5 ways to stop procrastinating

“Anyone can do any amount of work provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at the moment.”[1]

If you have ever had important work to do but found yourself doing any of the following, then you know how difficult it is to stop procrastinating:

  • started to make a list of things to be done
  • logged onto social media to tell people that you are about to start doing important work
  • organized your clothes or cds or sorted out the filing system on your hard drive
  • put your work to one side to think about an idea that shows real potential
  • prepared by watching just one more episode of your favourite sitcom or reading a few more reddit posts
  • ensured that you could focus solely on your work by making a cup of tea or coffee
  • decided that 30 minutes isn’t really long enough to achieve anything

These are fairly typical work-avoidance tactics but there are many more. Of course, at the time we delude ourselves into thinking that these things are essential precursors to doing a good job. Then as the deadline approaches we chastise ourselves for not starting sooner and vow never to procrastinate again. We may even go so far as to Google, ‘how to stop procrastinating’ and spend half-an-hour compiling a list of tips. Oh, the irony!

stop procrastinatingProcrastination deserves our attention because every time you procrastinate, you:

  • put pressure on yourself in the future, creating anxiety and most likely reducing performance
  • have to put on hold other things to accommodate the task that you delayed
  • waste time. If you were really enjoying what you were doing while procrastinating then it might be justifiable but generally your enthusiasm for what you are doing will be, at most, half-hearted because there will always be the nagging feeling that you ought to be doing something else. Much better to do the task you are avoiding, feel good from having completed it, and then enthusiastically spend time on other activities. In fact, when you do this, you will suddenly find that the activities that seemed so interesting when you had work to do are no longer so interesting!
  • create the wrong image with others. You may be able to delude yourself but other people are not so easy.
  • it puts your vision on hold, reducing the time to do those things which you really want to do.

The reason so many people, despite their efforts, find it difficult to stop procrastinating is that they attempt to treat the symptom rather than the cause. Jeffery Combs compares them to

 “dieters who focus only on weight-loss tactics but pay no attention to the reasons they overeat.”[2]

How to Stop Procrastinating – Causes + Solutions 

Procrastination Solution 1 – ‘Forgetting’ what is important

In England we have a phrase: ‘You can’t see the forest for the trees’, meaning that you are too close to a situation to be able to see the full context. In a similar way, when you are caught up in all the frenetic activity of a busy life, with so many things competing for your attention, you can ‘forget’ about your vision and the things that are important to you. That is why in the ACTion System in The Edge Program, I stress the importance of daily reviews. Reviews are a reminder that ‘first things come first’.

“Nothing in life is as important as you think it is while you are thinking about it.”[3]

Procrastination Solution 2 – ‘Remembering’ what is important

it's important - procrastinateBut maybe it isn’t quite so simple as losing sight of one’s vision. Resisting a task can be a sign that it is important – and that is why it is awakening my brain’s threat response system. By starting the task, perhaps I am getting closer to screwing it up and so, unconsciously, I back away from it and procrastinate. It is fear of failure or, if failure is too strong a word, a fear of not performing at one’s best. This fear may be related to the high standards we set ourselves, particularly if we score highly on the personality facet of conscientiousness. Or it could be driven by a concern of how we will look in the eyes of others; a status threat.

“Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It's the fear that we're not good enough.”[4]

Such threats are rarely conscious. An emotional threat is felt and, unconsciously, you are steered away from the perceived danger. Other emotional threats include:

  • autonomy – once I begin a task, options tend to shrink and I become committed to a particular approach, thus reducing my freedom. Whenever we make a decision, we lose the possibility of other courses of action. An example of negative emotions resulting from making a decision is post-purchase cognitive dissonance. This is that sinking feeling you can get in your gut just after you have bought something, even though minutes before you were desperate to have it.
  • uncertainty – what if I don’t have all the information or am approaching this in the wrong way?
  • relationships – will my colleagues be happy with my approach?
  • conformity – perhaps I should wait and see what other people are doing?

Conscious thought produces reasons but it is emotions that drive action. So if any of these triggers activate your emotional threat system, then you will lack the impetus to act, leading to procrastination. To stop procrastinating, you need to address this emotional root cause – and the route to the root cause is increased self-awareness and this comes from conscious self-observation and reflection. 

You may find this article on becoming your best self (opens in new tab) useful.

Procrastination Solution 3 – I need to motivate myself

One of the reasons that we procrastinate is that instead of doing a task, we try to ‘psych’ ourselves up to do it:

“By internalizing the idea that you need to "get motivated", you've inadvertently placed an additional hurdle between where you are and where you want to be.”[5]

If I feel that I have to motivate myself, then implicitly I am saying to myself: ‘I don’t want to do this’. It becomes a ‘must’ or a ‘should’, raising a threat to my autonomy; I am no longer in control and to counter this I push back by trying to find reasons why I want to do it. And, of course, this internal discussion is a form of procrastination in itself.

