How to stop procrastinating
Pride comes before a fall… so I am already nervous about the smugness that I find myself in this morning as I commence this blog a full two days before it is due to post. I had some wonderful advice from a friend about writing a regular blog, and how to handle the required consistency, and this was to set aside one day a month and write four at a time, thus continually working a month ahead. I love this concept; it hugely appeals to my planner (and controlling) tendencies. And yet I have not so far achieved it, week by week I cram in the hours each post needs, into my working week and often find myself hard against the Thursday night deadline. Ok, ok, I confess, occasionally I have needed a Friday morning for final touches. I’m not proud.
Why do I do this to myself? Why do I avoid a strategy that has long term benefits to my diary, my time management, my content planning strategy and crucially my stress and anxiety levels? Because there is always something that I find needs to be done instead. Always.
Let’s talk about procrastination. “The action of delaying or postponing something”  either to the last minute, where there is a deadline involved, or indefinitely when there is no imposed deadline. And I love the fact that procrastination is defined as an action, because I feel I am doing anything except act when I am caught in its throes.
A day can really slip by when you're deliberately avoiding what you're supposed to do. Bill Watterson.
What are the signs of procrastination?
I’ve already mentioned one: hugging the deadline. You wait until the very last minute to get started on a task, often meaning you rush it, possibly even having to pull in a late night or even worse, an all nighter, in order to meet the deadline. It may also be the case you miss deadlines completely. And this likely shows up in all areas of your life, not just at work.
I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by. Douglas Adams
You focus on lesser tasks, suddenly cleaning the oven becomes a valid reason for not working on that really important work project. This is my go to… I can find all manner of tiny administrative tasks to play with, often for hours, rather than dig into the more weighty aspects of running my own business.
You experience a lack of focus. Your mind darts from one thing to another as you likely start one thing after another. Ever come to the end of the day and found you have multiple tabs open on your computer? Multiple emails started, but not completed or sent? Guilty here!
You make excuses – the dog needed another walk - immediately. Now really is the best time to call the parents. Hydration is vital for concentration – so another cup of tea is necessary, ok? And the oven really was disgusting, I’m just fulfilling a public safety duty by tackling it at noon on a Tuesday. And there is always tomorrow, isn’t there? Until there isn’t, oops.
And amongst all of this are our travelling companions – fear, guilt and anxiety. Quite often the fear part is around the doing, as opposed to the not doing. What I am learning is it's usually good old fear of failure again – if I don’t start it, I won’t complete it and quite simply I can’t fail what I haven’t tried. Well, that’s true, but you also definitely won’t succeed either, no chance. But whether we don’t start at all, or we start late, the guilt nags away at us, interrupting the distraction we have created for ourselves, and this is always worse when the distraction should be something fun and enjoyable. There is nothing like a guilt trip to ruin a perfectly good box set. And anxiety – oh the joy. Because of course we may well have decided not to do “it”, and have convinced ourselves of the legitimacy of this, but still the anxiety persists and grows… and grows.
Being in the middle of procrastination is often more painful than being in the middle of doing the work.. The guilt, shame, and anxiety that you feel while procrastinating are usually worse than the effort and energy you have to put in while you're working. The problem is not doing the work, it's starting the work. James Clear
Why do we procrastinate?
Are we just being lazy? Are we just applying a fancy term, where “I just can’t be bothered” would be more truthful? It seems not - for even the most prolific procrastinators are in action; it’s not the case that we are not willing to put energy and effort into something, it’s more a feeling of being unable to attempt that something else.
It’s about gratification: instant gratification versus long term benefits. There is a superb Ted Talk by Tim Urban, which describes this beautifully and is also very funny:
Tim describes the two parts of our brain – the instant gratification monkey who only lives for the present moment and wants to have fun and the rational decision maker, who is able to grasp the concept of a future, and the bigger picture generally.
Often when we procrastinate it is because the reward part of the task at hand is too far removed. You may know I run; I do this because it keeps me sane and for me, there is an instant reward that comes from running – it quietens my mind chatter and gives me some respite. I am also training for a marathon (signing up was a moment of insanity, aided by not a small glass of wine). The training required for this is nothing like my normal mind-quietening pootles, it is intense, and the reward for the training is not instantaneous. In fact I won’t see the benefit of the training until race day, when I test out if these little legs can make it (or more to the point, if my mind can). Now I could say it’s the rational decision maker part of my brain ensuring I get out there day after day, mile after mile. It recognises a long-term goal requires a long-term plan and understands the reward will come after the event as I bask in my post run, medal wearing fug. I’d be lying. What gets me out is the fear, the utter panic of the alternative, and that would be turning up underprepared and unable to perform. Enter Tim’s Panic Monster. Fear can be an effective, if unsustainable, motivator.
