We seem to be a society of procrastinators. If you go to Youtube, a favourite refuge of the procrastinator, you can find 831,000 videos on the subject of procrastination, and 7000 books on the subject on Amazon. We are certainly interested in learning more about the subject, and in getting over this most debilitating, frustrating and demoralising of problems.
I know how this feels because I have a terrible habit of procrastination. I used to think it was a laziness problem, even though I know there are many times I am far from lazy. Recently I learned procrastination is a response to stress and anxiety, which makes a lot of sense, and makes it easier to deal with in many ways.
When we become stressed about something that needs to be done, we look for ways to relieve the stress. Short term gains briefly take away feelings of stress, so we seek those out. Therefore washing the dishes, doing something mundane like deleting old emails, or going top level procrastinator and disappearing down the internet rabbit hole (maybe by watching YouTube videos on why you procrastinate!) all become really appealing and can even give a sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment can feel great….until you get to the end of the day, or hours before the deadline, and you still have to do the thing you have been avoiding – and now you have hardly any time.
Procrastination can feel like a beast over which you have no control, but there are ways you can learn to beat this demon and achieve everything you want and need to do in your life. I am going to be trying some of these strategies out myself!
One of the problems procrastinators people who procrastinate face, is the self recriminiation which usually follows procrastination. You might think you are not capable of achieving anything because of your procrastination habit, you might see yourself as a failure, and be very harsh with yourself.
This is not going to help. You are not a terrible person because you procrastinate. It is a behaviour habit you have adopted, and you can ‘unadopt’ it. Like all unwelcome behaviours, it is easier to change if you can accept where you are now and forgive yourself. Research by Dr Timothy Psychl et al showed that students who forgave themselves for failing to study hard enough for one exam were better able to study for subsequent exams.
Release the label
I used to call myself ‘The Queen of Procrastination’. This seemed quite funny until I thought about the message I was sending to myself and anyone else. The message I was giving to others was one of poor self control, lack of focus, and possibly unreliability. The message I was giving to myself, which was by far the more damaging one, was that this was who I am, and that there is nothing I can do to change it. I crowned myself as something I don’t want to be, where is the sense in that? The things we tell ourselves we are, we become. I refuse to carry the label of alcoholic now, as I don’t want to spend my life focusing on the fact that I ‘can” drink alcohol anymore. I don’t want to be the ‘queen’ of procrastination, so why was I telling myself and others that I was. Procrastination is a behaviour that has been learned and can be unlearned, it is not a character trait that you are stuck with forever.
Set reasonable expectations
If you know you only have 5 hours in which to work, try to avoid giving yourself 8 hours worth of tasks to accomplish. If faced with an overwhelming to do list, you are likely to go into panic and stress mode to start with. Each day, what are the three most important tasks to get done? If you focus on those, and make sure you get those done, then you will probably find it easier to achieve more as you will be in a more positive frame of mind once you have achieved those three.
Few people can work solidly for hours without a break. This is, I believe, particularly true of people who have a tendency to procrastinate. Make sure you give yourself time to take breaks to allow your brain to rest and refocus. Schedule lunch times, tea breaks, maybe even toilet breaks, so they have their allocated space in your day and don’t become reasons to procrastinate (although if you really need to go to the toilet, then of course you must go!)
Chunk down the big tasks
When a task is particularly huge, it can seem very daunting to get started. For example, one of the tasks I am currently procrastinating on is writing my second book. This is something I really want to do, am very excited about doing, and know I am going to feel amazing when I write it. But the thought of writing a book – a whole book – seems daunting. So although I have planned it out, thanks to Alison Jones’s book proposal challenge last year, I still haven’t started it. I have a long reading list for research purposes, and a lot of words to be written. It seems very daunting. My first book was easy, because I gave myself a really punishing deadline and the pressure just forced the writing, but I don’t want to do that to myself again, it was not a fun way to write a book, and if I am going to write another book, I want to enjoy the process of writing as well as the achievement of it.
So what can I do? I can break it down into chapters of course, but even that seems huge. So I can break each chapter into sections, and commit to writing a small part every day. If a book needs to be around 60,000 words, and I was able to write 1000 words a day, I would have draft 1 finished in 60 days. 1000 words seems doable. I can choose one book to read at a time, and commit to reading a certain amount each day. I enjoy reading, enjoy writing and enjoy learning, so this can be turned from a task I *have* to do, into something I am doing because I want to do it.
How can you break down the tasks you have on your list into something manageable and enjoyable?
If procrastination is a response to stress and anxiety, then one effective way to manage your behaviour would be to manage your stress levels. Notice when you are procrastinating, and take a few deep breaths. This might in itself be enough to bring you back to the moment and out of stress, so you can get back to the task you are really meant to be doing. If you find yourself totally overwhelmed, take a break, and go for a short walk, or maybe do a short yoga practice to release the tension which is keeping you stuck.
Stress begins in the mind, so if you can do something which takes you out of your mind and into your body, you may find you are better able to focus. Anything involving movement of the body is very effective for this, so dancing, walking, running can all help to shake off the procrastination causing stress.
If your daily todo list regularly causes you stress and anxiety, and each day is a battle with the procrastination monster, then you may need to look at how you are structuring and planning your life. Do you simply have too much on your plate? Are you trying to achieve more than is possible for the time you have? Maybe you are working towards goals that you don’t really want to achieve in the first place.
In tomorrow’s blog post I will share with you a powerful technique I have recently learned to help you assess if you are working towards the things that you really want to be working towards.
Until then, what strategies are you going to employ to help you manage your procrastination habit and beat the monster? Share in the comments below
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