Do you ever find yourself frantically casting around for something to do so that you won’t have to do a particularly unpleasant task? Or even just saying ‘It’s OK, I’ll do it tomorrow. There’s still plenty of time’?
Congratulations. You, like many others, are developing your skills at procrastinating.
The trouble is that procrastinating is not necessarily a useful skill.
What is Procrastination?
Chambers English Dictionary defines procrastination quite simply as “to put off till some future time, to defer”.
Its root is from two Latin words, pro, meaning onward, and crastinus, meaning ‘of tomorrow’.
Procrastination is, therefore, nothing to do with the relative pleasantness of the task, but simply the physical deferral to a later stage.
Procrastination is the thief of time
Our page on Time Management explains how to use the ‘Priority Matrix’ to classify your tasks by relative urgency and relative importance, so that you can focus on the tasks that are truly important, rather than just the most urgent.
If you use a system like the Priority Matrix, it is perfectly reasonable to plan to do certain tasks at a later stage, because you have decided that they are not sufficiently urgent.
This is not procrastination. It is sensible planning, enabling you to get more urgent and important tasks completed.
However, if you have identified a task as both important and urgent, and you still keep putting it off, that is procrastination.
Why do People Procrastinate?
There are many reasons why people procrastinate:
Sometimes it’s because the task is unpleasant and they’d rather be doing something else.
Sometimes, they don’t really know how to do a task and so are avoiding it.
Perfectionists often procrastinate, because they’re not sure they have the time or capacity to do a task perfectly.
Other people may struggle because they are not sure exactly what task to do.
(If this sounds like you, take a look at our pages on Decision Making for help.)
Sometimes procrastination can be helpful!
Procrastination may be the thief of time, but sometimes, your wish to do it may be your subconscious at work.
If you notice that you’re continually putting off a particular task, stop for a moment and ask yourself why. Be honest about the reply. You may find that you’re worried about the consequences, or you don’t think it’s the right thing to do, or even that you don’t have a clue how to do it.
If so, talk it over with someone and see if you can find an alternative that you’re happier to do.
Once you’ve decided that you really do need to do something, there are plenty of things that you can do to help you avoid procrastinating.
Minimising distractions is a really good start, but here are some more ideas that you may find useful:
Do it first, then reward yourself with something you’d rather do. It can also be helpful to do unpleasant things first thing in the morning, when you’re a bit more resilient, and also when you can’t think of a really good excuse.
Do it more often, not less. If you find yourself struggling with a task that you feel you ought to do once a week, or twice a week, try doing it every day, instead. That way, it will be harder to put off, and you will feel worse if you don’t get it done that day.
Write it down. It sounds odd, but it’s much harder to ignore a task once you have written it on your to-do list, especially if it’s a list of things to do today. A more extreme version of this is to tell someone else what you plan to do. You can even ask them to call and check whether you’ve done it.
Arrange to do it with someone else. If you struggle to motivate yourself to go to the gym, or to take exercise, or even to take your child out somewhere, arrange to go with a friend. This has two benefits. First of all, you’ve arranged to meet at a particular time, and you will feel bad if you let your friend down. Secondly, we all enjoy things more if we do them with someone else.
Ask yourself ‘Will this really be better if I put it off?’. This is a great way of persuading yourself to do small but unpleasant tasks like sorting the washing, cleaning the drains, or even having a difficult conversation with someone. If it won’t get any better for being put off, then just get on and do it.
Think about how good it will feel when you have done it. Again, this has several elements: the joy of ticking it off on your list, the feeling of having completed it generally, and the great feeling of having done something worthwhile that you were dreading. The key is to focus on the end goal, not on the task needed to accomplish it. This means thinking about how good you always feel after taking exercise, or the cup of tea you’ll have once your deadline is met and your report sent off.
Break down the task, and do the preparation. If you’re dreading doing a big task, then break it up into smaller bits. For example, if you’ve got to write a report, do a quick web search and find some suitable sources. Check your brief and work out how long it’s going to take you, then plan when you will have a suitable block of time. Put it into your diary even, so that you’re committed to it. All these will make the task seem that bit smaller and more manageable. Have a look at our pages on Action Planning and Project Management for more ideas about this.
If it will take less than 2 minutes, just do it now. Stop arguing with yourself and just do whatever it is.
Think about the pain of not doing it. Just as we are motivated by reward, we are also motivated by fear of loss. The thought of the pain of losing out by not doing something can be much more motivating than the reward of having done it. For example, if you don’t go and have that conversation with your boss about your pay rise, you won’t get one this year.
Finding your Own Way
Everyone has to develop their own strategies for avoiding procrastination.
The ideas on this page should give you a starting point for developing your own systems and taking control of your tendency to procrastinate, helping you to just get on and do it.