But there must be other ways to move past procrastination, surely?
11 ways to stop procrastinating (still refusing to conform with 10!)
Get organised: What needs to be done, and by when? If your to do list is 8 pages long, let’s be real, it ain’t happening. Keep it short – prioritise in chunks of 3 or 4 tasks only and when those are complete write a new top three. Facing a huge list is an immediate turn off and is demotivating. Allow yourself the gratification of finishing a whole list – the sense of achievement is very different. And if you are a visual person – make how to capture your to- do’s work with your imagination, it doesn’t need to be a list of words!
Where the task is mahoosive, make it more manageable by chunking it down into small activities – again reward that little monkey who needs the gratification now, not in two months when the project is due.
And speaking of rewards, build them into your day. You may call it self- bribery; I call it a ginger biscuit only when I have written 1000 words.
Drop the attempts to multitask. Start one thing. Finish one thing. No exceptions.
Remove the distractions. If you have the number of WhatsApp groups I have that ping continually through the day, drastic action may be required. Yep muted. I don’t care who you are, or how efficient you claim to be, you cannot focus if your phone is continually flashing and beeping. TURN IT OFF.
Time block your diary. For those of you that just made the excuse in your head that you are far too important to turn your phone off, because you are needed. Yes, I know you did. For you, create specific blocks to complete specific tasks – treat it like a meeting – you are not available to anyone else, for anything else. Turn your phone off!! It will be back on in an hour and the world will not have ended, honest.
Start the day with a win. Make your first task easy and achievable – get it done and get it done fast. Get to 09.15 already an achiever, it’s amazing how it impacts your outlook for the rest of the day.
Know yourself. When are you most productive – are you a morning, afternoon or evening person? Don’t fight your natural rhythms- schedule focussed tasks for when you are most likely to perform best.
The 2 minute rule. This is a new one to me that I found as I researched for this blog. A strategy created by author and productivity consultant David Allen “when you start a new habit, it should take less than two minutes to do”. So whatever it is you are trying to do – let’s say it’s run 5km, the task now becomes, put on my running kit and close the front door behind me. The first few times that may well be exactly what you do, but habit forming says that soon you will start to take a few steps. This is why couch to 5km works for so many – it’s not only chunked it down, but by doing so it lays the foundations for new habit forming. And habits stick.
Find your why. Much of what we want to achieve, especially when I think of what many of my coaching clients aim for, is based in long term sustained change, it’s not all about short term tasks with deadlines. So, dallying about a big career or life change has no real time consequences- if you don’t do it, nothing will happen, other than nothing will change. These can be the tough ones, and it is here you need to go to your why. Why is this important to you? How important is it? What is this for the sake of? What are you prepared to commit to, to ensure you do start? Is the alternative acceptable anymore? And then you can start your action plan.
Procrastination is, hands down, our favourite form of self-sabotage. Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby
Get accountable. Would you consider standing up a friend waiting for you on a street corner, clad in Lycra and ready to run with you in the rain, even though they loathe running, but are there anyway because you asked for help with training? No of course you wouldn’t, you monster! You’d get your Lycra’d bottom there and loathe it with them. Accountability partners work – when there is someone counting on us or supporting us, we are far more likely to deliver. Ask a friend or work colleague to join in – there is evidence to show even sharing a silent zoom call for unrelated concentrated work, with a colleague has massive impact on our ability to focus and complete tasks.
The fact of the matter is humans are going to procrastinate from time to time. If we can accept that, let it go and stay kind, we are all going to have an easier ride. It’s only when procrastination invades and impacts our daily lives and prevents us from aiming high that we need to take note and take action. We have evolved to be risk averse, we have a team of inner critics who work hard to keep us in our lane and in the safety of the mundane. Take back the wheel, put down the biscuit and start small – you got this.
If you are interested in how I can work with you around procrastination and more, you can speak to me directly, you can book a free initial one hour session with me here
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