Five ways to stop procrastinating

Most of us are guilty at procrastinating from time to time but, for some of us, it can be a daily occurrence and halt everyday productivity

CREDIT: This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared on The Guardian 

Figure out the underlying cause

Clare Evans, a productivity coach and author of Time Management For Dummies, says the main reasons for procrastinating are fear, perfectionism and not knowing where to start, or feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated. If it is fear, whether unfounded or founded, Clare says to confront the worst-case scenario – “It may not be as bad as we think.” Figure out what knowledge or skills you are lacking, and delegate if you can. If you’re paralysed by the need to get it right, she suggests honestly confronting whether “perfect is really what’s needed” – or if it is more important just to get it done. “Sometimes we procrastinate over tasks that aren’t really that important,”she says.

Start with one small step

Tim Pychyl, founder of the Procrastination Research Group, and associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, says procrastination boils down to an “emotion-focused coping response”. By putting off the task, we get rid of the bad feeling. Start by simply identifying the first step.“Ask yourself, ‘What is the next action I would take on this task, if I was going to do it?’” and make it really tiny. 

The idea is to move your focus away from how you’re feeling, and towards what Tim calls a “low-threshold entry to action…We can’t deny our feelings, but we can pay less attention to them …and our research has shown that getting started is key.” He suggests working on the task for 10-to-15 minutes, and no more, just so as to have made a start.

Picture your future self

“Giving yourself a hard time only makes it worse,” says productivity expert Moyra Scott. “In order to beat procrastination you have to realise that it is very common. We are human; we procrastinate.” It can help to clarify or visualise what ‘done’ looks like, she says. “What is the finish line you are aiming at?” 

Hal E Hershfield, an associate professor of marketing and behavioural decision-making at UCLA Anderson School of Management, pictures himself having to do a task today that he actually completed yesterday. “That’s most likely how I’ll feel tomorrow if I push off something that I’m meant to do today. The idea is to try to connect with the person I’ll be in the future and the emotions that I will eventually feel.”

Break the cycle

Judson A Brewer, a neuroscientist and director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Centre at Brown University, says procrastination has its origins in reward-based learning; this involves a trigger (think about a deadline), a behaviour (scroll social media), followed by a reward (distract from the unpleasant thought). 

Willpower alone is often not enough to overcome such a powerful impulse, evolved to help us remember where to find food but, by making ourselves aware of our habit loops, Judson says we give ourselves the opportunity to break them. “Curiosity is like a superpower that can help us notice these urges simply as thoughts, emotions and body sensations, and then move on to the task at hand.” 

The reward can be reframed as the feeling of accomplishment, rather than the relief, tempered by guilt and building anxiety, of a momentary distraction. “Reflecting on the rewarding properties of not procrastinating builds healthy habits that become stronger than procrastination itself – hacking our brain in the process.”

Stop trying to ‘fight the monkey’

Productivity coach Grace Marshall says one common misconception about productivity is that it is “Just about nailing yourself to the seat, and getting it done”. While this is sometimes effective (and, if a deadline is looming, necessary), it can be a stressful approach, she says – “and, as willpower is a depleting resource, it’s not sustainable.” 

Her suggestion is to stop trying to overpower, or ignore, the primitive part of our brain driving procrastination and, instead, try to distract it. Tell yourself, ‘I’m not really going to work on this right now, I’m just going to open the file and make some notes.’ Play – turning the task into a game or an experiment – can also be an effective diversion – as Grace explains, “Fighting the monkey is exhausting, and it doesn’t work very well.”

Following some of these tips should ensure you’re being the most productive version of yourself and are no longer procrastinating the day away!

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