“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James
Do you find yourself regularly putting off doing things, even the things you know you’d enjoy if you just got on and did them? If so, welcome to the human race. This strange phenomenon – of delaying important tasks or projects, stopping no sooner than you’ve started, or suddenly finding a hundred other things you could be doing instead – seems to be a universal one. We’ve all procrastinated at some point or another. Show me someone who says they haven’t, and I’ll show you a fluent liar.
It’s quite explicable in some cases – for example when we’re faced with doing something genuinely boring, painful, or hard – but not in others. Doesn’t it seem odd that we’d put off doing the very things that can bring us happiness, such as going after a cherished dream or long-held ambition? Yet we do, repeatedly.
Procrastination Doesn’t Come Alone
The negative effects of chronic procrastination are no small matter. There’s the growing sense of underachievement, of never really getting off the starting blocks of life. There’s the uneasy feeling of standing still – even falling behind – as life whizzes past ahead of us. Worst of all, there’s the gnawing torture of self-reproach as guilty feelings surface to tell us that, because we can’t seem to get our act together and do the things that others have no problem doing, we must be incompetent, stupid, or lazy.
But if procrastination is such a bad egg, why on earth do we do it?
What Procrastination Isn’t
Before we consider what procrastination is (and some strategies for dealing with it), let’s get something straight regarding what it isn’t : laziness.
I don’t believe in laziness. If you’re not doing something, it’s either because you don’t want to, or because you believe you can’t. Inherent laziness would result in an inability to make an effort under any circumstance – but just watch how fast you move when you’re heading towards something you really want, and which presents no real conflict for you. Consider if you’ve ever done any of the following: ventured out after a hard, tiring day at the office for the fun of joining your mates in the pub; spent hours packing and preparing and queuing in crowded airports for a long-awaited, much-anticipated holiday; braved the cold and wind and snow to get to the corner shop for a bar of chocolate in the middle of a freezing winter’s night. You have? Then read my lips: you’re not lazy.
What Procrastination Is
That’s what procrastination isn’t. So what is it? Put simply, it’s a particularly cunning form of inner resistance. Inner resistance always arises when our desire to act is overwhelmed by an equal or stronger desire to stay still. Its job is to protect us, and to keep us from blundering off into the dangerous unknown. We may not be consciously aware of this other, opposing desire, but the effect is always the same: immobility.
Why Procrastination Appears
Procrastination takes many forms, and appears for a variety of reasons. Here are just some of them:
~ You want something else more than the thing you’re procrastinating about. If you’re trying desperately to do something that you feel you “should”, but you just can’t get started, you may discover on closer inspection that you don’t really want it after all. You just want to want it. There’s a difference. You might fool your rational mind, but your primitive, instinctive, intuitive mind – the part of you that resistance comes from – can’t be fooled. Maybe you’re chasing after a goal that someone else has set for you and that simply doesn’t ring your bell. Or perhaps you’re tired, and just want (and need) to chill out and relax before you get on with chasing your dreams or doing your chores. If your body is shouting “Enough!”, and your primitive mind is listening, it’ll send procrastination out as the cavalry to rescue it from further discomfort and exhaustion. The problem is that this respite is only ever a temporary one, and in the long-term is even more tiring, because you’re left with the undone task still on your to-do list.
~ You have a distorted view of time. If you repeatedly tell yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow, it’ll be easier then”, you’ve fallen into the trap of believing that tomorrow ever comes. It doesn’t. Haven’t you noticed? By the time it arrives, it’s today, and you’re back to thinking “I’ll do it tomorrow”. It’s that vicious cycle that’s so difficult to break out of. Also, you may mistakenly be viewing tomorrow as a blank slate, full of promise, potential, and free time – but again, this is a misperception. When tomorrow becomes today, it will be as full of all of the same obligations and annoyances as any other day. That’s not to say that some days aren’t more available for doing certain tasks than others. But we’re not talking about the sensible scheduling of tasks here; we’re talking about your resistance tricking you into putting things off until another day, with the result that you just stay stuck. To quote an old Spanish proverb: “tomorrow is always the busiest day of the week”.
~ You’re working (or playing) without limits. In our society, we tend to think of limits as restrictions which curtail our freedom. Yet ascribing limits to your life and workload can be one of the most liberating things you’ll ever do. Defining limits for any task at hand can make it far less daunting, and therefore considerably more manageable. Artists and writers instinctively understand this, which is why some of our greatest works of literature appear in some clearly defined forms – consider plays, poems, and marble sculptures. Without limits (an example of a limit would be curtailing the number of hours you spend on a task), you’re left with endless choices and a diffuse focus. You don’t know where you’ll finish, so it’s hard to get started. With limits, you can exercise freedom within boundaries, and with the end in sight, you may feel far more inclined to get going in the first place.
