by Jim Bruce
We all procrastinate! Research by Piers Steel found that about 95% of us do and several other researchers suspect that the remaining 5% of us are, shall we say, stretching the truth.
So, two questions: Why do we procrastinate? And, what can we do about it?
First, let’s define what we’re focusing on:
Procrastination (from Latin’s “procrastinare”, that translates into the prefix pro-, ‘forward’, and suffix -crastinus, ’till next day’ from cras, ‘tomorrow’) is the avoidance of doing a task that needs to be accomplished. Sometimes, procrastination takes place until the “last minute” before a deadline. Procrastination can take hold on any aspect of life – putting off cleaning the stove, repairing a leaky roof, seeing a doctor or dentist, submitting a job report or academic assignment or broaching a stressful issue with a partner. Procrastination can lead to feelings of guilt, inadequacy, depression and self-doubt.
In simplest form then, procrastination is the habit of avoiding something that you have committed yourself to do. If you committed yourself to do it, for the sake of your integrity, why don’t you just do it? Piers Steel suggests that there are seven fundamental characteristics of a task that make it “procrastination worthy.”
1. You find the task boring.
2. The task is frustrating.
3. The task is difficult for you to do.
4. The task is not clear, it’s ambiguous.
5. It’s unstructured.
6. It’s not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find any fun in it).
7. It lacks personal meaning.
According to Chris Bailey, procrastination is not the result of logical thought. Rather, he reports, that it is the result of the emotional part of your brain strong-arming the reasonable, rational part of your brain, your frontal cortex. The logical part of your brain surrenders when you choose looking at email or the latest text over your designated task. And, you most often first take that alternative behavior before you even start your work on the task.
Thinking about this behavior as a habit, suggests that encountering any one of the seven triggers leads us to execute a behavior – check my email, respond to the text, etc. – that diverts you from what you were going to do and gives you some immediate reward. We know from Charles Duhigg’s work on habits that brute-force overcoming the trigger almost always ultimately fails. What’s needed is an alternative action that is supportive of the task we’re doing.
In a search of alternative actions, I found long lists of suggestions. Here are some that caught my attention:
1. Rephrase your internal dialog. Change the self-talk from I “need to” or I “have to,” which imply that you have absolutely no choice in what you to, to I “choose to,” implying that you own the task. Doing this, and meaning it, gives you ownership of the task and will decrease the desire to procrastinate.
2. Think differently about the task. Don’t see it just as a stand-alone task but put it into the larger picture of which it is only a part. Commit to it, thus making completion more attractive. If it’s boring, turn it into a challenge. If you find it ambiguous, develop your own workflow laying out a specific, unambiguous plan.
3. Find your flow and stay in it. Knowing when and how you do your best work can work to help you eliminate procrastination and lack of focus. Staying in the flow, or in deep work, will increase your performance and productivity.
4. Work within your resistance level. When the task sets off procrastination triggers, we resist doing it. Identify those triggers. For example, if working on the task more than 30 minutes pushes you towards procrastination, divide the work into 30 minute slices and do them one at a time, turning to other work in between.
5. Do something, anything to get started. It’s much easier to continue doing a task after you’ve gotten over the inertia of starting. Often, giving yourself a tight deadline will create the challenge to get you started.
6. List the costs of procrastination of this particular (large) task. Include everything. The longer we put something off, the more time we waste on things like arguing with ourselves on whether to do the task or not. Once you understand the costs you may have the motivation you need to get started and to finish the task.
7. Remove distractions from the place where you are working. Bailey suggests that disabling digital distractions first, before you start working, gives you no choice but to focus your attention on the task at hand. And, don’t even attempt to multitask.
8. Have a friend, an accountability partner, check on your progress. Being accountable to someone is a powerful motivator.
9. Don’t lose track of your tasks. Be diligent about maintaining an accurate To-Do list and moving items on the list to your calendar each day. And, adopt the practice of dealing with every item on your calendar each day, even if dealing with it is only rescheduling it to another day where there is adequate time.
10. Find the “big rocks.” Remember, if you have big rocks, smaller rocks, pebbles, and sand, you put the big rocks in the jar first. So, when you are scheduling those To-Dos, get tasks that you estimate will take the largest amount of time on the calendar first. Then continue to fill in the empty spaces with smaller and smaller tasks. What’s left is carried forward to the next day.
These ten suggestions should help both you and me (I’m a confessing procrastinator, too) get more done and make better use of the time available to us. Why not give one or two of these suggestions a try this week.
I trust that you will make it a great week. . . jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Chris Bailey, 5 Research-Based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination, Harvard Business Review, October 2017.
Piers Steel, The Procrastination Equation – How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done, Harper 2012.
Timothy Pychyl, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: Concise Strategies for Change, Penguin Group, 2013.
MindTools, How Can I Stop Procrastinating, Time Management Forum from MindTools.
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Random House, 2012.
Forbes Coaches Council, 14 Ways You Can Overcome Procrastination, Forbes.com, April 2017.