We have all been there. A huge deadline is looming and you have yet to take one step towards completing the project. You are given months to prepare for a big meeting or event and you wait until the last minute to sort out all the details.
It’s the night before a two week trip overseas and you finally make a list of items to pack in your suitcase. We all procrastinate some of the time and some of us procrastinate most of the time.
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The meaning behind procrastinate
Techniques to Stop Procrastinating Today
Dr. Joseph Ferrari is a leading researcher and author on the subject of procrastination. His data show that an estimated 20% of men and women in the U.S. are chronic procrastinators.
Darius Foroux is a writer on the topic of productivity. He surveyed over two thousand professionals and found that 88% of them had procrastinated for at least one hour on the previous day. The research is clear. Big or small, a little bit or habitual, procrastination is a problem that plagues productivity.
At Doit we help you get things done. If procrastination is getting in the way of doing your to-do list, this article is for you. This guide shares the surprising real reason we procrastinate, presents ideas to stop procrastinating and start doing now, and practices for getting out of the procrastination habit for good. Let’s do it.
What is Procrastination?
Oxford Languages defines procrastination as “the act of postponing or delaying something.” That simple definition shows that procrastination is far reaching. It is not limited to school work or professional projects or personal obligations. Procrastination is omnipresent and can happen in every aspect of our lives.
College students are notorious procrastinators. Research papers and study sessions are put off until mere hours before the assignment is due or the test is administered. At work, professionals wait until the day before a big presentation to put together their speaking notes and infographics. Patients with anxiety about dental work put off seeing a dentist year after year until unavoidable pain pushes them to make an appointment.
The basic meaning leaves out an important aspect of procrastination illustrated by the examples above. When we procrastinate, we typically put off something that we find difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable in favor of something easier or more appealing. A week before a deadline, we readily wander onto a social media feed or grab a snack or make a phone call to a friend. The day before that deadline, things look very different. We wait until we have no choice but to dive in and take care of the suddenly pressing problem, project, or task.
People who procrastinate are often mislabeled as lazy. Many of us even engage in self talk about how lazy or unfocused we are when we engage in procrastination. But procrastination is not a reflection of someone’s work ethic or their ability to focus. There’s more to it than that.
When we procrastinate, we typically put off something that we find difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable in favor of something easier or more appealing.
Chronic procrastinators know that waiting will cause more harm than good. We know that this choice will ultimately lead to a worse outcome for us physically, emotionally, and otherwise, but we do it anyway. The Ancient Greeks called this state of mind “acrasia.” Our modern understanding of procrastination finds its roots in this bygone term, which means doing something “against your better judgement.”
Why, oh why, would we put off the mere potential for pain today when we know with certainty it will cause worse suffering down the road? There are scientific theories behind that and they have nothing to do with work ethic or time management or motivation. The reasons are, surprisingly, rooted in our emotions.
The Real Reason We Procrastinate
Dr. Fuschia Sirois is a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield. She told The New York Times, “It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.” She added, “ “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.”
Dr. Tim Pychyl is also a professor of psychology and a member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa. He said, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” Sirois and Pychyl teamed up in 2013 to research the notion that people place a priority on their immediate emotional needs over those of their future selves via procrastination. Here’s what they concluded.
People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.
When faced with an “aversive” task, i.e. something that we find “boring, frustrating, lacking in meaning and/or structure,” we react with negative feelings and moods. Then we have a choice. We can get through those feelings and moods via “self-regulation” or we can succumb to the immediately protective choice of procrastination. Most of us choose the short-term solution. Avoiding the task gives us an emotional lift. We feel better. So we do it, or rather, avoid doing it, again and again. And before we know it, we are chronically procrastinating.
The Problem with Procrastination
Sirois and Pychyl’s research shows that our future selves are paying a dear price for the short-term gratification we receive when we put things off. We aren’t dismissing our future selves as being unimportant or anything. We are just absolutely convinced that our future self will be better able to handle the given task.
