When we encounter those tasks that we don’t want to do, but that we have to do, most of us will feel that tempting urge to procrastinate. Research shows that the vast majority of people procrastinate occasionally: when faced with the obligation to do something we don’t feel like doing, many of us will check our emails, open a new browser tab, text a friend, or find other smaller, less important tasks to fill the time. Procrastination can result in lateness and rushing to meet deadlines, which can be stressful and frustrating. For about 20 percent of people, however, procrastination is a more pervasive problem, according to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a leading researcher on the topic. For chronic procrastinators, the tendency to delay becomes a maladaptive lifestyle, and often leads to significant consequences at school, work, and in their personal lives. Anxiety, depression, and other psychological problems can both exacerbate and arise from chronic procrastination. It can be extremely distressing and overwhelming when the ability to perform certain tasks feels out of your control.
The following tips offer suggestions about how to build mental habits that counter procrastination:
Choose Mind, Not Mood, As Your Guide
Procrastination has a characteristic monologue that relies more on emotion than reason (“I don’t feel like doing it now;” “I’ll be more motivated later”). Waiting to start something until it feels right means that you could be waiting indefinitely. Remind yourself that it’s okay to not feel motivated. Then try to articulate exactly why it’s important to be doing the particular task and why it’s better to start now. If you see the decision to do the task as a rational choice in your control, it is easier to get past the inertia of “not feeling like it.”
Use the Buddy System
Most of us are more accountable to others than to ourselves, and this can be a useful principle to avoid procrastination. For example, it’s more difficult to justify missing a morning workout when a friend is counting on you to be there. Be cautious that you are only using this strategy with friends and family if you know you’ll be able to follow through. A therapist, coach, trainer, or other professional may be a better choice as an accountability buddy otherwise.
The environment can have a significant impact on procrastination. Try to remove distractions to give yourself a better opportunity to focus on the task at hand. This could involve silencing your phone, working in a quieter place, installing blocking software, or putting a “Do Not Disturb” sign on your office door.
Take Baby Steps
Procrastination thrives when goals are big, complicated, and undefined. Break down your objective into small steps, and create a work-back schedule that shows you when each piece needs to get done. Focus on doing only one item at a time, and if you get stuck, ask yourself, “What’s the easiest, smallest step I could take to get started?” The building blocks of big successes are short-term, achievable goals.
Focusing on what’s gone wrong or on what’s still left to be done is the default for many of us, so it’s important to balance this with rewarding ourselves for incremental milestones as well as completed projects. This can be as simple as acknowledging the progress, or can involve celebrating with a special meal or dedicating time to do something you enjoy. Similarly, an incentive is a much better motivator than berating yourself when you find yourself procrastinating during a task.
Reflect on the Why
For chronic procrastinators or those who find themselves delaying a specific task, it is important to be aware of the reasons behind the procrastination. Is the outcome of the goal something you don’t really want? Does the task compromise your values? Are you overwhelmed by perfectionistic standards? Is there an underlying health issue (i.e. fatigue; depression)? For some people, working with a qualified professional to assess the root cause of their procrastination is the best path toward a long-term solution.
By: Zoë Laksman, Psy.D, C.Psych and Laura Clarridge, Ph.D.
Zoë Laksman has practiced as a Registered Clinical Psychologist at The Clinic on Dupont since 2007. Laura Clarridge is a certified executive coach who helps her clients find fulfilling educational and career pathways. Their backgrounds and training have shaped their interest in promoting improved psychological health, interpersonal functioning and wellness. They work together as a clinical team and as the developers of The Clinic on Dupont’s online presence.