The hallmark of procrastination is putting off something you know you should be doing right now in favor of something else that’s either more enjoyable or you feel more comfortable doing.
The problem is the more you avoid doing what you know you should be doing, the more demanding the tasks become and the more you ramp up your stress levels.
As a result, the more stressed you become, the worse the tasks appear and the more likely you are to put off what needs to be done. It literally becomes a vicious circle.
And if that’s not enough, Brad Stennerson of Creative Counselling, points out that every time you avoid something that’s unpleasant, you reinforce that avoidance behavior and become more and more conditioned to behave that way in the future.
So, the key to overcoming procrastination – and managing the associated stress – is to learn how to break the cycle and get started on the task in hand.
Just to be clear, it’s not about getting more organized or learning how to manage your time better; those skills are important for managing stress, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
It’s all about applying a few simple techniques to manage your thoughts and emotions, so that you can get on and do what needs to be done.
If you’re a habitual procrastinator and are thinking I’ll never be able to do that, keep in mind that ‘procrastinators are made not born… and as it’s a learned response, it can be unlearned’.
Alternatively, if you justify putting things off by telling yourself that you perform better under pressure, or your work isn’t up to scratch if you’re not feeling in the right mood, think again. Joseph Ferrari Associate Professor of Psychology at De Paul University, Chicago, has found these thoughts are nothing more than a series of lies with which we deceive ourselves.
Causes of Procrastination
More often than not, fear is the root cause of procrastination.
Whether it’s fear of failure, worry about not doing a perfect job, concern about making matters worse, a sense of lacking the necessary skills or worry about being judged and found wanting…all of these things can trigger procrastination.
Another common cause is being totally overwhelmed with everything that needs to be done.
Procrastination may also show itself in a reluctance to make decisions. As Joseph Ferrari notes, not making a decision absolves the procrastinator of responsibility for the outcome.
And finally, if a task is mind-numbingly boring, procrastinators don’t need any encouragement to switch their attention to something else that’s far more interesting.
Recognize the Signs of Procrastination
Procrastination comes in all sorts of guises and nearly always involves carrying out some form of distracting activity.
One of the most common distractions is checking your email or Facebook account several times a day, because it’s so effortless. Another is making your third cup of coffee in two hours or repeatedly going down to the water cooler for a drink.
Other tell-tale signs include sitting down to start a high priority activity and then almost immediately switching to low priority tasks on your to do list. Another one is continually filling your time with low priority tasks instead of focusing on the important activities on your list.
But procrastination can also be more subtle, such as staying in the same old routine to avoid taking risks, blaming others or avoiding confrontation, being so busy socially that it’s impossible to get important jobs done or making plans but never carrying them out.
And finally, procrastination can take the form of waiting for the right time or until you’re feeling in the right mood. Timing can be important if there is a genuine reason for delay. Equally, if you’re exhausted and delay making a start because you’re very tired that can also be a wise decision. But if you’re repeatedly delaying because the time or your mood isn’t quite right, then you’re probably procrastinating.
So, start to become aware of the distractions you use to avoid carrying out tasks you’d rather not do.
How to Stop Procrastination
Pause for a Moment
The first step is to pause. The minute you spot you’re about to procrastinate, just stop for a moment and recognize that you have a choice…you don’t have to walk away from the task in hand.
If you’re feeling angst-ridden, take a few deep breaths or visualize a tranquil scene in your mind’s eye to help restore your inner calm. It may be a beautiful sunset or the water gently ebbing and flowing on a sandy beach; it doesn’t matter, just choose something that works for you.
Then, rather than seeing your tendency to procrastinate as a huge problem to overcome, think of it as an alarm bell that’s simply flagging something’s not quite right.
Remind Yourself of Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing
Then go on to the second step which is to clarify in your mind what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.
This is to check if the task you’re having difficulty with really needs to be done, and if so, to reinforce the benefits of doing it.
When you really appreciate the purpose of what you’re meant to be doing, it often seems less daunting.
You might also want to think of it the other way round by asking: what are the negative consequences of not doing the task?
Why Are You Procrastinating?
Next, you need to be clear why you’re procrastinating. Is it that you’re feeling overwhelmed, are worried about something in particular or is it more to do with a lack of motivation?
Don’t get too bogged down at this stage, but you need a bit of clarity in order to identify the best way forward.
How to Get Going
The fourth step is to work out what you’re going to do, and here, there are a series of options:
If you genuinely don’t know what to do or feel you don’t have the necessary skills, then seek help from someone who can provide support.
If the task is so big, then break it down into smaller mini-tasks so that you can tackle them one at a time. In this way, you transform an overwhelming task into a series of mini-tasks that feel more manageable and easier to handle.
If you’re afraid of messing up, then feel free to seek guidance and support, but remember…often the only way to overcome your doubts is to step out and do the very thing you’re worried about doing. In the words of Susan Jeffers, feel the fear and do it anyway. And as you do this, your confidence and self-esteem go up a notch and it gets easier next time round.
If you’re lacking motivation, then chunk the task down into a series of mini-tasks and give yourself a reward as you complete each one. It might be a cookie or a quick blast of music on your ipod. What’s more, you might even find that the boring or unpleasant task doesn’t turn out to be as bad as you originally thought.
And then comes the final step, the moment of truth, you need to take action and tackle the first mini-task on your list.
So, remove as many other distractions as possible. Close the door, shut your email program and switch off the television.
The key is literally to get started as soon as possible and to keep moving. At this point, there are two options:
You can either focus on the first mini-task on your list and stay with it until you finish, making sure that you’re not thinking about all the other tasks on your list.
Or you can say I’ll just work on it for ten minutes, and as you get going, you often find you can keep going for much longer.
Breaking the Habit
The key to overcoming procrastination – and the associated stress – is to chunk things down into a series of mini-tasks that feel more manageable, and tackle them one at a time.
If it helps, give yourself a reward as you complete each one, but don’t become so reward driven that you fail to appreciate the satisfaction of finishing the task itself.
Procrastination can be a deeply ingrained habit that takes time to overcome, but the good news is that with a bit of persistence, you can break the habit.
Each time, you work through your procrastination, you increase the chances of breaking this destructive habit for good.
And at the same time, you lower your stress levels, because procrastination is no longer the bogey man that immobilizes you with fear.