Have you ever found yourself postponing an important task by, say colour-coding your wardrobe instead? When you look at your to-do list, do you just want to go for a run or back to bed? We’re all guilty of it from time to time, but when putting things off interferes with your life, it’s self-sabotage.
Why do we procrastinate?
When we procrastinate, we waste time that we could instead be invested in something meaningful. It’s not always easy to persuade ourselves to do the things we should be doing. Procrastination is a perfect example of present bias, our hard-wired tendency to prioritise short-term needs ahead of long-term ones.
The term was adopted in the 16th century and comes from the Latin word “procrastinatus”, which means “to put off until tomorrow”. Procrastination is also derived from the ancient Greek word “akrasia”- doing something against our better judgment. Decades of research findingsare available on the subject.
Psychologists and motivational coaches agree that procrastination isn’t about laziness. It’s not a character flaw or the inability to properly manage our time. Procrastination is a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods that certain tasks evoke such as boredom, frustration, resentment, anxiety and self-doubt.
Anyone who procrastinates – and that’s most of us – knows exactly when it happens. That self-awareness is a key part of why procrastinating makes us feel so bad. And yet, we do it anyway. Thankfully, there are some proven practical strategies that can help you to break the procrastination cycle now, so you can get the job done.
- Eat the Frog
Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” Your frog is your most important task on the list or the one you dislike most. It is the job you are most likely to procrastinate on. If you tackle this task first and get it out of the way, the rest of your day will run much smoother.
- Commit to the Task
Learn to focus on doing, not avoiding. Write down the tasks you need to complete on an organised list and specify a time for doing them. That will help you to proactively tackle your workload. If you fear a task for whatever reason, consider working on it for only five minutes. You’ll see that once you get started, you’ll gain momentum and finish the job. Take that first step and see your resistance disappear.
- Eliminate Distractions
It’s hard to get any real work done when you keep turning your attention to your friends’ Facebook updates or your Instagram feed. Assign a period for yourself during which you turn off your phone and remove all other distractions, so you can focus all your attention on the task at hand. Once you get in the zone – that place of deep focus where you have no interest in anything else that’s happening around you – the work automatically becomes easier and more enjoyable.
- Schedule Time Blocks
Each of us go through different phases in a day. There are times when we feel motivated and full of energy, and periods when we are less focused and prefer to just chill out or have a nap. Find out when you are most productive and use it to your advantage. If you’re working on a large and complex project, it makes sense to divvy it up into smaller and more manageable tasks. The more organised your next actions list is, the easier it will be for you to focus on what needs doing.
- Reward Yourself
Behaviour that gets rewarded gets repeated. Procrastination in itself is highly rewarding because it relieves stress, anxiety and other negative emotions but that’s only in the short term. If you complete a difficult task on time, give yourself some praise or reward yourself with a treat, such as a coffee from your favourite café. Make sure you mindfully notice how good it feels to finish things!
Are We Simply Too Busy?
Most of us are fiercely defensive of our busyness. We have processes to streamline, goals to achieve, debt to eliminate, promotions to earn, exercise regimes to uphold and dreams to chase. Being busy and having lengthy to-do lists can certainly make us feel valuable but does that equal happiness?
Tony Crabbe, a prominent business psychologist and author who consults with corporate teams and leaders around the globe, explains that the temptation of busyness can be harder to resist than sex or chocolate. He says we’re addicted to being busy, but it’s giving us stress instead of happiness and efficiency.
In his book, Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much Crabbe explains that when we try to do everything, we don’t achieve anything. The book gives solid advice on reducing your stress levels, based on scientific research, and the biggest lesson is to be less productive and more strategic.
Time Versus Attention
Time management makes working more efficient, but it could lead to even more work and being even busier. That’s why experts such as Crabbe say that instead of managing your time, you should manage your attention. The argument is that by being truly involved in what we are doing, we can eliminate stress, overwhelm and that unpleasant feeling of being crazy busy.
We only have 24 hours in a day but no one can be fully attentive during those 24 hours. The idea that we can multitask has long been debunked. The first step is to start making conscious decisions about what you want to pay attention to – and more importantly, what you don’t. The next step is to cancel out all other noise; for it has no value if it does not deserve your undivided attention.
Good Reasons To Do Nothing
Brief diversions from a long or difficult task can vastly improve your ability to focus. At times, you may decide that a period of inactivity is a great idea, or even necessary. For instance, when:
- It just doesn’t feel right
- You need to rest and recharge
- Your brain needs a break
- You can delegate the task
- Something else takes priority
Taking time out when you feel you need it is not procrastination. It’s self-care. For our health and wellbeing, we should all make time to step off the hamster wheel of life every now and again. We are all so hyperconnected and, well, busy.
In the end, people regret the things they haven’t done more than the things they have done. That’s why you should ask yourself, more often than you do now – which of the tasks on your to-do list are the most meaningful and valuable to you? The key is achieving a balance that works for you.