If you find yourself routinely putting off tasks, some of which you would really like to accomplish but for whatever reason seem to never "be in the mood" to do them, you are not alone. With nearly 15-20 percent of the population reporting regular procrastination in everything from diet and exercise lifestyle changes and financial tasks like paying bills and filing taxes, to simple tasks like doing the dishes and cleaning, it can seem sometimes feel as though the fast pace of modern life renders a to-do list more like a wish list.
But there’s more to procrastination than simply having many tasks to complete. In fact, procrastination has to do more with personal inefficiency caused by lack of self-control, potential feelings of inadequacy and a relatively impulsive disposition rather than an overflowing task list. Fortunately, by getting an understanding of what procrastination is and its causes, and then employing a few simple strategies based on your personal procrastination style, you’ll be able to help yourself get done today what should have gotten done yesterday. (Or maybe two months ago…)
Are You a Procrastinator?
Nearly everyone will admit to procrastinating at least once, but a procrastinator is one with a chronic habit of putting off different goals and tasks to his or her disadvantage, no matter whether the task is one that can help further health or career, or is a simple, but necessary task not usually enjoyed such as cleaning or paying bills. Choosing one behavioral choice or task over another with the full knowledge that the avoided task is more in your self interest to complete than to avoid defines a procrastinator.
To others who do not put off tasks in these situations, procrastination may seem illogical—why would anyone want to self-sabotage efforts that would benefit his or her life? But to a classic procrastinator, the moment even the most desired goal becomes too overwhelming in the "now," somehow the ends never seem enticing enough to justify the means to get there, and so it is put off for a later date; sometimes specific ("I’ll start the beginning of next week or next month") and sometimes vague ("I’ll think about it later when the stress of my current life situation passes").
Why Do People Procrastinate?
Procrastination occurs most often because how a person thinks and feels today is much more important than that person’s perception of tomorrow. Delaying the "start date" to a later time reduces the immediate stress that a procrastinator feels, and that brings a temporary sense of relief and enjoyment. If you are a procrastinator, perhaps you’ve even heard yourself say statements like, "I just don’t feel motivated today; I don’t know why." Then a task whose benefits far outweigh avoiding it is postponed until a later date when you expect that you will "feel more like doing it."
Extraverted (relatively to extremely outgoing, likes to process information by talking aloud or "hearing oneself think"), impulsive (likes the thrill of variety and new ideas, events or occurrences) and anxious (worrisome) personality types are more likely to procrastinate than others. And even though there are similar traits found among procrastinators, each person has a unique balance of traits that point to his or her own personal motivation. This year, top procrastination researcher Piers Steel published a formula that included the following traits that are common to all procrastinators in different amounts:
- Expectancy—what do you think you will get out of completing the task?
- Value—how much you value the end goal versus your present situation?
- Sensitivity to delay—how impulsive and easily distracted are you?
- Delay—how long will you delay a task?
Why Procrastination is Bad for Your Health
To a chronic procrastinator, delaying responsibilities or desires to improve one’s life can be detrimental, especially when it affects achieving the kind of goals tied to personal dreams and visions. Repeated attempts at beginning or following through on something desired that end in "failure" (i.e., not achieving the end goal) can have a serious impact on feelings of efficacy (i.e., the feeling that you can successfully achieve a specific task that you set out to do), as well as self-worth; over time you may see yourself as lazy or as having a lazy nature, and this cycle may condition a person to procrastinate more because of lowered expectations about a positive outcome the next time he or she is faced with a similar task.
Surely, one of the worst feelings associated with procrastination is the self-defeating thought that goals perhaps weren’t "meant to be" because "’If I really wanted the end result, I would go make it happen." But it takes more than want and good intentions to make something happen—it takes an understanding of the self. While feeling fully relieved in the short term by delaying a task, the emotional effect of procrastination is that you will most likely feel bad about yourself and your abilities in the long term.
So What Can Be Done? Whether you are a master procrastinator in many areas of your life or if you only have one or two tasks on which you’d like to improve in terms of efficiency and completion, the process is the same: Figure out which type of motivations are driving you and then follow the suggestions below.
