As midterm szn approaches, some of us might be feeling a little more pressure than usual to get our acts together- but that's not so easy to do when we have 500 tabs open in our minds. When assignments, chores, and other responsibilities start to pile up like dirty dishes, procrastination tends to be one of the first coping mechanisms we turn to.
Author James Clear defines procrastination as "the act of delaying or postponing a task or a set of tasks". We may have been told that dealing with procrastination simply comes down to "better time management" or "not being lazy", but frankly, that advice is hardly ever helpful. The way we think about procrastination needs to change.
Understand why you're putting things off
Most of us know what it's like to deal with the last-minute panic and stress that we face as a consequence of procrastination - yet we find ourselves doing it anyway. Why is that?
Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, offers some insight on this.
"People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task," she says.
The key takeaway? Procrastination is not just about laziness.
More often than not, we put off tasks either because we anticipate that they will be difficult, boring, or even cause some anxiety, and we'd rather not face that discomfort until we think we're absolutely ready to deal with it. At that point, it's usually too late, and we take the L.
One way to combat this might be to first figure out what is causing the friction between you and completing a task. Does it require some knowledge that you don't yet have? Are you unclear about what exactly you need to do? Are you afraid that your work won't measure up to that of your peers? Make a note of all of these doubts and concerns running through your mind, as soon as possible. This should give you some clarity and help you to move on to the next steps. Hopefully, it will also help you see that these negative emotions can be managed.
Take practical steps (with discretion)
Once you've started to work through the negative emotions you associate with certain tasks, you can try to adopt some useful practices designed to help you stay on top of them. Decide which ones best suit your work ethic.
- Break tasks down into their component parts - With this step, you're trying to make the task more digestible by providing a well-defined plan for its completion. Say, for instance, you have to script and produce an informative video as an end of semester project. From a very high-level view, this task could seem daunting. The first thing you want to do is make sure that you have a clear understanding of all the project's requirements. How long should it be? What topic are you going to cover? Then, you may want to break it down into smaller tasks such as scripting, storyboarding, and planning out your shots. By doing this, you make bigger projects more manageable.
- Use the 2-minute rule for smaller tasks - There are some tasks that require a lot less effort than others, but we leave them to pile up anyway. The 2-minute rule can help us to avoid this. You set aside a particular time of the day to deal with small administrative tasks that you anticipate will take less than 2 minutes - perhaps that's answering a few quick emails, paying a bill, or ordering an urgent item you need. Not only can this help you to take advantage of small windows of time, but it can jumpstart a flow state that helps you to transition to more difficult tasks.
- Eat the frog - Sounds unpleasant, right? Well, that's kind of the idea. Mark Twain once said "Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day." As you may have guessed, that frog is a metaphor for the most difficult thing we need to do each day. This concept, devised by productivity consultant Brian Tracy, states that by making this difficult task the first thing you do in the morning, you don't get the chance to put it off later. No time to ruminate on it, no time to overthink. Just do it.
- Draw on past experiences and visualize success- One way of cognitively overcoming procrastination is to remember all the times you successfully completed a task without putting unnecessary pressure on yourself. Recall the relief you felt after finishing a 20-page paper a week before it was due, or think about how much Netflix you were able to catch up on once you finished those 5 physics problem sets in record time. It may sound like wishful thinking ,but studies have shown that visualization prepares us to take actions consistent with achieving our goals.
Make a habit of forgiving yourself
None of the practical tips that I suggested will work if you don't have self-compassion.
We've been conditioned to think that being busy is being productive and that procrastination is the ultimate enemy. So, when we fail to stick to a plan or choose to take breaks, we find ourselves being washed over with guilt. This self-defeatist attitude won't get you anywhere.
It's important to understand that as much as you work on reducing the amount of procrastinating that you do, the fact that we can't always manage our emotions means that procrastination will always pop up in some form or another. Frank Partnoy, the author of the book "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay", firmly believes that the key is being aware of this and taking steps to ensure that it doesn't sabotage our productivity.
"We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks," he says. "The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well."
If you take nothing else from this article, at least take some time to think about this quote from one of my favorite books, "Time and the Art of Living" by American philosopher Robert Grudin:
"Every time we postpone some necessary event - whether we put off doing the dinner dishes till morning or defer an operation or some difficult labor or study - we do so with the implication that present time is more important than future time (for if we wished the future to be as free and comfortable as we wish the present to be, we would perform necessary actions as soon as they prove themselves necessary). There is nothing wrong with this, as long as we know what we are doing, and as long as the present day indeed holds some opportunity more important than the task we delay."