The economist George Ainslie once wrote that procrastination is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”
I procrastinated to write this book for years until I decided to fully commit to the project. When I did, I finished the book in less than 90 days.
Procrastination is the bane of so many of our lives. What is it? Why do we do it? And how can we overcome it so we can get some real work done? This article explores all of these factors and sets out techniques that will aid you in your goal to become more productive.
What is it?
Its dictionary definition describes it as “the action of delaying or postponing something”. It originated from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”. According to The New Yorker, it’s a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia—doing something against one’s own better judgment.
Though procrastination has been around for probably as long as we have, the percentage of people admitting to doing it quadrupled between 1978 and 2002 according to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary. This isn’t too surprising considering the amount of technology around in today’s world that is there to distract us.
Why do we do it?
Fear, dread and anxiety about a task lead to procrastination according to The Washington Post. It may be conscious or unconscious but Pychyl and others see it “as a kind of avoidance behavior, a coping mechanism gone awry in which people ‘give in to feel good.’” This is of course a temporary fix that ultimately leads back to feelings of guilt.
Mind Tools and Psychology Today both claim that though many people procrastinate to a certain extent, there is about 20 percent of the population who are “so chronically affected by procrastination that it stops them fulfilling their potential and disrupts their careers”
How to overcome it
1. Forgive yourself
Even Nobel Prize winners procrastinate! George Akerlof wrote in a paper about how he put off sending a package to his friend for over eight months even though he meant to post it every day. Does this sound familiar to anyone?
According to a research paper by Pychyl and others, you have to forgive yourself for procrastinating, as guilt is a trigger for further procrastination. When testing a group of students on putting off studying for two tests, they found that they were much less likely to procrastinate for the second test after they forgave themselves for not studying for the first. They believe that this is because procrastination is linked to negative feelings. The more you procrastinate, the worse you feel and then you procrastinate even more. It’s a vicious circle.
2. Eat the frog
As Mark Twain once said “If your job is to eat a frog, eat it first thing in the morning, and if your job is to eat two frogs, eat the big one first.” Everyone has a “frog” task in their life that they would probably like to put off but people such as Tim Ferriss adhere to this philosophy and just get on with it first thing in the morning to get it out of the way.
Though it’s not always so simple as to tell people to just get on with it, particularly the individuals who suffer from chronic procrastination. “While we’re here, let’s make sure obese people avoid overeating, depressed people avoid apathy, and someone please tell beached whales that they should avoid being out of the ocean” writes Tim Urban. So keep reading for more ideas to prevent delaying your tasks.
3. Split the daunting task into smaller tasks
“The vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it,” says David Allen, the author of the best-selling time-management book “Getting Things Done.” Simply putting “learn Spanish” on your to do list is far too big and scary. By taking it one day at a time and splitting the challenge down into sub tasks it becomes a lot less daunting and much more manageable according to Tim Urban, Pychyl, and others.
Tim Ferriss is another believer of this technique. He states that by completing a small task each day that accounts to a big goal, it allows you to “succeed” every day and builds your confidence.
4. Try the Pomodoro technique
The Pomodoro technique is a productivity hack that many business experts swear by. Essentially it’s a time management idea where you work for 25 minutes solidly, then take a 5-minute break. After the 5-minute break, you work for another 25 minutes. After you’ve done this 4 times, you can take a longer 20 to 30 minute break.
The idea of it is that it allows you to cut down on interruptions, lets you know how much effort a task needs, gives you the freedom to draw a line between work and play and let’s you define your own objectives. And also it allows your mind to take a break every once in a while which is needed to avoid burnout according to Andy Teach.
5. Think about “Future You”
According to The Washington Post, Hal Hershfield of UCLA found that people “tend to fundamentally feel a lack of emotional connection to their future selves”. Therefore they don’t believe that things they do (or don’t do) today will affect them months and years down the line.
Pychyl and others found that those who are more in touch with their future selves reported fewer procrastination behaviors.
So in order to get in touch with your future self, Forbes describes visualizing yourself when the task is complete and also to pick out a reward for when you finish.
Chris Guillebeau tells us to “burn ships to procrastination”. In order to make sure that you do the task you need to create accountability for yourself if you don’t finish. This can include telling your tribe, signing up for a race, spending some money or making a commitment to the public. It’s a lot easier to complete a task if there are other people counting on you.
An element that goes hand in hand with this strategy is setting a date for the deadline. Forbes states that, “A goal without a deadline can be put off indefinitely”. By choosing a deadline, you can imagine yourself in that time period better and feel more motivated.
6. Experiment and get to know yourself
“Do you know the time of day when you are most productive?” asks Tim Ferriss. By knowing the answer to this, you can account for your own procrastination weaknesses and avoid them as much as you can. If you’re a morning person, don’t try completing a big task at midnight, as you’re a lot more likely to not finish it.
If you’re not sure when you’re most productive then experiment. Keep a diary with you for a week and write down when you feel most energetic and in the mood to work. Create your own productivity rituals that will help you overcome procrastination.
7. Take steps to remove distraction
Chris Guillebeau believes that “we need to eliminate the ability to defer”. So take away any distractions be it social media, TV, video games, work emails or even people.
Lifehack describe different computer and phone apps that track and even halt your usage of certain websites to allow yourself to keep on track with work. Forbes also suggests finding a quiet place to work if you are easily distracted as well as organizing that space in order to avoid visual distractions.
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Adam Dudley is an author, coach, mentor, and consultant. He writes. He mentors. He adventures. Explore, learn, grow, repeat.
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