and yourself. No one can fault your for that.

4. Know your boss's goals.
Your best tool for saying no to a project is reminding your boss what her goals are. If she cannot keep track of her own goals, help her. Because if you worm your way out of work that doesn't matter to her, so that you can do work that does matter to her, she is more likely to back you up. Also your boss will protect you from assignments from other people if you show her how the other peoples' work affects your boss's goals.

5. Take control of what you can.
Even small efforts at control add up to a lot, and best of all, they usually go unnoticed by others. For example, refuse to make meetings on Monday and you are less likely to have to prepare for meetings on the weekend. Refuse meetings after 4:30 p.m. and you are less likely to miss dinner at home. Ignore your phone while you write your weekly report and you're less likely to stay late to finish it. You don't need to tell people: “My policy is no meetings at x time.” Just say you're already booked and suggest another time. You can't do this every meeting, but you can do it enough to make a difference in your life.

6. Know your own boundaries.
“Wanting to work fewer hours” is too vague a goal because you won't know which hours to protect. Try getting home at 7pm, not working weekends, or leaving for two hours in the middle of the day for a yoga class. These are concrete goals for cutting back hours.

7. Be brave.
Brave people can say no when someone is pushing hard, and brave people can go home when other people are working late. The bravery comes from trusting yourself to find the most important work and to do it better than anyone else.

We knew a year in advance that my husband's job would end this fall. So he conducted a fairly typical job hunt for a while, but the hunt hit high gear when we found out that our insurance payments (COBRA) once his job ended would be $1500 a month. His job hunt became an insurance hunt.

This insurance problem began because he could only apply to jobs that came with insurance, and many top institutions on my husbands list did not even have an insurance plan. People who felt unconstrained by labor laws offered advice in interviews like, “Can't your spouse provide insurance?” (The answer, of course, is no. I work freelance and we need more dependable insurance than that for our son.)

So, it was two weeks before my husband's job ended, and he had no job. And I started throwing a fit. I threw a fit that he was irresponsible, which is not actually true, because he is a good job hunter and he had had more than 20 interviews. I threw a fit that he was ruining my reproductive life, which is not totally true, but I want to get pregnant again, and I am over 35, which is old in fertility years, and I cannot imagine getting pregnant without any insurance. I threw a fit that we absolutely cannot have a special needs child without good health insurance. This last part is true. I probably should have started there, but emotions run high during a job hunt. And besides, I never, in a million years, imagined that I would be someone dependent on my husband for anything. But we need insurance.

So my husband decided to get a stupid job at a big company so we could have health insurance until he found a job on his career path.

I told him to start at Starbucks because you only have to work 20 hours a week to get insurance, but my husband said he couldn't imagine himself doing a service job.

I thought about how much it takes just to get him to clean up the cat litter, and I agreed.

So he started at Old Navy. My husband has held producer positions at top entertainment companies and he has a master's degree from a top film school. I asked him if he left all that off the applications when he applied for a job at Old Navy. He said he couldn't even find the application. The Old Navy store manger said you have to apply online. The web site says you have to apply in store. My husband said, “I think the store manager gave me the run around.”

I said, “Maybe you have to have a friend at Old Navy to get a job there.”

My husband went to Target. He said there was a line to use the kiosk to apply for a job even though the sign above the kiosk said, “We have no jobs.”

It was a depressing day all around. It's one thing to search for entry-level jobs after a fruitful, fifteen-year career. But to be searching for them unsuccessfully, that is very sad.

Fortunately, the job nightmare ended the next day, when two offers from great non-profits came in. And the next day, two more offers. Then he weighed offers. At one, the pay was low, but the insurance was covered. At another the pay was high but the insurance was so bad that we couldn't really use it. One company had a great insurance program and good salaries, but the premiums, that we would pay out of pocket, were sky high. For that we may as well buy COBRA.

So my husband did something that we would have never have thought of doing before our insurance crisis of the past months: He asked for a 20% increase in salary to offset the costs of insurance. At first the company was shocked to hear the request, but in fact, so few people actually used the company's insurance that no one knew how expensive it was. And, in the end, my husband got the 20% increase.

Insurance is worth a lot of money. It can change an offer, and it can break open the door for salary negotiations. Insurance premiums are to a job offer what shipping is to an online purchase: You don't know if it's a good deal until you see both numbers. So read all the fine print for your insurance package, and then don't be afraid to negotiate, because the cost of the company's insurance shouldn't kill your paycheck.

Meanwhile, things have settled down for us: My husband is not loading boxes at Target, and I am not throwing fits — at least not about the insurance.

My husband just accepted a new job, and he had to give his new boss a start date. We agreed that he would take a week off before he starts, but it turns out we had very different ideas about what that week would entail.

We both agree that the stress of a job hunt is exhausting, and anyone who has been through that process needs to recharge before embarking on something new. A real vacation — like Paris or the beach – was not possible to plan because we had no advance notice about this job. In fact, though, one does not need to be in an exotic location in order to recharge.

