Procrastination is counterproductive and results with needless delay.
We know this, yet it's something we all suffer with. Everyone procrastinates at some point in their lives, even highly successful people are prone to procrastination. Eliminating procrastination in its entirety is not possible. It would take an immense amount of discipline, motivation, energy and good habits, to which we do not have the capacity for.
Take Victor Hugo, for example, who signed a book deal with a publisher to write a new book. Instead of writing, he was procrastinating. He was more interested in pursuing other projects and not actually writing the book he's signed the deal for.
Understandably, the publisher eventually got very frustrated with the lack of progress and eventually set Hugo an ambitious deadline of 6 months to finish writing the book - he had 6 months to write a book from scratch.
The size of the task in front of him initially appeared daunting. He felt out of his depth, prompting him into action. He could no longer afford to procrastinate, so decided that he would not leave his chambers until he had written the book, and is ready to be published.
To reduce the resistance and reduce the odds procrastination, Hugo asked his secretary to collect all his clothes and remove them from the chambers. His clothes were to be locked away by his assistant, so he was not able to access them. All he had left to wear was the shawl on his back.
Given he had no other clothes to wear, Hugo couldn't leave his home, allowing him to provide his undivided attention to writing his book. It's no surprise that Hugo was able to complete writing this book, publishing it 2 weeks early.
The name of the book? The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Barack Obama has also employed similar tactics when writing his first book, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Obama decided to fly out to a remote village in Indonesia, where he lived in a small cabin for 4 months, away from everyone and without distraction - until he was finally able to complete writing his book. The book went on to become an international bestseller.
Procrastinators Fail to Achieve Their Goals and Objectives
The main reason for attending university is to study and earn a degree. Yet many students procrastinate studying.
At work, you may have several tasks on your to-do list. Yet, you always seem to be busy and never able to complete these tasks.
In both instances, you can blame the failure to complete your tasks on procrastination. It increases the chances of you failing to achieve your goals and objectives. You get fewer things done.
It negatively impacts your grades and career progression.
Procrastination causes you to come down harder on yourself for wasting time. You feel helpless for not being able to avoid it and is one of the reasons procrastination increases stress and anxiety.
Delaying the task can often result in a sense of failure or lack of progression - widespread amongst serial procrastinators.
You may also find that you often procrastinate tasks or projects you're less excited about, putting them off until an undefined point in future. We intuitively understand this to be unproductive, yet seem unable to do anything about it.
For the smaller tasks we procrastinate, thinking about these tasks or projects weighs us down mentally. We procrastinate these tasks for weeks or months, even though it would only have taken a couple of minutes to complete the task.
Before sharing the 9 steps I use to beat procrastination, I want to highlight the main reasons we procrastinate, along with sharing well respected scientific literature on the topic for your perusal.
We Procrastinate Tasks That Do Not Feel Good
Procrastination occurs where the task is one you're not excited about. It is your mind building resistance to less pleasurable tasks. As humans, we naturally do more of what feels good and less of what feels bad as our brains reward us with a rush of dopamine, giving us the feel-good factor.
It is why we are unlikely to procrastinate watching a TV show we enjoy. But find it easy to procrastinate studying or going to the gym.
You need to evaluate whether it's a task that's required to be completed. If not, take it as your brain's subtle way of telling you to ditch the task. It doesn't feel good, and you've been procrastinating it for weeks or even months. Take it off your list, free up some mental space and stop weighing yourself down mentally.
Alternatively, it could be an important task you simply cannot ignore, such as paying your bills. Many people delay checking and paying their bills. They leave it on the countertop, hoping as if by magic, the issue would sort itself out.
Not checking your bills will not make them disappear, and there's no benefit to procrastinating this task. You can pay the bills as soon as you open them and be done with it. It only takes a few minutes, yet people procrastinate this task. When we finally decide to pay the bills, we revisit the same negative emotion as the first time we opened the bill.
Paying the bill as soon as you open it only takes a few minutes, and you never have to worry about that bill again.
If it's something you need to do, you should do it right there and then, and be over and done with it.
People sometimes procrastinate because they want things to be perfect. The focus isn't on getting started; it's about getting the perfect result. You achieve the ideal results only through iteration - practice and trying things out to understand what works and what doesn't.
