People often ask me about ways to beat procrastination. I usually say “I’ll get back to you.” Just kidding.
Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but 20 percent of people chronically avoid difficult tasks and deliberately look for distractions—which, unfortunately, are increasingly available. Procrastination in large part reflects our perennial struggle with self-control as well as our inability to accurately predict how we’ll feel tomorrow, or the next day.
If you do a Google search, there are over 380,000 references to “overcoming procrastination”.
Procrastinators may say they perform better under pressure, but more often than not that’s their way of justifying putting things off. The bright side? It’s possible to overcome procrastination—with effort.
Procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time, although they are more optimistic than others. “Telling someone who procrastinates to buy a weekly planner is like telling someone with chronic depression to just cheer up,” insists Dr. Ferrari (1).
I too struggle with procrastination. From my own observations with decades of clients behind me, plus my own ever-present struggle with it, here are the key reasons for procrastination.
- Desire to achieve perfection – When a normally high energy, high achiever procrastinates, it’s usually due to the desire to achieve perfection. Perfection though is unachievable, especially in most business settings.
- Lack of direction – You can’t leave for a trip if you don’t know where you’re going. Without a good sense of where you want to go with a project or a task, you likely wont want to start.
- Self-talk – Procrastinators tell lies to themselves. Such as, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow.” Or “I work best under pressure.” But in fact they do not get the urge the next day or work best under pressure. In addition, they protect their sense of self by saying “this isn’t important.” Another big lie procrastinators indulge is that time pressure makes them more creative. Unfortunately they do not turn out to be more creative; they only feel that way. They squander their resources.
- It’s unpleasant – Not everything we need to do each day is fun and exciting. Things can be downright unappealing, so we put them off.
Here are the most popular ways to overcome procrastination (2).
STEP 1: Recognize you ARE A PROCRASTINATOR.
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Here are some useful indicators that will help you know when you’re procrastinating:
- Filling your day with low priority tasks from your To Do List.
- Reading e-mails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you’re going to do with them.
- Sitting down to start a high-priority task, and almost immediately going off to make a cup of coffee.
- Leaving an item on your To Do list for a long time, even though you know it’s important.
- Regularly saying “Yes” to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do, and filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks already on your list.
- Waiting for the “right mood” or the “right time” to tackle the important task at hand.
Step 2: Work Out WHY You’re Procrastinating
Even if you’re organized, you can feel overwhelmed by the task. You may doubt that you have the skills or resources you think you need, so you seek comfort in doing tasks you know you’re capable of completing. Unfortunately, the big task isn’t going to go away – truly important tasks rarely do. You may also fear success as much as failure. For example, you may think that success will lead to you being swamped with more requests to do this type of task, or that you’ll be pushed to take on things that you feel are beyond you.
Step 3: Adopt Anti-Procrastination Strategies
Procrastination is a habit – a deeply ingrained pattern of behavior. That means that you won’t just break it overnight. Habits only stop being habits when you have persistently stopped practicing them, so use as many approaches as possible to maximize your chances of beating them. Some tips will work better for some people than for others, and for some tasks than others. And, sometimes, you may simply need to try a fresh approach to beat the “procrastination peril”!
These general tips will help motivate you to get moving:
- Make up your own rewards. For example, promise yourself a piece of tasty flapjack at lunchtime if you’ve completed a certain task. And make sure you notice how good it feels to finish things!
- Ask someone else to check up on you. Peer pressure works! This is the principle behind slimming and other self-help groups, and it is widely recognized as a highly effective approach.
- Identify the unpleasant consequences of NOT doing the task.
- Work out the cost of your time to your employer. As your employers are paying you to do the things that they think are important, you’re not delivering value for money if you’re not doing those things. Shame yourself into getting going!
If you’re procrastinating because you’re disorganized, here’s how to get organized!
Use Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle to help prioritize your To-Do List so that you cannot try to kid yourself that it would be acceptable to put off doing something on the grounds that it is unimportant, or that you have many urgent things which ought to be done first when, in reality, you’re procrastinating.
If you’re putting off starting a project because you find it overwhelming, you need to take a different approach. Here are some tips:
- Break the project into a set of smaller, more manageable tasks. You may find it helpful to create an action plan.
- Start with some quick, small tasks if you can, even if these aren’t the logical first actions. You’ll feel that you’re achieving things, and so perhaps the whole project won’t be so overwhelming after all.
If you’re doing it because you find the task unpleasant:
- Many procrastinators overestimate the unpleasantness of a task. So give it a try! You may find that it’s not as bad as you thought!
- Hold the unpleasant consequences of not doing the work at the front of your mind.
- Reward yourself for doing the task.
(1) Quotes courtesy of Psychology Today and Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, and Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
(2) Other references courtesy of Mindtools.com