Overcoming Procrastination

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October 27, 2021

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Image: Katsiaryna Endruszkiewicz, Unsplash

Take a moment to think about a task that you have been putting off. How do you feel when you think about it? Motivated? Stressed? Energized? Guilty? Heavy in your body? Most of us feel bad, physically and emotionally, when we procrastinate.

Procrastination is defined as delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay. The word “procrastination” is formed from the Latin words for “forward” and “tomorrow”. When we procrastinate, we put things off until tomorrow or later, sometimes indefinitely. While a certain amount of procrastination is normal, in excess it can result in stress, anxiety and insomnia, as well as a loss in productivity, sense of agency and self-esteem, plus social disapproval if we don’t meet commitments. It can even lead to depression and health problems.

So why do we procrastinate? Perhaps we think we don’t have enough time to do justice to the task. Ironically this often results in us doing a poorer job at the last minute, usually coupled with self-reproach. We may procrastinate because the task is unpleasant or challenging, we may have trouble setting priorities, or we may be overloaded with too many tasks. Those of us who are perfectionists tend to set unattainable goals and then put off getting started because we are afraid of failing. No matter what drives it, procrastination nearly always results in stress, lower productivity and wasted energy. It’s a form of self-sabotage that can become chronic, trapping us in a vicious cycle of avoidance and self-hatred.

How can we overcome procrastination? First, we need to recognize and acknowledge that we are doing it, rather than denying it or blaming external factors. This is the first essential step towards change. Self-compassion is critical. Rather than beating ourselves up and seeing procrastination as a character flaw, we can recognize that it’s a normal human behavior that is causing us difficulties and that we want to change. We need to notice when we are procrastinating—perhaps distracting ourselves with social media, computer games or checking e-mails—and then forgive ourselves and make a conscious choice to behave differently. And we may need to repeat this step again and again.

We then need to choose a strategy that will work for us as individuals. Not every strategy is equally useful to everyone. When I read David Allen’s recommendation in his book “Getting Things Done” to make a list of every single task I wanted or needed to accomplish, nausea and despair swept over me; making overly ambitious “to do” lists is part of my problem. Though others have found his book very helpful, I knew it wasn’t right for me. Acknowledging this with self-acceptance rather than self-flagellation, i.e., telling myself I should be able to do this or asking myself what’s wrong with me, was crucial in helping me to stay motivated to find the right strategies for me. There is enormous power in knowing ourselves and being true to ourselves.

Defining what’s important to us—based on our values and sense of purpose—helps us to set priorities, in our lives and in terms of tasks to be done. Taking time to do this is a worthwhile investment, both in overcoming procrastination and increasing our happiness and life satisfaction. Because finishing tasks gives us a boost, as a result of dopamine release in our brains, we often procrastinate on the bigger and more important goals by doing less important but easier, smaller tasks first. As long as these are things we really want to do, that may not be bad. It’s called productive or structured procrastination and can be helpful provided we also deliberately schedule time to work on the more important, bigger or more complex tasks we are avoiding. Achieving a few easier tasks can create a positive cycle of confidence, energy and motivation.

This text neatly summarizes three of the most helpful strategies to overcome procrastination.

Productivity in 11 words:

  • One thing at a time
  • Most important thing first
  • Start now

The longer we put off a task, the larger and more daunting it becomes in our minds and the worse we feel about ourselves. I am a huge fan of the “just start” strategy. Even if we spend only a few minutes working on a task, it gets smaller and our self-efficacy (confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment) immediately improves. Helping others overcome procrastination is a key influencing skill. Rather than getting angry at people who are not delivering work they’ve promised, help them get started. They are far more likely to get the task done sooner and will feel better about themselves and towards you.

Getting started also helps counteract the fear of failure that often drives procrastination. Especially when we are given a challenging task, such as making a presentation to senior management, we often experience a surge of energy, triggered by adrenaline. We can use this positive stress energy to our benefit if we immediately start writing down our thoughts on the topic, audience and objectives. Since we have already begun to work on the task, we won’t later face a blank page or screen. And instead of wasting energy worrying about the presentation, our unconscious minds will continue to build on the ideas we have already noted. I have often “magically” come across articles or books that fit the topic I’m preparing a talk on.

Breaking large tasks into smaller, more manageable ones helps tremendously, both to get started and to make steady progress towards larger goals. (Milestones in projects are an example of this.) The Pomodoro technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo, uses a timer to break work into intervals of 25 minutes (+ five-minute breaks). Brian Tracy, author of the book “Eat that Frog”, advises us to put the task we are avoiding, usually the biggest, hardest and most important one—the “frog” that we need to eat—at the top of our “to do” list and work on that first. The sense of accomplishment we get for tackling the “nastiest” task first thing in the morning will make the rest of the day seem easy.

However, his recommendation to continue working on it until we’re finished is not always feasible and for some of us will trigger stress and a sense of inadequacy that might lead to further avoidance. I find setting specific task or time goals more effective as they feel doable, and we are less likely to get overwhelmed or sabotage ourselves with unrealistic expectations. Francesco Crillo builds in a five-minute break after each 25-minute work segment (which he calls a Pomodoro). Three Pomodoros form a set, after which you take a longer break of 20 – 30 minutes. This is especially effective for studying as the breaks enable your brain to assimilate the information.

Neuroscientific research has compellingly proven that our brains and bodies need rest to function optimally and stay healthy. The prefrontal cortex—our thinking brain—functions better if we take a short break after 90 minutes of intense concentration. These breaks improve memory, creativity and health. Powering through, like those all-nighters many of us have done at times, does not result in optimal cognitive performance. Consciously scheduling regular, short breaks and recreational time, as well as prioritizing getting seven to nine hours sleep per night are guaranteed to increase productivity and well-being. Cultivating self-nurture by allowing ourselves to take breaks and prioritizing our health and well-being helps to break the pattern of self-reproach for not reaching unrealistic expectations that often drives procrastination, especially in perfectionists.

Focus and single tasking—giving our full attention to one activity—are essential to accomplishing difficult or unpleasant tasks. It helps to schedule specific time blocks for concentrated work and also for breaks. Do whatever you can to reduce the risk of distraction or interruption. Close e-mail systems and browsers, or at least turn off all notifications, and put phones on silent. Bring similar focus and presence to the breaks by going outside, or at least to an open window, away from the computer and without a phone. Mindfully enjoying fresh air, a cup of tea, a brisk walk or even a piece of dark chocolate (without guilt), restores us and makes us more productive.

Knowing ourselves and what matters most to us, being kind to ourselves and prioritizing our well-being will help us reduce procrastination and increase our productivity and happiness. We need to remember that we are human and that developing new habits is a process with inevitable setbacks. Learning to let go of shame and practice self-compassion and forgiveness will enable us to keep moving forward, one step at a time.

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