5 Simple Ways to Overcome Procrastination

5 Simple Ways to Overcome Procrastination

5 Simple Ways to Overcome Procrastination

5 Simple Ways to Overcome Procrastination

When people come to me seeking help to get passed some type of roadblock that is inhibiting them from reaching their full potential in some area of their life, there are several primary causes at the core of their lack of productivity and progress — fear, lack of clarity, and procrastination. One of the first things that I do is establish an understanding of the law of cause and effect. Every result in your life has a cause. There are no coincidences; you are where you are today because of decisions and habits of behavior. If you want to change your course in life, it starts with the cause, not the symptoms.

You may be wondering why it is so important to focus on the cause as opposed to the symptom or result. When you focus on the cause, you address the issue at its source — having the potential to completely eliminate the cause, subsequently eliminating the symptom. When you focus on the symptom, you may be able to mask the symptom, but the cause is still present, and when things really matter the most, you will revert to what is natural.

Here, I want to deal with procrastination, which is a symptom that can have many underlying causes. When you fail to identify the cause of your procrastination, attempting to treat the symptoms could exacerbate the condition. Following are five common causes of procrastination along with some simple steps you can take to overcome each.

  1. The Size of the Task Appears Overwhelming

Explanation: If you have a task that appears so huge that you can’t possibly get it done. If every time you think about it, the thought of finishing it seems daunting or even impossible. This usually leads to you never starting and moving on to something you believe you can get done.

Solution: You don’t climb a mountain by jumping from the base to the peak. You climb it one progressive step at a time. Break this huge task down into smaller, more workable, parts. Bite off what you can easily chew and knock that out. Once you finish with that task, go back and take another piece and start working on it. Eventually, you will find that you are building momentum and that you are getting things done.

Example: I have written and published 20 books, thousands of articles and scholarly papers, none of those publications were engaged with page one through 400 on deck. I start each writing project, including this one, by focusing on writing the best first sentence that I can. When I complete that sentence and am one step closer than when I started. Now it is time to write the next sentence and the next.

  1. Too Many Tasks to Take On at Once

Explanation: There is nothing wrong with being aggressive in your goal setting. I am extremely aggressive when setting my goals. In fact, over 30 years goals my mentor told me that I would succeed by failing forward — meaning that I set my goals so high that rarely hit them on the first try, but I fail forward because I end up further along then when I started.

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“If the vision that you have for your life is not so huge that it intimidates you, there’s a good chance it is insulting God.” ~ Steven Furtick

Being aggressive will often create a monumental to-do list that seems impossible to complete. First, people who are aggressive never get all of their to-do’s done. We get the most important ones done. Interestingly enough, when we handle the to-do’s with the highest priorities, many of the other things on our list fall off automatically. It is normal to put off things that you feel you cannot get done. Most people have a mindset of why get started if I can’t finish it. You have to take a different approach or nothing will ever get done.

Solution: Group related tasks into categories that can be combined into conceptual activities and then assign a certain amount of time to each activity.

Example: Because I run multiple businesses, I have multiple email accounts, and it is not uncommon for several hundred emails over the course of the day. It is obvious that I cannot address all of the emails in one day. So, I set aside a couple of hours each day to manage my email. The first thing I do is to group all urgent emails that demand an immediate response. I schedule responses to secondary emails and group the others in time groups based on importance. Nothing is too big when you break it down into manageable parts.

  1. A Required Task Seems Boring and Repetitive

Explanation: If you are a person who is highly creative, you avoid boring things like the plague. It is natural for you to put off things that do not interest you; however, those things need to be done to move you forward toward your ultimate goals, right?

Solution: Find a way to make boring tasks more interesting, fun, and rewarding.

Example: Set a time limit to get a task done, and make it challenging. Now, compete against yourself to beat the time you set. When you are able to beat your time challenge, reward yourself in some way. You are actually training your brain to take on tasks that don’t naturally interest you. Eventually, proclivity to take on these tasks you once considered repetitive and boring will become second nature, and you will even experience a level of fulfillment.

  1. The Importance and Relevance of the Task is Intimidating

Explanation: When you have a task that you ascribe such great importance to that the fear of screwing it up paralyzes you, you have to find a way to engage it productively. It could be a situation in which making a mistake could mean losing a client or losing your job, so you freeze.

Solution: Don’t stand on an island. Get the work done to the best of your ability and then bring in someone you trust to review your work and advise you on any necessary changes. When the initial draft or presentation is done for a reviewer instead of the actual client or manager, there is little risk involved and you will find that your stress levels decrease drastically. Interestingly, the lower the stress levels, the betting you think and perform.

  1. You Just Don’t Feel Like Doing It

Explanation: There are times when are just not up to putting in the work. If you are like me, you pride yourself on doing exceptional work and if you can’t give it your best, you would rather not do it at all. I will be honest here, sometimes, this feeling is the result of plain old laziness. That is an entirely different topic to address — something I do in my latest book, Critical Mass: The Phenomenon of Next-Level Living. Normally, the lack of impulse and enthusiasm to get work done comes from burnout and the lack of proper internal motivation.

