Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily postponing decisions or actions. For example, if you need to write a blog, but end up wasting time on the internet looking at cute guinea pig videos or checking your dog’s Instagram, even though you know your deadline is looming, it means that you’re procrastinating.
Have you ever put off doing something because it’s felt too difficult, too scary or too boring? Have you got things on your ‘to-do’ lists that have been moved to the following week every week for years? Have you ever done nothing because you simply don’t know what the best course of action was? That’s also procrastination.
We’ve all put off tasks until tomorrow, or next week or next month or never! Why do we put some things off, though? Putting things off can often make us feel guilty, anxious or regretful. We might miss opportunities for not taking action quickly enough, waste time fretting about what we haven’t done, feel unproductive and that we’re not making progress. In the worst cases of procrastination, we can even damage our financial prospects, our health and our relationships.
So what can we do about it?
To address your procrastination, you must first understand why you’re doing it in the first place. What’s stopping you?
If you’ve something that has appeared on your ‘to do’ list for more than 3 weeks in a row, it’s probably worth asking the question or discussing with a friend or colleague. ‘What’s stopping me getting this done – or even just getting started?’ Be honest. Sometimes it’s fear because you don’t know how to do something, or the stakes feel high if you fail, and sometimes it’s because the task you’re procrastinating about shouldn’t even be on the list in the first place and you can let it go.
Research shows the most common reasons for procrastination are feelings of anxiety and overwhelm, perfectionism, fear of failure, lack of energy and motivation. Procrastination can also occur when the goals are too big to tackle, too far in the future or so abstract that we can’t connect to the benefits of them.
Eight tips to overcome procrastination
Serial procrastinators are great at using displacement activity to avoid facing the issue or activity they’re deferring. This is stuff that distracts the mind or offers some short-term contentment. Scrolling through social media, games, YouTube videos, television and radio all offer lots of little pieces of short-term distraction that prevent the subject of our procrastination from disturbing our thoughts. Assuming the ask is important, if we’re to deal successfully with the issue we need to shut off these distractions. Notice your ‘go to’ procrastination habits and do what you can to minimise them. For example, if you’re constantly checking your email, turn off your email notifications. If you pick your phone up every 30 seconds, move your phone to where you can’t easily reach it.
Make sure you’re comfortable, not likely to be disturbed, and then sit down to think about the task at hand. For small short-term activities this may be enough in itself to quit procrastinating and get started. However, for other more long-term tasks it pays to think a bit more about why you’re deferring.
Are you busy?
Sometimes we wear ‘busy’ as a badge of honour. It’s a standard response when someone asks how you are. Are you genuinely too busy? If you’re too busy, then relook at your commitments, say no to some things or get help. These are difficult calls to make, but, if you’re really too busy, facing this head-on is far healthier than letting someone down later on, or even worse, compromising your own wellbeing. Friends and colleagues tend not to know if you’re struggling, and you need to let them know in order to give them the opportunity to step in and help. If when you really think about it, you’re not too busy, then it’s worth considering again why this important task is not rising to the top of your priority list.
Remember how you’d eat an elephant
Large tasks are prime candidates for procrastination as staring at a huge workload can feel like an insurmountable mountain. Milestones for large projects can often be months or years into the future, making them feel less important than they actually are. This makes it more important than ever to set milestones in the near future.
‘Slicing up the elephant’ is a project management term describing the technique of chopping up a large task into thin slices. The idea is that eating an elephant seems like an impossible, and perhaps gruesome, task, but given enough time, and thin enough slices, it becomes achievable. So for any large task, it’s always worthwhile taking some time to draw up a plan and chop up the task into manageable chunks – ideally with milestones less than 2 months into the future.
We don’t procrastinate about fun stuff, so make stuff fun
We tend not procrastinate about activities that we enjoy. You can use this to your advantage when planning by making sure you build activities you enjoy into the plan at intervals close enough that they feel achievable. This can be as simple as ‘I’ll have a cup of tea when I’ve finished the ironing’.
There is learning from any decision
There is a difference between choosing to do nothing and doing nothing because you’re putting off making a decision. For any problem there are many solutions. You can only make decisions about the best solution based on your best knowledge, research and judgement at that moment in time. There is learning from all the decisions we make.
Procrastination and creativity
When it comes to creativity, there is a case for procrastination. Research shows that boredom, doing nothing, slowing down, playing, idling, doing something other than concentrating on the problem you’re hoping to solve can be good for creativity. We’d still suggest you make the decision not to make a decision; that you decide to sleep on it, play, take the dog for a walk and switch off while your subconscious works on making creative connections. Deciding not to decide is different from feeling overwhelmed, fearful of failure or indecisive and just ending up not making any decision due to procrastination.
You’ve decided it’s important yet it’s still not happening. Just start. Set 5 minutes to make a start. Don’t overthink it. Just start. After 5 minutes you might choose to carry on. Or stop. Set 5 minutes tomorrow. And repeat.
Thank you to John Mitchell for your inspiration and expertise to write this blog.