~ You’re afraid. In my experience, both personally and in my work with clients, this is the single most common reason that procrastination occurs. You don’t have to be rigid with terror to become immobilised by procrastination. It can be far more subtle than that. Fear always has one of two roots – either you believe you won’t get something you want (the results you were aiming for; the joy you believed the activity would bring you; the praise and respect you craved), or that you’re going to lose something you already have (free time; recognition; your sense of potential; other options). Of course, this is the major reason procrastination appears when we’re trying to do something that means a lot to us. The danger level appears high, and because we have a lot to gain, we feel we have a lot to lose – so we stay put, rather than take the risk. This may not be consciously in our awareness until we look more closely at how we’re feeling.
So, what to do? Like all forms of inner resistance, the best approach to procrastination is to figure out what it’s telling you, and then work your way around it.
The solution to your procrastination will depend on the cause of it. However, each of the techniques that follow employs some combination of: dealing with fear; managing time; creating limits; and becoming aware of your feelings. These are the procrastination busters I’ve found to be most effective in my own life, and in my work with clients.
1. Don’t Go Cold Turkey
First of all, don’t ever fall into the trap of telling yourself you’ll never procrastinate again. Sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but: you will. This is because there is an “up” side to procrastination. It can carve out some much-needed down-time for you, especially when you haven’t done so for yourself. We all need down-time. That’s why making commitments like “I’ll never procrastinate again” won’t work, and are actually dangerous, because you’ll be left feeling terrible when procrastination reappears. In fact, you may find yourself procrastinating even more because you’ve just added additional pressure and very effectively awakened your resistance. You can minimise the likelihood of it appearing by scheduling your down-time, rather than letting it schedule you.
Which leads me on to:
2. Create A Goofing-Off Timetable
This one is all about planning your avoidance patterns into your daily life. The simplest way is to block out some relaxation time in your diary – a bit like “free periods” in school – and mark these out as being distinct from the times when you’re working on a specific personal or work-related project. Then make sure when the free periods come round, you actually do goof off and do the fun stuff that you love doing! That might not work, however, if you’re like me and don’t always obey your own scheduling dictates. In this case, you need to carefully consider your personal work/reward preferences. Do you like to work first, and then have fun? Or have fun first and then get down to work? (I’m using “work” here in the widest sense – not just your day job, but any activity which isn’t pure relaxation, including doing your chores and following your dreams).
Once you know what your preference is, go through your diary and block out some “you” time. That is, time that’s related to your own commitments as opposed to other people’s (your family, your employer etc). Once you’ve found these blocks of time, split them in two equally. Then you have a choice. If you like to play first, and can trust yourself to stop playing and start working when the time is up, you get to goof-off for the first half of the period – then it’s down to business. If you prefer to work first then play, it goes the other way round. It’s vital that you obey the equal split, at least at first. The time will come when you’ll find yourself wanting more of that precious time for working on your cherished projects, but until that time comes, be strict with yourself – don’t curtail your goofing-off time.
How does this work? Simply because structured down-time is far more energising than accidental down-time that comes laden with guilt and frustration (and that is how it comes in the package labelled “procrastination”). Think of how differently you feel after you’ve consciously decided to put your feet up and watch a great DVD, compared to how you feel after mindlessly slumping in front of the TV watching nothing in particular, and then discovering that several hours have passed. With this conscious approach, you’ll feel better and find that procrastination loosens its grip. More on the art of conscious action here.
3. Face Your Fears
As I have indicated above resistance always appears when the primitive part of your mind perceives a threat (whether or not that threat is true in reality). If you’re in the process of pursuing a dream, you’ll probably be navigating in uncharted territories – and therefore perceiving danger on some level. Maybe you’re afraid that you’ll fail, or that you’ll succeed and that what you’ll gain as a result won’t be quite what you were hoping for. Or your fears may be triggered by something far more mundane. You may, for example, feel that doing the task at hand is going to “steal” time from you; time that could be spent doing something more enjoyable. Fear can pop up for many reasons, and if it’s not dealt with, resistance – in this case procrastination – is the result.
You can face your fears in a variety of ways. If they are fears that you’re not consciously aware of, you may need to work round them surreptitiously. Here’s how. If you are aware of them, you may want to have a go at challenging these limiting beliefs. More on how to do that here and here.
