While tomorrow will always seem like the best time to start the most odious tasks, your penchant for procrastination is ultimately self-sabotage.
I think everyone has been prone to procrastination at some point or another.
According to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, 95pc of us admit to putting off the important tasks until the last minute.
There are some people who are able to manage their time so well that they never find themselves in a manic sprint to get to the finish line.
Personally, I can’t trust a person who is that efficient, but I’m what could be called a ‘chronic procrastinator’, so my distrust probably stems from the fact that doing things on time is pretty much beyond my comprehension.
When I was in college, I was always mystified as I watched people glide into the admissions office on deadline day, well rested after a full night’s sleep, and submit the third draft of their essay.
I, on the other hand, tended to arrive dishevelled, over-caffeinated and sleep deprived. Clenched in my shaking hands would be something that I’d written mere hours before. Upon submission, I generally would a) dissolve into a puddle, b) cry or c) get a chest infection.
Of course, I understood that my method was objectively bad, but that didn’t stop me from getting into the same vicious cycle every single time a deadline came up. Why did I keep repeating those same mistakes? Is there any real solution?
What happens when we procrastinate?
It may not surprise you to learn, given my own self-confessed bad habits, that I procrastinated a lot while researching this article. Though I maintain that doing so was necessary for the sake of science or something, the irony of that happening wasn’t lost on me.
As it turns out, what was happening in my mind was a game of tug-of-war between two competing influences in the brain, the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, Dr Steel explains in Psychology Today, is a more recently evolved part of our brain responsible for “long-range thinking”.
Those well-intentioned New Year’s resolutions or thoughts of doing things that will benefit us in the future – such as exercising more, saving money or quitting smoking – activate this sensible section of the brain.
The limbic system is far more primitive and far older. Its priority is immediate and tangible rewards, and it is triggered by environmental cues. These two competing systems operate pretty much independently from one another due to this.
When you make those long-term plans, they’re abstract. Yet when the time comes, your limbic system will take over and urge you to spend that extra hour in bed or watch that funny video, because it only really recognises the benefit of things with an instantaneous pay-off.
Why do we procrastinate?
The question of why procrastination happens is a more complicated cocktail of psychological factors.
First off, procrastination tends to happen when we don’t want to complete a particular task. Not wanting to do something can stem from a number of things. We may, for example, be anxious because we don’t have a distinct idea of what first step to take.
We may also not expect ourselves to do a good job, and that kind of thinking will kill motivation in even the most driven of people because no one wants to dive into something they expect to fail at.
We may just simply not want to start something because we know it’s not especially enjoyable (most things with long-term benefits tend not to be fun).
All of these things will cause your task to balloon in your mind into something deeply unpleasant, totally unknowable and downright impossible. But you don’t need to come away from this thinking that you are forever powerless to all of these productivity-killing factors.
Break up your task into discrete bits
A way to work around the urge to put off big tasks is to break them up into smaller, easier-to-achieve nuggets.
Think about the task you want to achieve and then outline every single step you need to take. In all likelihood, there will be a few tasks that can be completed really quickly and therefore are easy to convince yourself to do.
Not only will you get a little buzz from ticking something off the to-do list, but knowing that you’re already on your way to completing that larger task will reduce the dread. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself in the flow and won’t notice the time go by.
Turn it into a game
Gamification is a good way to both complete your task and appease the part of you that wants to waste time looking at cat videos on YouTube.
You could try setting a timer and seeing how much you get done in a given time period, striving to beat your personal best each successive time. You could break up chunks of productivity with something non-productive – for example, say for every half hour that you work, you get to do something fun for 10 minutes.
Breaking up your working day is also a good way to maintain levels of concentration, most famously seen in the Pomodoro technique.
Try ‘structured procrastination’
If putting off your most immediate task is non-negotiable, you can try an approach recommended by Stanford philosopher John Perry: ‘structured procrastination’.
It’s both simple and brilliant when you think about it. His solution to procrastination is simply to procrastinate with other things on your to-do list. That way, even though you’re procrastinating, you’re still getting something done.
Many procrastinators tend to beat themselves up for putting off important tasks. This causes them to feel guilty and disheartened, which generates anxiety, which often makes procrastination even worse.
With Perry’s method, you’ve still managed to achieve something relevant to your work, and that will allay the urge to go into a full-on self-pitying meltdown as the deadline looms.