The lawn sat there accusingly, waiting to be cut. And it refused to go away or cut itself. The pile of bills sat there waiting to be paid. They wouldn’t pay themselves, and certainly didn’t do self-filing.
All procrastination is avoidance. It is a supposed coping strategy to help us face the future. However, as we know, procrastination can make the future worse rather than better. The long grass eventually clogged up the lawn mower. The black bills turned into red demands.
Why do we procrastinate?
There are lots of reasons why people procrastinate. Here are just a few of them:
- We sometimes prefer instant gratification to the greater delayed rewards. It seems better to enjoy watching the football match now than have the delayed satisfaction of having cleaned the car.
- We sometimes lie to ourselves about the reality of negative consequences. Like ostriches with heads in the sand, we tell ourselves that the fact that there are no negative consequences right now means that there will be no negative consequences at all. And if we do see any negative consequences we view them through the wrong end of a telescope and minimize their significance. “Do is really matter if I don’t get round to it? No!”
- We sometimes lie to ourselves about the future. “I will be more able to do this in the future than I am now.”
- Some of us are thrill seekers who enjoy the stress of leaving things to the last minute.
- Some of us use procrastination as a coping strategy in order to help us manage the fear or dread of something (that we have probably imagined to be worse than it actually is).
- We sometimes like to avoid responsibilty. We procrastinate in order to avoid the decision or the action in the hope that somebody else will pick it up and not leave it on our doorstep.
How to beat procrastination
- Do something small if the big is too big. Break the big into small steps. “No one ‘builds a house,” Tim Urban writes. “They lay one brick again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries — they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built — but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”
- Have a graded list of easy to difficult, and start with the easiest.
- Apply the Five Minute Rule and start. Often the biggest difficulty with anything is not the task itself but the thought of beginning it. Once begun, it often gets easier. Tell yourself you only have to do something for five minutes. Once started, you might wish to continue.
- Seek support. Sometimes having someone help you can be the thing that breaks the log jam and gets you started.
- Commit to action in a realistic timeframe. Don’t rely on feeling. Don’t make some sort of vague statement of intent. Commit to a specific, realistic, unbreakable rule. “I will cut the grass every Monday morning at 9:00am between May and October,” rather than, “I’ll try to cut the grass sometime when it needs it.”
- Be truthful. The American psychotherapist, Albert Ellis, used to say that people often suffer from “awfulitis” – that ability to take something mildly bad and make it a lot, lot worse. We need to challenge our dysfunctional thinking with truth (truth – not positivity), and not underestimate our ability to cope and achieve, and not overestimate the difficulty of what we want to avoid.
- Don’t let the perfect stop you from attempting the good. Sometimes (often actually) the good is good enough. We don’t need to stop ourselves from doing things by telling ourselves that we couldn’t do it perfectly and therefore there is no point in doing it. A partially cleaned and tidied room is still preferable to an untidy and dirty one.
- Don’t let the past be a reason for not doing something. The fact that we may have had a history of failure in the past is not a reason for not acting now. We can choose to forgive ourself for any past failure and commit to something in the present in order to create a different future.
- Change the environment. Sometimes a change of scene can literally shift our mood and thinking. Some people choose to occasionally blog or write important documents or emails from coffee shops rather than from their office or home for a reason. Changing your environment can also help keep you separate from temptation or from your procrastination triggers. There is little chance of doing serious paperwork while your favourite TV programme is on.
- Create a consequence monster. Do something so that if you fail to achieve the task you are avoiding, there will be significant consequences that cannot be avoided. If I book an appointment with my accountant, I know that I have to get my files sorted before that appointment to avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience (and possible cost) of not having done so. If I sign a contract to agree to produce a piece of work by a certain date, I know I have to do that or face the huge consequences of not doing so.
- Manipulate a variable. Our motivation (M) is influenced by three things: our expectancy of success (E); the value we place on the task (V); the time before the task has to be completed (T). M = (E x V) / T. If we don’t expect we will succeed and don’t value the task, and if there is a long time delay before it has to be done, our motivation for acting will be extremely low. If we can increase our expectancy of success by being realistic rather than overly negative, and increase the value of the task to us (“This is important to me because …”, “If I succeed I will achieve the following reward …”), and reduce the time delay (“I will do it by the end of today rather than in a fortnight’s time …”), we are much more likely to be more motivated and avoid procrastination.