Do you find yourself reluctant to get started on certain things? Do you regularly miss deadlines? Or work long hours because you waste too much time?
This month, we look at what procrastination is, analysing why we do it and what we can do about it. If procrastinating affects your productivity, it’s worth thinking about. But procrastination isn’t always bad, so we also explore the benefits.
Procrastination: the action of delaying or postponing something
Are you a procrastinator?
Consider these statements and rank yourself on a scale of 1 to 6 (where 1 = never and 6 = daily)
- I check my personal social media during working hours
- I read the online news during working hours
- I do online shopping during working hours
- I send personal instant messages at work e.g. WhatsApp
- I put off tasks that I don’t enjoy
- I delay tasks that seem too challenging
- I prefer to do small tasks rather than tackling big tasks
- I take long coffee breaks (or cigarette breaks)
- I am easily distracted (‘Ooh look, squirrel!”)
- I find myself daydreaming at work
“Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement.”
Why people procrastinate
Do you identify with any of these reasons for procrastinating?
Being a perfectionist: Perfectionists worry that they won’t get everything absolutely right, so they avoid starting or completing the task.
This links to my article about How to sustain change – the section about fixed and growth mindsets. Don’t be afraid of failing, instead, reframe it as an opportunity to learn.
You might also be interested to read the book Bounce, by Matthew Syed, especially where he talks about not praising children for their talent (because that makes them stop trying), instead praising them for their effort (because that makes them work harder).
Not having fun: If you don’t believe you’ll enjoy the task, you’re less likely to get stuck in and do it.
To get around this, think about how you’ll feel – the sense of accomplishment and boost in self-esteem – from having achieved something you didn’t really want to do. Also, promise yourself a reward once it’s done so you have something to look forward to.
Feeling bored: You might be experiencing a general sense of lethargy, you might be bored of doing that specific task, or you might be bored with your whole job and not want to bother with any of it.
These feelings could be a sign that you’re in a rut and that you should rethink your role or even change your job and do something completely different.
This links to my article: How to reconnect to your purpose
Feeling confused or daunted: If the task is particularly large or complex, it might put you off starting.
In this case, you’ll need to break it into manageable chunks. There are lots of sayings about this that you’ve probably heard before:
- How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time
- A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step
Feeling afraid: You might have fear of failure, fear of success, or fear triggered by social norms – being compared with how others have achieved or how they might tackle the task, or whether it’s socially acceptable for you to achieve this.
“I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”
Jerome K Jerome
Whatever your reasons for procrastinating, here are some ideas to help you address it.
Set priorities. Work out what is the most important thing you need to do each day, and get on with it. Don’t get drawn into reading your emails or attending non essential/pointless meetings instead.
You might know Steven Covey’s story about the empty jar (please take a few minutes to watch this – it’s powerful and heart warming):
Set deadlines. Whatever you need to do, set yourself a deadline to complete it (or a series of deadlines to accomplish each phase). Block out the time by putting a meeting with yourself in your calendar.
Set the right amount of time. Not too little, and not too much, or you’ll find the work expands to fill the time you’ve allowed, or you delay starting it because (in theory) you have spare time.
Do something else first. Do something quick and unimportant first, to get the endorphin rush of ticking at least one thing off your ‘to do’ list. This warms you up to tackle the big thing you’ve been dreading.
This works particularly well if you’re not a morning person… but be aware that’s what you’re doing, and don’t let the initial task overlap its allotted timeslot.
Avoid distractions. Switch off your devices, close your email, and turn off notifications. Put your phone into airplane mode so you won’t even see if messages are waiting. Better yet, move your devices into another room so you’re not tempted to look at them.
Avoid social media. Recognise that social media can be very addictive. Do you really need to be on it at all? If you don’t have the discipline to put blocks in place yourself, consider installing an app that limits the amount of time you can spend on social media – here’s a blog post by WeTheGeek that lists 10 of them.
If you’re working from home, or working alone, social media brings great benefits as it replaces those ‘watercooler’ moments you would have in the office.
On the other hand, we know that too much screen time isn’t healthy. It’s fine to go on social media for a quick break, but ask yourself if it’s really adding value and giving you pleasure, or if it would be better to go for a five-minute walk, get some fresh air and look at nature.
Change how you label ‘breaks’. Going for a walk stretches your legs, clears your head, and clarifies your priorities by helping you reflect on what you’ve done so far and decide what to do next. You’ll return refreshed and ready to be productive.
Avoid news sites. If you’re tempted to keep checking what’s going on in the world every couple of hours, realise that it’s unlikely there will be a major drama that often. You could allocate a time of day when you allow yourself to read the news. It will be enough to check the news once at the start of the day and once at the end.
There’s more on this in my article: How to develop resilience and cope with stress
Find an accountability partner. Choose someone you respect and ask them to be your ‘conscience’ to help you get through this task. Tell them what you’re aiming to achieve and your timescale, and ask them to check in with you at whatever intervals make sense. Making a commitment to them means you are more likely to get the thing done. You’ll be too embarrassed not to.
Avoid the curse of busy-ness. Don’t get caught up in the social norm that we all have to work at a very fast pace.
For more on this, read my article: Why your brain needs time to rest
Forgive yourself. As a leader, as long as your team delivers, you probably don’t mind when, where and how they do the work. So, as long as you achieve your goal, does it really matter how you got there?
If you’re working from home, give yourself permission to put the washing on during the working day, for example. At least it saves you having to do it at the weekend!
To help with this, read my article: Compassion for yourself and others
“Time is a created thing. To say “I don’t have time” is to say “I don’t want to.”
Benefits of procrastination
As stated in the introduction, not all procrastination is bad – here are some of the benefits:
- It can be healthy to give your brain a bit of a rest
- You have more time to gather information before you make a decision
- The problem may resolve itself without you needing to do anything (we may think we need to take action, but sometimes doing nothing is the best thing to do)
- Daydreaming can generate creativity and unleash deeper insights, different paths or new options
“Do not put off till tomorrow what can be put off till day-after-tomorrow just as well.”
If you procrastinate a lot, I hope this article has given you insight into why and what you can do about it.
“Don’t put off for tomorrow what you should do today.”
In addition to the information linked through this article, a simple book with practical steps that relate to this topic is Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. (Please note I haven’t read the book, but a friend suggested it when I was telling her the topic for this month’s article, so I share it with you in that spirit.)