Perfectionists would rather conceptualise the ideal situation than to actually get started, partly due to a fear of failure. If they are unable to achieve the perfect outcome, they will not get started. This mindset is dangerous as the best way to learn is by doing. You're more likely to become perfect, by doing.
On the first day of a film photography class, Jerry Uelsmann divided his students into two groups. He told one group he would grade them on quantity and the other on quality, i.e. their photo had to be perfect to score high.
At the end of the term, the results were surprising. Students graded on quantity submitted far better photos than student graded on quality.
While the students graded on quality were conceptualising the perfect photo, theorising which the right angles, contrasts etc. The students graded on quantity were busy "doing". They were taking more photos and trying out new methods. Incorporating what works into further photos and learning from what doesn't.
The students graded on the quantity of photos taken were incorporating deliberate practice, made famous by Geoff Colvin in his book Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else.
"Deliberate practise is characterised by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher's help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it's highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual such as chess or business related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; - Geoff Colvin
This deliberate practice and continuous feedback loop is what led to the students being graded on quantity to take better photos.
A Lack of Discipline and Self-Control or Laziness
"You're not always going to be in the mood, but you still have to study" was a lesson my A-Level Economics teacher taught me really early on, for which I am forever grateful. She told the class that we're not going to be in the mood to study every day. Some days, we just have to push through and persevere.
It's something still resonates with me till this day, which I incorporate into my life. When I notice that I've started to procrastinate - I'm putting off that article I really wanted to write. I'm not responding to an email I need to respond to. I need to remain disciplined, quit the excuses and just get "doing".
Getting started is the hard part, and I notice that once I have started, the task tends to be a lot easier than I imagined.
At the very core, procrastination can suggest a lack of discipline and self-control. Since you're not going to enjoy every task you have to do, you need to push through, soldier ahead and occasionally have to grind through some tasks until they are complete.
Good habits, self-control, discipline and willpower can go a long way in ensuring these tasks get done.
It's a common statement or assumption that those who procrastinate are lazy. However, some people are simply too lazy to put in the effort required to achieve their goals. You're not going to achieve your goals if you're not willing to put in the required effort to achieve them - it's really that simple.
Impulsiveness can also be a factor in determining the likelihood that someone will struggle with procrastination. Impulsive people tend to have difficulties with achieving long term goals.
When performing academic tasks, between 80% and 95% of university students regularly procrastinate. Impulsiveness and self-control, were strong and consistent predictors of procrastination.
Another study by Morris reported a "close association" between impulsivity and procrastination, through an overlapping region of the brain called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
You're in a Bad Mood or Have Low Levels of Willpower
Your moods also have a significant impact on whether you will procrastinate a task. You are a lot more likely to procrastinate when you're in a bad mood than when you're in a good mood.
Being in a good mood reduces the resistance to completing the task. It is because you're not distracted by the need for a dopamine rush. You do not need the little bursts of dopamine from scrolling through Instagram.
If you're in a bad mood or feeling annoyed or angry, it is unlikely that your primary concern would be the sorting out the bill that's been sat on your desk for the last week. Instead, your priority will be on ensuring you feel better, leading to you procrastinating by bingeing on your favourite TV show.
In his study, Piers Steel found that at least 95% of university students consider themselves to be serious procrastinators. Anxiety, depression and low self-esteem increase the chances of a student procrastinating.
Your mood has a significant influence on your willpower. There is a high correlation between willpower and procrastination. When you're in a great mood, your willpower is higher. The converse is also true with low moods resulting in lower willpower.
You need willpower when there's a lot of resistance to completing a particular task, or you have a lack of motivation. For example, there is a lot of resistance to you studying effectively if you have your phone on your desk. You'll soon need a break. You glance over at a notification. Before you know it, an hour has gone past and you've procrastinated yet again.
Instead, you should turn off your phone and place it in a drawer in another room to reduce the resistance to you effectively studying. Your phone is now less likely to distract you while studying, so you're less likely to procrastinate.
Stronger willpower can help you reduce the time spent procrastinating, which tends to be higher in the morning, shortly after waking up. It's why we tend to procrastinate less and are more productive in the mornings.