We believe that when we sit down to work tomorrow, or next week, or next month before the big deadline, we will feel like doing it. But we are wrong. When we choose the temporary reprieve from boredom, frustration, or challenge and kick the can down the road to our future selves, we are only making matters cumulatively worse.
We aren’t dismissing our future selves as being unimportant or anything. We are just absolutely convinced that our future self will be better able to handle the given task.
For one thing, a constant current of anxiety and tension will be along for the entire procrastination ride. This nagging looming deadline will be churning in the background, coloring our daily mood and impacting our health and well being. The negative feelings we have about the task itself make us procrastinate. That, in turn, leads to ruminating negative thoughts about the act of procrastination itself. It’s a cycle that has a snowball effect, gathering more self blame, shame, anxiety, and stress along the way.
For another, when we finally decide it’s “go time,” our job is much more daunting than it was before. We now have to take on a monumental task instead of one that is simply boring or frustrating. We will be faced with cramming a month’s worth of work into just a day or two. We won’t eat right, we sure won’t sleep right, our stress levels will soar, and our minds and bodies will suffer as a result.
It’s like credit card debt. The bill is going to come due. We can pay the full balance now, which is going to put a dent in our immediate account. Or, we can allow it to grow bigger and bigger as the interest charges stack up, costing us way more every single step along the way. Chronic procrastinators put it all on credit and pay significantly more in the end.
5 Techniques to Stop Procrastinating Today
When we think about breaking free from the bad habit of procrastination, we benefit from taking a multipronged approach. We have a better chance of succeeding when we look at short term, immediate techniques as well as changes we can make in the long run that will help us make chronic procrastination a permanent part of our past. First, let’s look at ways to find immediate relief from putting a task off so we can get going at getting it done.
1. Short List
There is a reason why to-do lists stand the test of time when it comes to organization and productivity. They work! This list technique is all about keeping it short and simple.
Make a list of 3-6 things that you want to get done during your next work period. Put them in order of the most important or time sensitive to the least important or time sensitive. Start working on the first task until it is finished. Check it off, mark it out, and move to the next item. Keep going until your work session ends. Move any tasks that are left undone to the new list you will create for your next session.
The new list should also be put in priority order. Lower priority tasks that are not time sensitive may be copied over to the bottom spot from list to list for days or even weeks! Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just keep it on the list until you get to it.
A note on timing: Some people like to make their list at the end of the previous work day or session. If you tend to ruminate at night and lose sleep when a list is running through your mind, plan to make the list as soon as you enter your work space the next day instead.
2. Digitally Declutter
Let’s face it. Distractions are very easily found these days. If you tend to wander into social media or headline news or your personal inbox instead of working on the more pressing task at hand, it’s time to digitally declutter your workspace.
The idea here is to make it harder to get distracted by removing the devices that hold those distractions. So, let’s say you need to create an outline for an upcoming presentation and you plan to work at the breakfast counter in the kitchen. Take only your laptop into the workspace. Put your phone, tablet, and any other devices you may have in another room and make sure they are on silent.
Close all tabs other than the document you are actively writing into. If you find that you cannot stop opening new windows to browse online, go old school and pull out an actual pad of paper and pen to write your outline in ink.
To take this a step further, declutter your actual devices so that distractions are not as easily accessible. Remove social media apps from your devices, delete games, and create folders to organize essential apps.
3. Bundle Up
We all love a package deal. Bring the bundle up benefit into your life to get things done. This technique works very well for self care and health habits as well as household chores and responsibilities that we all find so easy to put off.
We are generally only accountable to ourselves for things like working out, mowing the grass, cleaning the house, cooking healthy meals, or doing the laundry. Make these tasks less tiresome and more appealing by bundling them with something you really love.
If audiobooks are your jam, only listen to them when you are cleaning the house. Catch up on your favorite podcasts only while you cut the grass or cook dinner. Watch the latest binge-worthy show only when you are on the treadmill.
4. Set a Timer
People can accomplish staggering volumes of work simply by committing to show up and do the work for a set period of time, no matter what. Writers past and present have found success with time techniques but it works with a wide variety of tasks. Here’s how it works.