The problem is that my husband's idea of recharging is haphazard and, in my mind, ineffective. But just because you're married to a career expert doesn't mean you want to hear her advice, which is frustrating to me, to be honest. So here is an open letter to my husband about how I think people should spend the week before a new job.

1. Get out from under your oppressive to do list.
It's no fun to start a job weighted down by a big to do list that has nothing to do with your new responsibilities. Take a week to kill your to do list. Anything you can't get done in that week, delete: admit that you are not going to get done in the next year. You can console yourself with the fact that if it's not important enough to do when you have a week with no plans, then it probably wasn't important in the first place.

2. Clear the clutter by devising a new system.
Get rid of all your piles, all your lists, all the projects, all the things that hang over your head but never get done. But going through this mess once is not enough. Figure out a system so that you don't create new piles and lists once your job starts. Piles and lists and unfinished projects are borne of unrealistic ambitions. Acknowledge what you can do and get rid of the other stuff. The pressure you feel to address your unfinished business drains you every day. Create a system that does not generate unfinished business.

3. Get into a routine that supports the lifestyle you want.
Do you want eight hours of sleep a night? You should. People who get less than seven hours of sleep exhibit the same mental signs as someone who has had a little too much to drink. Do you want to exercise regularly? You should. People who exercise regularly have more successful careers. So get started on this during your down week — the week when you have no other commitments except to get your life in gear in preparation for your new job. It's a lot easier to get yourself into a routine when there is no other pressure. And if you can do a week of the life you want you're more likely to keep it up when you start your new job.

4. Have lunch with friends.
Most people avoid their friends when they are looking for a job. Not that this is the right decision, but it is an understandable decision during a time when morale and self-esteem are low. Now that you have a job, though, reconnect with people and let them know how excited you are. Better to do it now, during your interim week, than during your first month of the new job; you never know what your schedule will be like, especially for the first couple of months. Also, be sure to invite people out to lunch who have helped you in your hunt. Even if their help was not particularly fruitful, if they tried, then you should express thanks.

5. Remember who you truly are.
For people who really, really need a job, much of a job hunt is pretending: Pretending you don't need a job. Pretending you love tedious tasks and long hours. Pretending you get along with anyone. Pretending you feel good about yourself. But most people who need a job and can't find one actually do not feel that good about themselves. Once you do find that job, Take a week to get back to your regular self — the valuable, self-confident person you truly are.

There are two ways to not get something done: Doing a lot and doing nothing. The trick to getting your list of tasks done is to understand your method of not doing it.

Everyone I know has something they really need to do but just can’t make it happen. I am not talking about big life issues, like, “Find a new career,” and I’m not talking about moments of frivolity, like, “Relocate to a swing state.” I’m talking about the stuff like, “Send resume to new friend of friend.” Or “Write weekly report in the new format boss requested.”

Even these tasks that are seemingly manageable are, in fact, opportunities for procrastination. This is the kind of procrastination that bothers me the most. Huge projects are understandably hard to start because maybe you can’t tell what needs to be done. And life-changing goals are understandably intimidating to work on, because maybe they won’t work. But tasks that take less than a few hours are the ones we should all be able to perform with little fanfare.

Doing nothing is my procrastination mode of choice. I am great at breaking down large projects into manageable tasks. And I am great at prioritizing. I even have a knack for carving out time in the day for my tasks. But then I fall apart. Some days, I just can’t get myself to do the tasks. I find myself flailing – doing the easy items on my list even though they’re not important, or, worse, reading and rereading minor sections of the newspaper. The “Furniture for Sale” ads look fascinating when they lie on top of my to-do list.

Doing a lot is harder to recognize as procrastination because people who do a lot trick themselves into thinking they are actually working on their task. Procrastinating by doing a lot means that you are busy doing things that don’t matter. People who do a lot as a way to procrastinate are usually researchers and investigators. For example, instead of writing an outline for a speech about the price of tea in China, you surf the Internet looking for a joke you read somewhere that you’d like to use for your opening. But the joke is not really part of the task. The task is the speech and the joke is something you could add if you want to, at the end, when the presentation is done.

Okay. So look at the top of your to-do list, which you are probably not working on now as you read this column. (Although bless all of you who have put “Read Penelope’s column” at the top of your list!) Hopefully, because you understand the process of breaking down large projects into manageable tasks, the top item is a manageable task. And now you can figure out if you are not finishing it because you are doing too much or too little.

The reason that doing a lot and doing nothing are so similar is that they are both ways of coping with the fear that you’ll do a bad job. But here’s something you should be even more scared of: The stress of not being able to accomplish tasks you set out for yourself. Procrastinating always feels bad, and the relief of finishing something always feels great. So recognize whether you are a person who needs to stop or start, and entice yourself into action by remembering the joy of getting a difficult item off of your list.