Procrastination Solution 4 – Present bias

However, even though you know that getting started is the right thing to do in the long-run, you are hard-wired by evolution to prefer present to future rewards. When offered the options of $100 now or $110 in a month’s time, most people choose $100 now. If the options are $100 in a year or $110 in 13 months, most people will choose the $110 and yet the delay in receiving the money is exactly the same. The only difference is that $100 now provides immediate gratification.

gym procrastinationThus, although going to the gym may be the cornerstone of your health regime at 7.30am your duvet is very enticing. To make doing the right thing easier, you have to change your way of thinking.

You are not doing the ‘right’ thing, you are doing the enjoyable thing.

If you see going to the gym as a virtuous act that requires willpower, then you immediately make it harder for yourself.

Don’t be virtuous, be enthusiastic.

And I don’t mean be enthusiastic because it is good for you. I mean be enthusiastic about the activity itself. And if you cannot, and have a choice, find some other way to keep fit.

Why make life hard?

The Instant Gratification Monkey

If resisting instant gratification is your biggest obstacle to overcoming procrastination, you may be interested in the Tim Urban Ted Talk: Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator (opens in a new tab).

"The instant gratification monkey does not seem like a guy you want behind the wheel. He lives entirely in the present moment. He has no memory of the past, no knowledge of the future, and he only cares about two things: easy and fun."

Procrastination Solution 5 – It’s hard to get going

“You are the obstacle in your own way. What if, just for a minute, you pretended that you didn’t have a choice?”[6]

We are surrounded by distractions and temptations. Resisting takes willpower and, as Roy Baumeister has shown, willpower is a finite resource. Each time you resist temptation, whether it is a cookie, video game or  signing into facebook, the willpower is depleted and you become more likely to procrastinate. It therefore makes sense to tackle challenging tasks early in the day when your willpower reserves are high.

Or perhaps to remove temptation, to render willpower unnecessary. In fact you can use present bias to your own advantage. Buying cookies and ice cream in the supermarket brings little immediate pleasure and so it easier to resist. And if you don’t buy cookies and ice cream in the supermarket you don’t have to use willpower to resist them in the home.

time sliceSometimes it is hard to start because the task seems so enormous and setting even short-term goals can be daunting. An alternative is to set a time target rather than an achievement target. Committing to work for 45 minutes gives you an end point whereas completing the first section of a report is open-ended.

You can take this a stage further and, perhaps counter-intuitively, ensure that you never finish at a natural break-point. Instead, create what Jeremy Dean refers to as a ‘cliffhanger’.[7] The novels of Charles end procrastination with a cliffhangerDickens were originally published in serial format and at the end of each edition the reader would be left hanging, desperate to know what happened next. Would they have been so keen to read the next instalment if all ends had been neatly tied?

When you reach a conclusion, your brain has a tendency to discard information, making it more difficult to begin again. This is known as the Zeigarnik Effect, named after the eponymous Russian psychologist who noted that waiters in a restaurant could retain complex orders in their head while serving customers but forgot the order entirely once it was complete. So, if you are writing a report, stop at a point where you will be keen to start again and make it easy for yourself to pick up the pieces by creating notes for yourself on what comes next.

An added benefit of this approach is that since the brain likes closure, your unconscious brain will continue working on the task, frequently leading to new insights. For physical tasks, consider how appealing the environment is and how quickly you can start again. If undertaking DIY, leave your workspace tidy and lay out your tools for the next part of the job.

Another approach to stop procrastinating is to simply remove it as an issue; make your behaviour ‘automatic’ or habitual – more on that in other posts.

[1] Robert Benchley

[2] Jeffery Combs, The Procrastination Cure

[3] Sonja Lyubomirsky, The Myths of Happiness.

[4] Brené Brown

[5] Oliver Burkeman, The Key to Getting Motivated – Give Up

[6] ‘How to Get a Grip: Forget namby-pampy, wishy washy, self-help drivel. This is the book you need’ by Matthew Kimberley

[7] Zeigarnik Effect

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Face-to-Face Training may not be so effective …

A typical face-to-face training session consists of a presentation by a facilitator, followed immediately by an activity to apply the learning. There is little time for reflection or deeper analysis and, as a result, activities intended to deepen learning, like role plays, tend to be superficial. There’s a quick debrief and then on to the next topic. No chance to go away and experiment in the real world in situations where there is something at stake. At the end of the training day, you’re exhausted and any learning from earlier in the day is rapidly fading.

There is a limit to how much knowledge can be crammed into the human brain in a single day.

And then, when you return to work, you have to catch-up on all the stuff that accumulated while you were away. Often, you don’t even try to apply your learning – you’re too busy getting stuff done and within days the training is a fuzzy blur.

What a waste of your time – and money!

Face-to-Face Training is Expensive

The online content in each edge course, if delivered face-to-face, would normally require 2 to 3 days and cost several times our individual and group courses. Plus, if delivered off-site, there would be additional travel and accommodation expenses and time away from work.