For those who may be more anxious… …The right self-talk can be helpful. The more uncertain the outcome is for completing a goal, the higher payoff by procrastinating. You can be your own best coach through any self-doubts that come up about how well you can complete the task. Remind yourself that you should always operate in your best interest, despite what negative self-talk might happen in the moment of being faced with a task, and that procrastination is the very opposite of acting in your best self-interest; it is self-sabotage. Push through any immediate and irrational emotions and focus on the task at hand. Tell yourself that while you’re completing the task, you have to focus on the task itself, but that you can worry all you want about the outcome after you finish it. By the time you do complete the task (or next stage of the task, if you are breaking a larger task into several smaller steps first), you may be surprised to find that you are, in fact, less anxious than you were before beginning, and this will help you the next time you are faced with a similar task (or the next stage of the task).
…Know that the harshest evaluations are often our own. No one likes to be criticized for not doing a good job, and the notion of failure is unnerving. However, keep in mind that we are often our own worst self-critics, and while not everybody has to like your work, if you work hard and get things accomplished despite your own internal doubts, there will be many that do. The key is for you to like you. If it helps, list out all of your accomplishments and look to that list to motivate you to fill it with other great things. Also keep in mind that procrastination is a way to avoid anxiety, and ironically this may lead to more anxiety, depression, and even more procrastination. Break the cycle. Temporary discomfort is just that—temporary.
…Know that even if you fail in a task, you are not a failure as a person. Everybody has an off day, a challenging week, a bad date (or series of dates)—this does not make you a failure as a person. Just look at professional athletes. Each is under tremendous stress to perform, and a lot of money is at stake. Even with a "bad season," a star athlete can rise like a phoenix from the ashes, and so can you. Do the best you can with you can. Be honest about yourself and your areas of improvement and work to make yourself the best version of you, and happiness will follow. Also during challenging moments, it may feel as if you’re the only one on this planet who feels as awful, or is as awful at something as you are, but it’s not true. There is someone, somewhere who is or who has gone through exactly what you are going through right now—you are not alone.
For those who are impulsive or easily distracted…
…Break down your larger goal into measurable steps, and give yourself deadlines. Do you ever feel "bored," despite having an array of tasks you could get done that would benefit you? If so, you may have a lot of impulsive energy and impatience that causes you to seek variety in stimulus input. While the initial idea of a project or task is exciting, soon that rush passes and the project seems to have lost its appeal, no matter how good an idea or plan it really is. Over time, it is abandoned to "later" status and soon the next great idea comes along and you’re off and running again—at least for a while until the next big "ah-ha!" moment follows with yet a new task to complete or dream to follow. Universal statements may make you feel better when you declare your commitment to set out after something, but when it comes time to put them into action, they seem to lose their steam, making it just so much easier to put it off and retreat into procrastination. A great way to combat this is to fully break it down your goal into the exact steps it would take to achieve the goal; the more specific, the better. Then like an effective business plan, assign a reasonable timetable, promising yourself that even if you don’t feel like it, you will complete that smaller step during the time slot you committed to, and keep your calendar in front of you as much as possible. Make these steps as small as is comfortable for you. Each small effort yields tremendous results over time—even if undertaken only for a few minutes at a time. Plus, as you get into a routine of working on the task, it becomes just that, a routine that you barely think about anymore; it is just part of your day.
…Tune out your environment and tune in to your task—and yourself. Some are easily distracted by noise; others by what appears visually in front of them. And still others like to sit relatively far away from other people to have a sense of personal space and privacy. Experiment and find which environment works best for you to be able to focus. Often more impulsive types of personalities only need the right work environment to overcome a good amount of their procrastination. Once fully engulfed in the task at hand, the need to delay it to investigate interruptions falls away. And it’s not just people in your environment that you need to watch or listen for—the very machines designed to make our lives easier have resulted in us spending more time and attention on them—computers, televisions, and phones are now all portable. The key may be to simply make time to ignore them—even an hour or two a day—(or shut them off completely). With so much digital air wave chatter it can be hard to hear ourselves think. With a little bit of "unplugged" time each day that can be spent furthering a goal that you have in your heart, you’ll be surprised what can be achieved in such a small time, not to mention how relaxed you are.
