Are you putting something off right now? Something that really ought to get done… but you just can’t bring yourself to do it?
You’re certainly not alone. At any given time pretty much everyone I know is procrastinating about something. Taxes. Clearing out the garage. That blog post that’s due tomorrow…
But they’re just amateur procrastinators. According to procrastination expert Joseph Ferrari, 20% of us are chronic procrastinators. We put things off to the extent that it harms our careers, relationships, and even our health. College students appear to have the bug particularly bad – 80 to 95% of them procrastinate on a regular basis, usually over their homework.
(Image source: Tumblr)
It’s easy to give ourselves a free pass on this stuff from time to time. We’re busy, right? Very busy. There are all sorts of things we need to be doing right now, or as soon as humanly possible. And then there are another dozen things to get done behind that.
Simply being busy isn’t necessarily procrastinating. But procrastination can certainly hide behind that excuse. According to Eric Jaffe, writing for The Association of Psychological Science,
“True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation.”
As the quote implies, procrastination is a complex brew of resistance, self-judgment, stress and avoidance. It’s not an easy nut to crack – otherwise we’d have all figured out how to avoid it a long time ago. And while it’s not uncommon (or even necessarily bad) to put a task off for awhile. But when you find yourself redoing a to-do list five times with that one old lingering task still on it, then you are officially procrastinating.
Like most complex human foibles, what works for one person’s procrastination may not work for another. You may need a blend of tactics to get over the hump. Or maybe you’ll get lucky and find one crazy gimmick that works.
The good news is that there are a quite a lot of techniques for working through procrastination. They might not all be your cup of tea, but hopefully at least one of these strategies can help. Just try it sooner rather than later, okay?
1) Commit to working on the offending task for ten minutes.
You can handle ten minutes, right? Sitting down to “write that blog post” might seem like a big, stressful task, but what if you only did it for ten measly minutes?
The more advanced version of this trick is to use the Pomodoro technique. That’s a productivity hack where you set a timer for 25 minutes and then dedicate yourself to doing nothing but that one task for 25 minutes. And I do mean nothing else – no email, no coffee refill, no Facebook – nada.
It works beautifully. I’m not sure I could write without it. I pick through pretty much everything I write simply by committing to doing one more Pomodoro at a time. I have a friend in business school who says it’s also the only way her statistics homework gets done.
The extra brilliant thing about the Pomodoro technique is you can actually get a surprising amount done in 25 minutes. I can knock out 750 words in 25 minutes. And simply making a dent in the thing you’ve been procrastinating can be such a relief that you’ll get a second wind to do another block of work.
2) Remind yourself how much better you’ll feel after you have completed the task.
This one works for me. I use it for scooping the cat box, a task I absolutely hate, but that most certainly, indisputably needs to get done.
After some procrastinating, there comes a point where I realize the effort I’m putting into not doing this task is taking up more effort than if I just did it.
Conjuring up a little imaginary support might help, too. I imagine a scene at a major league football game, with the football announcers talking through my actions to the filled stadium, as I try to get up the will to beat the cat box:
“There she is – scoop in hand! I don’t know, Barry, do you think she’d bail out now? “
“No way, Sam, she’s on a roll – and look there, she just grabbed the bag. I think this is going to happen. And yes – she’s walking toward the box!” (Roar of the crowd in the background).
Is this completely ridiculous? Oh yes. Does it help get the job done? Yup.
(Image source: CollegeHumor)
3) Show some compassion for yourself.
Procrastinators often suffer from bad bouts of self-judgment, stress and negative thinking. This doesn’t help to get the task done – though I sympathize with the idea that if you just push yourself hard enough, darn it, you can force yourself to do anything.
If you’ve tried the let’s-beat-ourselves-up tactic for awhile, and it’s still not working, consider the alternative. Forgive yourself for not getting the task done. Remind yourself lots of people struggle with procrastination. Give yourself a break from the constant stream of “you’re a loser for not getting this done.”
A recent study by Fuschia M. Sirois of Bishop’s University in Canada found that people who can be more self-compassionate about their procrastination tend to have less stress over it. And as a result of the reduced stress, they are more likely to break through their procrastination. Another similar study found that people who could accept their mistakes – and even their failures – tended to have fewer bouts of procrastination. Ironically, it may be our own perfectionism that’s holding us back from getting our most important work done.
4) Get on a roll.
With this one, you do a smaller thing you’ve been procrastinating on first. The thrill of finally getting that annoying little thing out of the way gives you enough of a lift that you are willing to tackle the larger procrastination item. Just start small – like doing the dishes, or replying to an email you’ve been putting off. Then take on the bigger, scarier task.
Be aware: The window of inspiration is often really narrow. So get that first little thing done and then immediately dive into the larger task.
5) Break it down.
We often procrastinate simply because we aren’t clear on where to start.
If that’s the problem, you’re lucky. This is an easy fix. Pick one small thing to get started on. If the object of your procrastination is taxes, for instance, first figure out how much you earned last year. Getting that tied down makes the remaining job smaller. And the smaller the job gets, the less it will take to finish it.
(Image source: Tumblr)
6) Get accountable.
Find a friend, accountability partner, or recruit your better half. Ink a deal with them that you must do this offending task by a specific date, and a specific hour. Spell out what doing said task will look like. And then give them the authority to hold you accountable.
If simply setting a deadline seems a little too authoritarian, add a reward. Dinner out once the task is done, for example.
Psychology professor Dr. Gail Matthews has proven this tactic works. In a recent study she did with 267 participants, 76% of the participants who sent weekly updates to a friend reported successful goal achievement. Compare that to the 43% success rate of the participants who only kept their goals to themselves without writing them down.
It is possible to beat procrastination. If you’ve got a chronic problem with it, it might be a day-by-day battle at the start, but there’s always room for change. In fact, change seems to be the one thread among all these anti-procrastination techniques. We all know that simply saying, “I’ll do it tomorrow” won’t work, so just keep trying different approaches. You’ll eventually find the right technique to beat your particular case of the procrastination habit.
What do you think?
Are you a procrastinator? What’s helped? What hasn’t? Tell us what you think about all this in the comments!