Today’s blog post is a subject that I am eminently qualified to write about. The idea for this post came to me about 12 to 18 months back and have sat on this post for more than two weeks now. So I know that I am a procrastinator and decided finally to do something about it. This post is a result of my learnings on procrastination and how we can overcome it.
So what is procrastination that all of us succumb to at some point in time or the other? It’s a scenario that’s very familiar – we do many things, some of which are not even important, just so we can avoid doing something we don’t want to do. According to research, about 20% of all adults are chronic procrastinators. This is a percentage that’s higher than depression, phobia, panic attacks and alcoholism and yet procrastination is trivialised and not considered legitimate which the others are.
The tendency to procrastinate is probably as old as the human civilisation with ancient Greek philosophers developing a word to describe this type of behaviour – Akrasia which is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, Akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.
So why do we procrastinate? Behavioural psychology research has revealed a phenomenon called time inconsistency, which helps explain why procrastination seems to pull us in despite our good intentions. Time inconsistency refers to the tendency of the human brain to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. What it means is that when we set goals, we are working towards something in the future which is something our brains find easy to see the value in our actions for our future benefits. But the future us can only set the goals, it is the present us that must take action to reach those goals. When it’s time to decide on the future, it’s not the future that is making that choice, it’s the present. And the present us likes instant gratification and not a long-term payoff. So there’s this disconnect between the present us and the future us, which is why we start a day feeling motivated and ready for action, but when it comes down to doing it, we tend to fall back into old patterns. Our brains value long-term benefits when they are in the future, but it values immediate gratification when it comes to the now.
We also procrastinate when we assume that we have plenty of time to finish projects whereas we don’t have as much time as we think we do. One of the biggest factors contributing to procrastination is the notion that we have to feel inspired or motivated to work on a task at a particular moment (and I am particularly guilty of this one). But the reality is that if we wait until we’re in the right frame of mind to do certain tasks, especially the undesirable ones, we’ll probably find that the right time simply never comes along and the task never gets completed. Other reasons why people procrastinate include depression, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorders and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorders among others.
According to some, there are two main types of procrastination – active and passive procrastination. Active procrastinators delay the task purposefully because working under pressure allows them to feel challenged and motivated while passive procrastinators delay the task because they have trouble making decisions and acting on them. Others define the types of procrastinators based on different behavioural styles of procrastination, including perfectionists who put off tasks out of the fear of not being able to complete a task perfectly, dreamers who put off tasks because they are not good at paying attention to detail, defiers who don’t believe someone should dictate their schedule, worriers who put off tasks out of fear of change or leaving the comfort of the known, crisis-makers who put off tasks because they like working under pressure and the overdoers who take on too much and struggles with finding time to start and complete tasks.
Irrespective of the type of procrastination, pushing off tasks over and over again is a risk factor for poor mental and physical health, according to experts. Chronic procrastinators have higher levels of stress and a greater number of acute health problems than other people. The mental health implications include experiencing general psychological distress and low life satisfaction, particularly concerning work and income, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety. Those who procrastinate are also more likely to experience headaches, insomnia and digestive issues, and they’re more susceptible to the flu and colds. The association with health problems is best explained by stress, but another factor is that procrastinators often delay preventive treatment, such as regular checkups. Experts say that procrastinating is also linked to heart problems. They found that people with heart disease were more likely than healthy people to self-identify as procrastinators and procrastinators with hypertension and heart disease were less likely to take action to cope with their illness, such as changing their diet or exercising.
So what can we do to stop procrastinating?
Make to-do lists: I love to-do lists and use them all the time to keep me on top of my tasks. Having such a list and then putting a line across the task when it’s done is such a great feeling. I use a weekly list and put all my tasks for the week in it. So I know what I have to do with a glance. To help keep you on track, consider placing a due date next to each item.
Break down tasks: This is also something I do. Break down each task into smaller parts and use the to-do list to check them off. This way, you are on your way to completing the task and feel the thrill of completing tasks. This works especially well for procrastinators because they become so overwhelmed with the magnitude of the task that they’re paralysed into inactivity. Another tip is to set deadlines for the small steps which allow those who thrive under pressure to replicate the adrenaline rush they get when they wait until the last minute. Some people like to get the most unpleasant tasks out of the way, while others psych themselves up by doing smaller things. As we accrue small, easy accomplishments, we feel ready to do that big one.
Eliminate distraction: Remove what pulls your attention away the most, whether it’s social media, local news, games, your phone or anything else that keeps you away from doing what needs to be done and turn off those sources of distraction. You could also use the Pomodoro Method where you concentrate for about 50 minutes and then spend the last 10 minutes of the hour doing something else. The distractions could also serve as an incentive to get something done first.
Practice self-compassion: Procrastinators are often hard on themselves and might feel guilty about letting others down or be appalled by their slowness. There seems to be a connection between procrastinating and low levels of self-compassion. If this seems familiar, try to counter that by treating yourself with kindness and understanding. Self-compassion doesn’t make people lazy, on the contrary, research has shown that it increases people’s motivation to improve themselves. Focus on doing your best, instead of getting caught in the trap of worrying about what others think.
Attach meaning to the task: One of the best ways to stop procrastinating is to find meaning in the task in question. Write down why it’s important to you and how completing it will be valuable to your personal growth or happiness. Doing so will help you feel more connected to the task and less likely to procrastinate.
Find yourself in a spot that’s interruption-free: This is particularly important for demanding tasks. When we are in the zone, finally getting things done and getting interrupted, it’s so much harder to resume the task you finally started. So try to be someplace where you are not likely be disturbed and can’t focus on what needs to be done.
Be aware of the procrasticlearing trap: This is procrastinators trying to clear and tidy up before starting work on a task. So if you are guilty of falling victim to procrasticlearing, one way to know for sure is if the moment the task you were cleaning ahead of is completed, all desire to tidy and organise vanishes. Being mindful of this tendency can help prevent it from inhaling half your day.
Recognise the warning signs: Pay attention to any thoughts of procrastination and do your best to resist the urge. If you begin to think about procrastinating, force yourself to spend a few minutes working on your task.
Enlist external help: Use your family and friends to keep you focussed on your goals and tasks. Post about them on social media and ask your network to hold you accountable. This way, you will find yourself making sure you complete your tasks so you don’t get taken to task on social media.
Pat yourself on the back: When you finish an item on your to-do list on time, congratulate yourself and reward yourself by indulging in something you find fun. And when you clear everything on your task list for the day, do something that will give you pleasure so you are all excited and motivated for the next day.