…Schedule in regular breaks. Those with a need for variety may feel sapped when working on a single task for too long. Get up, stretch, get a beverage and take a break—the key here being a short break. Take just enough time away from your task to feel renewed, but not too long as to risk becoming easily distracted by something else that will suddenly end your desire to keep working.
For those whose end goals seem far away or overwhelming… …Break down your larger goal into as many smaller steps as necessary. A goal that is desirable but whose payoff seems too far away to be worth it may signal that you are motivated by the feeling of reward. Since a larger goal only seems to offer a reward once it is completed, and that will take some time, break down your goal into much smaller tasks and build in some rewards for completing the smaller steps that contribute toward achieving the larger goal. Each time you complete a step toward your goal, reward yourself with something enjoyable. That will make even the most tedious of steps feel worth the effort—each step will feel successful.
Over time as your work begins to show progress, you’ll have a renewed sense of excitement about your end goal, and the fact that it is coming more into focus as a reality. When you feel even the faintest desire to abandon the task at hand, remind yourself that even though you may not feel 100% convinced right now, the end goal is worth the effort. Don’t be afraid of a little-to-moderate amount of discomfort—push through it. It makes sense that a person who likes the moment would not want to introduce less-than-enjoyable things, but to not do so is to prevent achieving the very things that your heart desires. Don’t sabotage yourself! What you’re trading for a small amount of discomfort is the realization of your dreams. That’s a pretty big trade-off!
…Know that achieving your goal doesn’t require all-or-nothing involvement to be valuable. Committing to the smallest chunk of time or completion of part of a task is not a cop out. Even fifteen minutes per day toward a goal doesn’t sound like much, but fifteen minutes per day over a week is a little under two hours—and that’s better than zero hours! Plus, when working on a task becomes automatic, it will be less daunting to you as you find that you can do the activity and enjoy it. This is how new, positive habits are developed.
…Know that setting your own deadlines can be as exciting as the real ones. If you are the type who gets a thrill out of meeting deadlines last minute, in addition to breaking larger tasks down in to smaller components, give yourself mini-deadlines along the way to meet, and regard them as you would the big end-of-project deadline. You’ll find that with some practice of breaking down your tasks this way that you will get some enjoyment out of doing a little bit at a time, and it will feel great to know that you are your own motivator, not an externally-imposed deadline.
For those whose tasks are simply not enjoyable…
…Combine the unpleasant task with something you do enjoy. Don’t like cleaning? Put on your favorite music or book on tape while you do. Combining a task that you don’t like very much with one activity that you do can help pass the time and minimize the annoyance or discomfort of having to do the unpleasant task in the first place. Remember that the next time you see someone whistling while they work.
…Procrastinate on your procrastination. If you start an unpleasant task and the familiar thoughts and urges of wanting to put off that behavior or activity arise, acknowledge the feelings and urges that you’re having and then tell yourself, "Okay, but for the next half hour or thirty minutes I’ll continue with the activity and then I can procrastinate all I want." You’ll find that over time your focus may get longer so that by the time you’ve done some work on a task, you may not feel the need to procrastinate as much. You anxiety will be lessened, and you may even feel a little good about yourself because you’ve gotten something accomplished.
Not just a cliche: What you do now creates your "then." While the rewards may be more subtle in the steps between now and then, reaching a reasonable amount of progress on a task will show you how far you’ve come. You’ll feel good about yourself, your skills and your abilities to reach new goals. Small steps toward overcoming procrastination can make a big difference between success and results and further delays and regret. You can accomplish what you set out to do, and although not each task will feel completely pleasant, the end results of your work will never let you down as much as the lack of progress that comes from a lifetime of procrastination.
Do you procrastinate? If so, what has worked for you? Got a few tips of your own? Share your thoughts below!