Solution: Here you have two options: 1. You can reschedule the activity for a time that you will be more up to the task. I don’t like this option because it actually trains you to procrastinate based on how you feel at a given moment. If it needs to be done, get it done. 2. Find a way to motivate yourself for the short-term. Everyone, including myself, has those moments when they just don’t feel like it. This is where the exceptional and phenomenal people in the world separate themselves from the rest — doing what most simply are not willing to do. Find a way to get motivated by promising yourself that you can have or do something you really want once you get this task done.

Procrastination is lethal to progress, and it is one of the most common causes of failure in the pursuit of worthy goals. No one gets everything right, but those who take on every challenge are the ones who get on in this world. If you suck at something, the only way to get better is to keep doing it until you master it. Failure is a part of the process that produces success. The greatest performers in history will admit that they have failed more times than they have succeeded. Put in the work and trust that your diligence will reward you. ~ Rick Wallace, Ph.D., Psy.D.

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Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

Procrastination: An Emotion-Focused Coping Strategy

“I’m very good at procrastination,” declared Courtney Act at Monday night’s Brainwaveevent on procrastination. Act, a semi-finalist on Australian Idol in 2003 and a top three finalist on RuPaul’s Drag Race season 6 (the best season!), joined psychiatrist TimPychyl on stage at New York’s Rubin Museum to discuss why we procrastinate and tools to help overcome it.

Procrastination as an emotional coping mechanism!

Courtney Act and Tim Pychyl discuss procrastination at Brainwave’s final event of the year. Photo credit: Andrew Kist

The topic, suggested by Act, is tied to the Brainwave theme of emotion, and Pychyl was quick to congratulate her on recognizing that procrastination is indeed tied to emotion–it is not just a time-management issue or a product of laziness. Procrastination, he said, is an “emotion-focused coping strategy” that we use for short-term gratification.

People procrastinate for different reasons–some out of fear, others boredom, for example. A recent Fast Company article delved into five common types of procrastinators, and I’m sure you’ll either personally identify with one or will know people who fall into the different categories. Act is what Pychyl called a “structured procrastinator,” someone who harnesses her avoidance motivation and can actually become quite productive…just not doing the task she’s meant to be doing.

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One trick she’s found that helps her focus is to give herself made-up deadlines; Act sets an alarm for an hour (no longer) during which she has to do her work. Pychyl identified this practice as an actual technique, named the Pomodoro technique, which calls for setting an alarm for 25 minutes to focus on a certain project or task without interruption. When broken into small chunks of time, tasks–even hard or boring ones–become less daunting.

Another tip to move beyond procrastination is to “just get started,” as opposed to “just do it,” said Pychyl, who is the director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education and associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. Writing letters of reference for students is something that Pychyl dreads because of their importance and the attention needed to do them well. To get them done, he takes a step-by-step approach, saying to himself, “If I were going to write this letter (but I’m not),” I would need to do X… He recommends making the actions as concrete as possible, which gives weight to them, despite being only a partial plan.

But what about a way to combat chronic procrastination? One approach is to learn to better connect with your “future self.”

The “present self” and “future self” is a common divide, said Pychyl. How many times have you left dishes for future self to do in the morning? Or have to wake up at some ungodly hour to pack for a trip because you didn’t feel like it the night before? Right now usually wins!

The discussion revealed that many of us leave future self to bear our burdens becausewe view him or her as a stranger more than as our self. Research has shown that in some people, certain parts of the brain activate differently for present and future self. And not accepting the continuity of self can lead to bigger problems than just dirty dishes in the morning.

Hope for self-improvement comes with a study Pychyl referenced by social psychologist Hal Hershfield in which adults who were not doing a good job at investing for retirement were divided into those who saw digitally generated photos of their senior selves, and those who didn’t. They found that those who interacted with the photos were more likely to accept delayed monetary rewards, which is a habit beneficial for retirement savings. These findings have even been turned into a commercial venture called Face Retirement.

There are other, more accessible ways to connect with your future self. Pychyl calledmindfulness-based meditation “the magic bullet” of the evening, in terms of advice. [Read our recent briefing paper on mindfulness meditation to learn how meditation changes the brain and may benefit students in school.] Meditation can slow us down and bring us closer to our future selves, he said. He pointed to research done by his former student Eve-Marie Blouin-Hudon, where undergraduate students listened to a guided meditation tape twice-weekly for four weeks that asked them to imagine the end of the semester and what they’d be doing during that time. Following the four weeks, many of these students exhibited an increase in future self-continuity and reported procrastinating less.

But don’t beat yourself up for checking social media at work or cleaning your desk to postpone writing an email; procrastination is part of human nature. “We are only human,” Pychyl said. To change our motivation from avoidance to approach we sometimes have to exercise self-compassion for ourselves, he explained. Pychyl and colleagues published a study in 2010 on first-year college students who performed badly on their initial exams. They found that the students who forgave themselves for procrastinating their studies for the first exam procrastinated less for the second exam.

So, hopefully you now have a few new strategies to deal with your own procrastination, or at least scientific validation for techniques you already use. To learn more about procrastination (or for a semi-justifiable way to procrastinate), you can read Pychyl’s blogon the very subject.

– Ann L. Whitman