The morning should be reserved to complete the larger or more challenging tasks. It's why I'm such an advocate for the early morning workout. It's a lot easier to get yourself to exercise in the morning when your willpower is significantly higher than in the evening. By the evening, you're tired, fatigued and the willpower levels are generally lower.
High-quality sleep, regular exercise, good habits along with taking the time out to recover and look after yourself are some of the ways you can improve your mood and your willpower.
You Have Poorly Defined Goals or Lack the Motivation
We procrastinate when feeling overwhelmed or where the task appears too great. We do not have a clear or defined path to achieving the goal.
For example, I procrastinated starting this site for months. There was always a reason or an excuse for why I couldn't get started.
To overcome this, I broke this task down into bitesize chunks. I took things one step at a time until was I able to build my site.
Similarly, if you're not motivated to complete a task, you're likely to procrastinate. For example, you may procrastinate applying for that new job because the role doesn't excite you.
Your motivations for completing the task are essential. Extrinsic motivation is in search of external validation. Intrinsic motivation comes from your why. You're less likely to procrastinate tasks that come from intrinsic motivation. You need to find your why and understand your how to find success in what you do. It's the premise of Simon Sinek's book Start With Why. In the book, Sinek explains how finding your why is imperative to reaching success.
Temporal Motivation Theory ("TMT")
Steele and Konig developed the TMT theory as an alternative to discipline bound theories. Their theory recognises time as a critical motivational factor impacting procrastination. The closer people are to a deadline, the less likely they will procrastinate.
Students are less likely to put off studying if the deadline for an exam is in a week.
Another reason people procrastinate is that they believe things will be different next time. If you struggle to get going with a task today, you may think that tomorrow will be better. You believe in your future abilities.
Unfortunately, the science disagrees.
Chances are, if you postponed the task yesterday and are postponing the task today, you will procrastinate again tomorrow. We will postpone the task to a later date or may never even get it done.
Short-Termism and Instant Gratification
People often struggle to consider the long term, the bigger picture or the end result. People feel the pain of investing £1 now more than the pleasure of earning £2 on that investment a year later.
Those seeking instant gratification are more likely to procrastinate. Checking your phone now and scrolling through Instagram is rewarding. Going for that run you've wanted to do for the past few months - less so. You seek the instant gratification and end up checking your phone and procrastinating your run.
Sacrificing long term benefits for what feels good or easy in the short term is not a good life strategy.
"If you do what is easy, your life will be hard" - Les Brown
9 Steps I Use to Beat Procrastination
Next time you find yourself procrastinating, try one of the nine steps that I use.
- Set yourself a deadline. Setting an ambitious but realistic deadline turns on the pressure - most effective where the consequence of not meeting the deadline is greater than the cost of action.
- Reduce resistance. Resistance to a task makes it far more likely that you'll procrastinate. Reduce the resistance to completing a task by turning off that phone and leaving it in another room.
- Break-down tasks into bitesize chunks. "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step". Breaking down your tasks into smaller actions ensures that you're not feeling overwhelmed. Completing the task becomes more manageable as you have considered the steps and identified how to achieve the goal.
- Start with the end in mind. Trick your brain into seeing the bigger picture and the long term benefits, not the short term pain. Imagine how good it would be once you've completed the task and ticked it off your list. Remind yourself that completing this task moves you a step closer to achieving your goals.
- Write the task down. You need to write down the tasks, instead of keeping them in your head. By getting it down on paper, you're less likely to forget and are you're not being weighed down mentally.
- Complete your larger or challenging tasks in the morning. Your willpower and energy levels are higher in the morning. Use this to your advantage. It can help you push through your most challenging tasks and avoid procrastination.
- Remove the task from your to-do list. You may be keeping tasks on your to-do list that are not actually necessary. Remove unimportant tasks where a lack of completion does not have any real consequences.
- Find your why. Finding your why can be a significant source of motivation. You are less likely to procrastinate where the source of motivation is intrinsic and not in search of external validation. You'll also be more motivated to complete the task.
- Sleep. I saved the most important until last. Those who get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night are less likely to procrastinate.
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