How to Outwit Procrastination

Everyone has experienced procrastination at some time in their lives. Procrastination has four main causes:

1. Boredom

The task you are procrastinating on is of low importance or value. In other words, it’s unpleasant or boring. To overcome this type:

  • set a time limit and give yourself a reward for completion. You might rotate cleaning house with breaks to read. Set a timer and work in 45 minute intervals (research shows we’re not very productive after 60 minutes)
  • conversely, postpone something that’s enjoyable until you complete the task. Before you can meet a friend for coffee you have to mow the lawn.
  • lastly you could tie the unpleasant task to something fun. You might call your mother while you drive to the movies or while you’re working in your garden.

2. Personality Traits

Those who have low self control or motivation, are easily distracted or impulsive. To determine if this might fit for you, look at your entire life, not just your work life. Do you put off things like paying bills or cleaning? Have you always been late for events or appointments? To beat procrastination in this case:

  • Setup an environment that gives you the best chance of success. Make a procrastination free zone which means no smartphone or internet access and have family or friends check in with you to help keep you on task. They might sweeten the pot by offering to do some other chore like walking the dog or doing the dishes if you complete the task.
  • You’re more likely to procrastinate when you have to stop and think so it can help to plan ahead of time how you’ll complete the task. The more detailed the steps in your to do list are the better for forward momentum.

3. Perceived Ease of Task

  • The harder you think the task will be the less likely you are to get started. To make it easier, set a realistic goal such as writing 500 words rather than a whole chapter or walking around the block rather than a mile.
  • Success is often tied to pushing through resistance and relying on momentum. You may write a 1000 words once you get started or walk the mile you usually do once you’re outside.
  • Once you do a task successfully the less likely you’re to procrastinate the next time.

4. Goal Failure

  • If you set a goal that’s too big, too vague, too hard, etc. you rarely achieve it making you feel bad so you continue to avoid doing the task.
  • Use the tools in #2 & #3 above to help make your goals achievable.

Procrastination is about negative emotions. You might be afraid of succeeding or of how achieving the task or goal might change something for better or worse. Or if you achieve something then you’re unsure of what comes next so the uncertainty can keep you stuck. When you fail negative self talk often follows which can carry over to the next time you try to do the same task. A research study with college students found that those who failed a test and forgave themselves did better on the next test than those who didn’t (i.e. everyone makes mistakes; I’ll do better next time.)

Other tools to outwit procrastination:

  1. Rather than fantasizing about success, imagine a positive outcome but also imagine what might happen if you don’t meet your goal. i.e I’ll be disappointed in myself tomorrow; my partner will be mad at me. This can help give you enough “good” anxiety to motivate you.
  2. When self doubt creeps in it creates “bad” anxiety which can shut you down. So telling yourself you only have to figure out just the first part of a complicated project or go to a work event for only an hour can help you be successful.
  3. Start starting. Just making forward movement can help you move out of procrastination.
  4. Visualize the process rather than the outcome. Once you have a sense of the process break it down into small steps so you know what to do and the project doesn’t seem so daunting.

There is generally a reason for procrastination and it doesn’t have to do with laziness. Be kind to yourself when procrastination occurs but hold yourself accountable to do something