Pick a task that you want to get done. This can be a routine, daily responsibility or a special project or work product you need to produce on a particular deadline. Decide how much time you have to work on the task each day or in this particular work period. It could be 15 minutes, 2 hours, or 60 seconds...pick a time period that makes sense for the task at hand. Set a timer for that time period and don’t stop until the timer goes off. No matter what!
But, what if your kid comes in the room and needs help with their lesson? What if you need to take a bathroom break? What if the doorbell rings or your mom calls or the dog starts barking madly to go out? Look, life happens. We know that. Hit the pause button on the timer, take care of the immediate need, and get right back to it.
5. Worst Thing First
This is a little psychological trick that is both effective and super rewarding. Think about all the things you want to do today or that should happen everyday. Take care of the task that is the least appealing as soon as humanly possible. Get it over with and move on to the things that are more engaging, easy, and fun, or just less frustrating, dull, or challenging.
It’s the old “rip the bandaid” off mentality. Once that “worst thing” is finished and done, there will be an immediate lift in spirit and a real sense of accomplishment. Ride that wave of success forward knowing that things will only get better from there! Worst Thing First is motivating, rewarding, and really works.
The Key to Overcoming Procrastination for Good
The techniques above are very useful to apply immediately and get things done. They are short term strategies that address the symptoms, but they do not get to the underlying problem itself. What can we do to break the procrastination habit for good?
We have come to understand the root cause behind chronic procrastination is a breakdown in our ability to regulate emotions. So, in order to free ourselves from the procrastination trap, we have to improve our emotional regulation. We have to be able to experience the feelings of frustration, boredom, challenge, fear, or anxiety rather than avoiding them to feel better in the short run.
People who are adept at self-regulation reap many rewards for their emotional intelligence. Self regulators are typically better equipped at the following, which have a direct impact on procrastination:
- Being persistent, even when things get tough.
- Seeing challenges as opportunities, not threats.
- Acting in a way that is in line with one’s values.
- Setting intentions and following through with them.
- Putting their best effort forward.
Practicing and Improving Emotional Self-Regulation
There are specific practices we can put into place to improve emotional regulation and hence, procrastinate less often. Before diving into those, it is critical to understand that these are not like a switch that can be turned on or off. They are more existential than practical.
They are aptly named practices because they will never be finished and they will never be perfect. But they are always available anytime, anywhere that we call upon them.
- Mindfulness: This term encompasses a vast array of activities and techniques but it really has a simple meaning at its core. Mindfulness is the ability to be aware of the emotions and thoughts we are experiencing in the moment without judgment. That’s all.
In relation to procrastination, when we feel dread about an upcoming task, mindfulness would help us feel that dread, be okay with that dread, and do the work anyway. Yoga, meditation, breathing exercises, and being actively grateful are some of the ways we can become more mindful.
- Cultivate Self Compassion: Dr. Kristin Neff is a highly recognized expert in the field of self compassion. She describes self compassion as “giving ourselves the same kindness and care that we would give to a friend.” When we have high levels of compassion for ourselves, we bounce back more readily from feelings of failure and be forgiving of ourselves when we don’t meet work goals.
Dr. Neff’s free online assessment is a great starting place to discover your level of self-compassion. She also offers self-compassion guided meditations and exercises to help treat yourself more compassionately.
- Reframing Thoughts: This practice involves checking our reactions and assumptions against reality. It is the act of removing personal feelings from our reactions and placing them in a nonpersonal light. If your partner doesn’t take your phone call, for example, you may immediately think, “I am unimportant to her.”
Instead, that reaction is intentionally reality checked and reframed. The reframed thought might be something like, “she must be really busy and unable to talk.” Thought reframing is linked to positive outcomes in daily life and can help improve overall self-regulation skills.
The data shows what we already know: procrastination is a prevalent problem. Understanding why we do it can help us improve ourselves, avoid procrastination, and check off all those tasks we intend to get done.