Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? Every procrastinator faces this dilemma daily.
Just one more burger today, I’ll start my diet tomorrow! One more movie tonight. I will finish that report tomorrow.
Experts define procrastination as the purposeful delay of the start or completion of a task, despite knowing the damaging consequences of such dawdling. It is opting for short-term pleasure at the cost of the long-term achievement.
Procrastination is the single biggest productivity killer. It is also a universal problem.
Nearly everyone is guilty of letting the dishes pile up as they read another Facebook status update or starting the sales presentation only the night before a client meeting.
According to Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business in Canada, who spent more than a decade studying the science of dilly-dallying, procrastination affects 95% of the global population some time or the other, while a quarter of us are chronic procrastinators.
In his book The Procrastination Equation: How To Stop Putting Things Off And Start Getting Stuff Done, Prof. Steel explains that procrastination stems from three key factors: a lack of self-confidence, being disinterested in the task at hand, and impulsiveness, which leads us away from our goals and towards distraction.
“They delay at home, work, school and in relationships—procrastination is a way of life for them,” writes Joseph R. Ferrari in Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide To Getting It Done.
This behaviour is self-sabotaging. Imagine missed doctor’s visits, inadequate retirement savings or incomplete office projects.
Procrastinators also suffer from higher levels of stress and a reduced sense of well-being.
In one of the initial studies on the pernicious nature of procrastination published in the journal Psychological Science in 1997, researchers Dianne M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister found that “procrastinators reported lower stress and less illness than non-procrastinators early in the semester, but they reported higher stress and more illness late in the term, and overall they were sicker”.
Procrastination thus appears to be a self-defeating behaviour pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs, concluded the study.
This is the puzzling aspect of procrastination.
Why are we reluctant to act? Why is it that we become our own worst enemy and undermine our own success needlessly?
According to Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at the Carleton University in Ontario and author of Solving The Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide To Strategies For Change, procrastination is fundamentally a visceral, emotional reaction to what you have to do.
“Choosing to voluntarily delay in spite of our intention reflects a basic breakdown in our self-regulation. This breakdown occurs most often when we are faced with a task that is viewed as aversive (that is, boring, frustrating, lacking meaning and/or structure), and therefore leads to unpleasant feelings or negative mood,” writes Pychyl in the research report Procrastination And The Priority Of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences For Future Self, published in the journal Social And Personality Psychology Compass in 2013.
So can you stop the incessant dawdling and get more done? Productivity experts share how they handle procrastination:
Find out the why
For Lori Deschene, founder of self-development blog Tiny Buddha, the first and most crucial step is to get to the root of why you are procrastinating. “I may be scared of doing something outside my comfort zone. Or perhaps because something is new to me, I don’t know where to start. Or I’m overwhelmed by what seems like a massive undertaking, so I tell myself I’ll get to it later. Or the task requires me to reach out to others, and I’m scared of looking ignorant or being rejected.
“Once I understand why I’m procrastinating, I can then develop a plan to overcome that specific issue. From there, it’s all about breaking the goal into tiny, manageable steps and then putting them on my daily to-do lists,” says US-based Deschene.
Know your specific goals/tasks for each day
“Getting clarity over what is holding me back is always the first step. If I’m sitting at my desk on a Tuesday afternoon, wondering what I need to do, I know it’s because I may not have clarity as to which goal I need to work on and which next outcome I want to create. That’s the least obvious and most important factor in my own procrastination,” says US-based Farnoosh Brock, corporate coach and founder of self-improvement blog Prolific Living.
Work with your mood
If procrastination happens as a result of aversion to certain activities, having a list of different tasks that are attached to varying levels of mood, energy, time constraints or resources at hand works best for Mike Vardy, chief executive officer and president of Productivityist, a Canada-based productivity firm.
“I find that attaching the mode I need to be in to complete a task really steers me away from procrastination. Every task I put on my list has to have a mode attached to it—and those modes can be either very broad or general (Founder Mode, Father Mode), resource-based (Outlook Mode, Evernote Mode), energy-based (High Energy Mode, Low Energy Mode), activity-based (Blogging Mode, Planning Mode), or time-based (5-Minute Mode, 25-Minute Mode). That way, instead of working by project or by schedule, I can work by mode, which keeps me in a better state of flow and moving things forward on a consistent basis,” he says.
Don’t rely on willpower or discipline
For Henneke Duistermaat, a business writing coach at the UK-based Enchanting Marketing—a company that teaches business copywriting—blocking out distractions by closing the Internet browsers or unplugging the modem when she sits down to write works better than relying on willpower or discipline to stop herself from checking the constant inflow of emails and Twitter feed.
“It’s easy to procrastinate when tweets and emails are flying around. So I close down my browsers and do the work. I don’t rely on willpower or discipline, I simply make it harder for myself to get distracted,” she says.
Tell yourself the cost of delay
“It’s important to first realize that you are procrastinating, and then it’s very easy to overcome. When I know that I am procrastinating, I start thinking of the possible losses that can arise due to the procrastination. I call this LOP (loss on procrastination),” says L.A. Balamurugan, chief executive officer of Bookmytrainings.com, a training firm based in Bengaluru.
Take, for instance, procrastinating on a flight booking. Sometimes, flight costs increase as you near the travel date. So by delaying your flight booking you end up paying more. This loss (extra money spent) is one thing. The other thing is: What if there are no flights to suit your schedule on the travel date? Once you know the biggest possible loss, it is easy to do the tasks without further delay.
“My No.1 method for overcoming procrastination is to use procrastination as a trigger to fire up the logical part of my brain. The research around procrastination shows that it is a purely emotional reaction to an aversive task you have to do, and that firing up the logical part of your brain—like by making a list of the costs of procrastinating, or thinking about what parts of the task are so aversive to you—can help more than anything,” says Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project: Accomplishing More By Managing Your Time, Attention, and Energy.
Have a little fun
“My favourite trick for dealing with in-the-moment procrastination is to create a game. I pick a certain amount of time and see just how much I can get done on the dishes, the report, calling prospects, etc., before that time is up. Use a timer and this game can work for all sorts of tasks. Usually, once I break through that initial layer of resistance, I can keep going or stop and feel good that I moved a project forward,” says Julie Gray, a US-based time coach for executives and entrepreneurs.
Don’t be afraid to put off doing something, sometimes
Scott Sind, founder of US-based corporate coaching blog Activate Thought, believes that a little procrastination sometimes goes a long way in being productive.
“I don’t believe that all procrastination is bad. I listen to my body. When I catch myself fidgeting and not working, it’s usually because I need a break or need to change my mental state. So I’ll employ positive procrastination—go for a walk, read a little, take a power nap. When I come back to the work, it’s easier to focus”.
In the end, remember…
Delay (if you must), but don’t deny yourself the success that comes with getting things done on time.
Joy Ghose is the co-founder of Successiswhat.com, a success coaching firm.