4. The “First Action” Approach
One of the most galling things about procrastination is that we often find that the thing we were procrastinating about can be done very quickly and easily, once we get started. Yet as we have seen, getting started can be incredibly difficult. This technique allows you to fool the primitive part of your mind into thinking you aren’t actually going to do the task at all – just some tiny part of it – and so the resistance to the task gets “switched off”.
If you’re faced with writing an essay, for example, you might be daunted about the task of “writing an essay”. However, you might find the idea of “opening a Word document and typing the essay question and title” entirely achievable. So that’s what you do: you say to yourself “I’m not going to write the essay just now. I’m just going to open a Word document and type the essay question and title”. That’s it. You’ve taken the first action – and you might find that that first action is enough to propel you into further action. When I was at university, many an essay I was fretting about got written this way.
The technique can be applied to any task. Making a phone call you’ve been postponing could start with “looking up the number and writing it down on a piece of paper by the phone”. Decorating a wall could start with “opening the can of paint and dipping a brush into it”. Cleaning the inside of your car could start with “getting the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard”. The important thing is to give yourself permission to stop after the first action. In fact, if it’s all you feel like doing, you must stop – remember, we’re trying to keep you feeling safe, so that your slumbering resistance doesn’t start waking up. Even if you don’t do any more of the task, you’ve made a start. Best of all, however, you may find that the next action after that (“writing an essay plan”; “dialling the number”; “dabbing paint on the wall”; “plugging the vacuum cleaner into the socket”) follows on quite naturally, and before you know it, you’re up and running and the task is nearly done.
This approach can be complemented with…
5. Work In Bursts (With A Cast-Iron Get-Out Clause)
With this technique, you limit yourself to timed bursts of activity. Instead of saying “I’m going to clean the entire inside of my car”, you commit to doing 5 minutes of the activity (or 10, or 15 – whatever works for you), with the option of stopping after any of the timed bursts. So, set a timer, do 5 minutes of cleaning, then decide if you want to do another 5, or would rather stop. Either choice is fine. The guarantee of being able to stop is what keeps you feeling safe, but you may find you want to do another 5 minutes. You may find that you’ll be able to do several bursts of 5, or 10, and 15 minutes, and then want to stop. You may find you get the whole thing done. Whatever happens, you’ll still have done more than you would have had you never started, and that fact alone can make getting the task finished that much easier in the long run.
6. Define Your Limits
As I mentioned above, defining boundaries actually generates, rather than depletes, your freedom. If you’re resisting doing something, it may be because on some level, you’re seeing the task at hand as having no end. If you’re able to set a specific cap on it (“today, I’ll just mow the front lawn, as opposed to the front, back, and side”) you’ll probably find it much easier to get started – particularly if you’re using techniques 4 and 5 as well. This applies to taking breaks, too. Not only are you much more efficient when you take proper, regular breaks, you’ll find that these breaks create ready-made limits and boundaries which enable you to “chunk” your tasks into manageable segments.
Which leads me finally to….
7. Leave Yourself Wanting More
Many people find it hard to pick a task up again after they’ve had a break from it. They’ve beaten procrastination and got started, only to find the beast comes back again as strong as ever the next time they try to pick up that same task. This is because we have a tendency to stop working at a natural breaking-off point (for example, we may stop painting and take a break after we’ve finished an entire wall, or we may take a break from essay-writing when we’ve finished a particular paragraph, or a page). Consequently, starting again feels like starting something “new”.
If you can break this sense of newness, you’ll find starting up again much easier. So, if you have a break when you’ve painted just half a wall, when you come back to it you won’t be starting out again on a fresh wall, you’ll be finishing off the old one. Since procrastination most often strikes when we’re about to start something, this is a cunning way of thwarting it. As human beings, we tend to gravitate towards a sense of completion, and will work for that from wherever we are. Breaking off mid-task (rather at a natural break point) creates a sense of incompletion which we’ll want to resolve.
You can apply this principle to lots of things: mowing the lawn (take a break after mowing half the lawn); reading a book (stop reading in the middle of a chapter); writing an essay (stop writing mid-sentence). Leave yourself wanting more – so that the sense of “completion” only really comes when you have completed the entire task. Some people may not like this approach because it delays the gratification of finishing discrete parts of the work. Remember, however, this is about outsmarting procrastination, and believe me – it works.
“Procrastination is something best put off until tomorrow.” – Gerald Vaughan
© Brian Cormack Carr, 2010
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