In one of my one-to-one sessions this week we got onto the topic of procrastination and it got me thinking – why does it occur and what can you do about it?
You have an important task you want to complete today. You sit down to get ready to work, but as you’re about to start, you decide to first have a quick check of your emails, just to get it out of the way. While you’re at it, you may as well check if you have any social media updates – before you know it, you’ve emptied the dishwasher, put on a wash, checked the contents of the fridge and made a cup of tea. BUT you haven’t even started your work.
Ring any bells? Procrastination is pretty familiar to most of us. We’re all guilty of putting off chores or unpleasant tasks from time to time and it’s understandable to put off the things that aren’t so much fun. But procrastination doesn’t just affect the things that don’t matter.
The worst thing about procrastination is that it gets in the way of reaching our potential. It wastes time, makes you miss important opportunities, keeps you from reaching your goals and has a negative effect on self-esteem. It’s also linked to stress and anxiety so will have a negative impact on your health.
Despite the impact procrastination can have, it is still not clear what causes it. Below I have outlined some of the current theories. They tend to overlap and it’s likely that more than one is in operation at any one time.
Procrastination can be viewed as a bad behaviour or habit resulting from a lack of self-control. Doing the task is boring, difficult or challenging and so you switch to something else that makes you feel good. A bit like not sticking to a diet or overspending. Tempted by instant gratification, rather than reaching long term goals.
There’s no doubt procrastination is an avoidance behaviour. Often when we have something important to do it can leave us feeling a bit anxious. We feel the dread of having to do it, so we ignore it and do something that makes us feel better.
Fear of failure
For some people procrastination is a form of self-sabotage. It feels safer not to try, than to try and fail. Preferring to be judged for lacking effort rather than ability.
Others find it impossible to start as they want to do it perfectly. Obsessing over the best way to do things and wanting to do it exactly right.
Intention and behaviour
The gap between what we say we’ll do and what we actually do is bigger than you think. Think of all the people who’ve joined the gym this month, started dry January or quit smoking and how many succeed with their intentions.
Research shows that we are less connected to our future selves and although we have ideas of where we want to get to, we are more focused on how we feel right now. This makes it harder to tolerate the difficult periods and keep going for the long-term gains.
So what can you do?
The usual advice is to stop what you’re doing and get on with it, which isn’t terribly helpful. If it was that simple you wouldn’t be procrastinating in the first place! I’ve listed some ideas below to help overcome this problem, so you start doing the things that will really make you feel good in the long-term.
Remind yourself how you’ll feel after you’ve done it
Although procrastination might delay feeling bad, it’s only temporary and in fact you’ll feel worse in the long run, as you add stress, shame and guilt into the mix. Instead think about how you’ll feel once you’ve completed the task.
Be kind to yourself
It might sound strange, but research shows one of the most effective things you can do is forgive yourself for procrastinating. Procrastination is linked to negative feelings, so if you reduce these (through forgiveness) it puts you in a better position to do well next time.
Don’t wait until you feel like doing it
A big mistake procrastinators tend to make is to hope there will be a time when they feel like doing a task. This time is unlikely to ever come. The best thing to do is to just get started. It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like it, it can still get done.
Mono task and break it down
Focus on one task at a time and be realistic about how much you can achieve. If it’s a big task, make sure you break it down into smaller components. Just starting will make it feel more doable, increase self-esteem and give you confidence to keep going.
Instead of rewarding yourself before you start work, try rewarding yourself after you’re done. For example work for 45 minutes then check emails for 15 mins. Switching tasks is also proven to be good for productivity.
Keep distractions out of the way (if you’re on a diet, you don’t keep cookies in the kitchen). For example turn off social media updates, log out of your emails, close the door to what’s going on outside.
Get more in touch with your future self
Make sure you’re really clear about why you want to do what you’re doing. How will it make things better for you in the future, why will you benefit? Make your goals really concrete and think about what you’ll gain if you do them.
Good luck and let me know how you get on!