There’s nothing like the prospect of studying for an exam or tackling an important piece of work, to make the most cleaning-averse person suddenly whip out the rubber gloves with enthusiasm. Sound familiar? Procrastination occurs when we actively avoid particular tasks, often by distracting ourselves by carrying out less urgent tasks or engaging in activities which provide more immediate gratification. The consequences can be quite detrimental, unfortunately, resulting in missed deadlines and poor performance in exams or important work assignments, as well as anxiety, depression and lower self-esteem.
Needless to say, we procrastinate for a number of different reasons. Whilst there are moments we simply may not feel like carrying out particular tasks or may have countless other things we’d rather spend our time doing, there are more complex reasons we procrastinate. It’s by understanding these, and knowing why we may be procrastinating, that we can become more focused and productive.
Unacknowledged, unpleasant emotions often underlie procrastination. These may include fear, anxiety, hopelessness, frustration, and self-doubt, amongst others. For instance, we may avoid putting our all into studying because we’re scared that doing so and still not doing well may cause us to feel we’re a failure or incapable. Avoiding talking to a friend about the way she hurt you, for instance, may be related to fear of losing relationships. Low confidence may also underpin procrastination, as we doubt our ability to carry out an important challenge effectively.
We also tend to procrastinate with tasks that provide satisfaction at a later date as opposed to those we can do quickly and experience immediate gratification. For instance, working on a long-term project which involves quite a large workload would take a lot longer to reap the rewards as opposed to completing a shorter task, where you may immediately receive praise or see the fruit of your labour. In a similar vein, since the immediate cost of carrying out a task is very tangible compared with uncertain future benefits, this ‘present bias’, as coined by behavioural scientists, can act as an impediment to action, causing us to procrastinate.
So now we understand more about what procrastination is, let’s go through some ways we can beat it:
Visualise the outcome – Imagine how you’d feel, and what it would look like when you successfully do what you’ve been avoiding. For instance, visualise yourself celebrating after your exams are over; Imagine yourself relaxing with your partner after finally completing the work project you’ve been engaged for the past few months.
Make it public – Tell people what you’ll be doing, since not wanting to look irresponsible or untrustworthy can give you that added push to get things done.
Confront the reality – Acknowledge what will happen if you don’t take action, and how bad this will feel. For instance, you may let down your colleagues, or have to study during the Summer.
Create smaller steps – As Desmond Tutu wisely said, ‘There’s only one way to eat an elephant, and that’s one bite at a time’. When a task seems huge, getting started can seem overwhelming. Breaking down the task into smaller steps, and focusing on one step at a time, can feel more manageable. You’ll also get bursts of motivation as you tick off each step, helping you keep up the momentum.
Tie the first step to a reward – Finding it impossible to get started? Identify the first step and link it with a reward. For instance, if the first step is to do research, pack up your laptop and notebook and head off to your favourite café to start the research. Decide on a set amount of time, such as 40 minutes, which will be a lot easier to commit to if you combine it with something which makes you happy.
Create a plan of action – make the plan specific, identifying the work you’ll do, when, and at what times. Incorporate breaks into your daily schedule.
Find yourself a motivation buddy – Is there someone in your life who supports and encourages you, particularly in your toughest moments? If so, tell them what you’re struggling with, and ask them if they can support you to overcome this challenge.
Identify hidden blockages – take some time to reflect on what’s really holding you back by asking yourself some questions. Examples of such questions include – Do I believe I can complete this task? If not, have I received any messages in the past which have led me to doubt my ability to complete tasks successfully? What am I scared will happen if I really commit to this challenge? What are my thoughts about failure? Answering these questions may bring you closer to understanding why you may be putting off getting started on a particular task.
Watch your self-talk – You’d be forgiven for feeling rather frustrated with yourself when you keep putting off an important task. However, refrain from being too self-critical since that will only reinforce a negative self-image and demotivate you further.
Reward yourself – Once you’ve overcome the first roadblock of actually starting the dreaded task, ensure you regularly reward yourself for your efforts. This not only helps you feel motivated, but it ensures you take care of your physical and mental health in the process. So, after a full day of working on your thesis, for instance, allow yourself to watch a film or meet up with friends.
Not all of the above may work for you, but some will help you get started and work consistently to achieve whatever challenges await you. You can beat procrastination and stop standing in the way of achieving your goals.