8 Tips For Tackling Procrastination
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step – Lao Tzu
As summer draws to a close, and with it the slower pace and relaxed expectations that often define summer vacation – even if for our kids – the perennial back-to-school season can portend any number of undesirable tasks and routines that require at best an adjustment this time of year. Be it getting back to school, getting our kids back to school, getting back to work after a long weekend, or simply getting out of a vacation frame of mind, this time of year demands we shift gears. And this adjustment can sometimes bring on one of our hardest challenges – tackling procrastination.
Most of us struggle with procrastination from time to time, but for some of us, procrastination can be a significant hurdle that can threaten the things and people we care about. Vacations, and relaxed expectations can give our nerves, and procrastination, a rest, but it is usually only temporary. Just last week, the Wall Street Journal ran a terrific article about the underlying emotions of procrastination, wherein author Shirley Wang compiled the latest research on procrastination, its link to anxiety, perfectionism, and impulsivity, and laid out the importance of understanding its emotional underpinnings. Often the steepest hurdle to battling procrastination is understanding its relationship to anxiety, and developing specific strategies that work for you.
So if this time of year finds you wrestling with temptations to put things off, here are 8 simple things you can do to help turn the tide, temper your procrastination, and face this time of year with more effectiveness.
- Take stock: Be honest with yourself about how often you procrastinate and recognize the unique scenarios for you that set up this process. Recognizing that you procrastinate, and suffer from its ill affects, will help you recognize its impact when you are next at risk. For example, do you only procrastinate at work? Only when you’re tired? Only on certain tasks? Knowing where you struggle is the first step in finding a solution.
- Understand your anxiety, and notice your avoidance strategies. Tune into the anxiety you feel when something is asked of you – and more importantly, the expectations and meaning you assign to it. The more important and meaningful a task, the more you will experience anxiety about it, and the more tempted you may be to avoid it. Responding to mounting anxiety with mounting avoidance makes things worse, ultimately, and obviously doesn’t work. Understanding when you are avoiding allows you to notice when is the time to try something different.
- Break the task into small, manageable chunks. So small, that it fools your resistance. For example, if you have a memo to write, the first step is perhaps reading the assignment, the second, creating a document, the third creating a title, etc. By breaking things into very small tasks, you sidestep your avoidance and stimulate the momentum that you so need to keep going.
- Use your anxiety to get started: Recognize the value of the energy you feel when you first learn of a task, and feel your anxiety (and temptation to avoid) kick in. Aim to use the energy of your anxiety to get started right away, sidestepping avoidance from the get-go. This might include brainstorming, making a first phone call, or dividing the task into breaking the task into the small pieces necessary to get started. Starting something as early as possible staves off any avoidance response that can make it harder to get started again.
- Resist hollow self-assurances as well as panic – both are energy sappers: If, in spite of your best efforts, you find yourself in a cycle of procrastination, resist the urge to pretend that it will be OK or conversely to panic. Avoidance and worry fuel anxiety, whereas action diminishes it. Letting yourself freak out about how bad things are will only make things worse by exhausting you, and consuming more precious time, ballooning the anxiety you feel into something harder to channel. Instead direct the energy of your anxiety into facing the task at hand.
- Keep going until anxiety diminishes: Once you have started, keep going. Repeat this exercise as long as you need to until you fully engage, and you are no longer tempted to avoid. This is a signal that your anxiety is channeling into action, and this feels so good you may forget how worried you were in the first place. This is the sweet spot of using the felt pressure of the deadline to fuel activated engagement, and perhaps peak productivity, according to M. Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model. This is sometimes referred to as being in the zone, the groove, or flow.
- Use tools that can help: Especially if you struggle with attention issues, self discipline, or impulsivity, traits shown to predict procrastination, recognize that staying on task might be particularly challenging and require that you plan accordingly. Be mindful of distractions, and minimize their risk. Turning off music, TV, social media, telephone, email and other digital distractions can be helpful at minimizing typical distractions if your task requires using your computer. Make sure that your workplace is also free from distraction – clear a desk space, close the door if coworkers are nearby, avoid workspaces where you might be tempted by other activities (like the kitchen, or family area). Some people find a timer useful to help them maintain focus and resist distraction during a fixed amount of time. Smaller 10-30 minute chunks are believed to be useful to maintain focus so long as you time your breaks as well.
- Make procrastination inconvenient. In that many impulsive behaviors are enabled by ease of access, making these behaviors harder to engage can help. Just like a dieter is warned to keep unhealthy food outside of the house or an alcoholic to avoid bars, a procrastinator will have a tougher time avoiding procrastinating temptations if they are easily accessible. Consider making such digital stalling activities harder by adding mini-delays, or “micro-costs.” For example, remove a tempting game app from your phone or computer, turn off your email notifications, or disable auto login to your social media or web browser, requiring you the inconvenience of typing in your passcode. Adding physical distance between you and your tempting distractions can also help – including separating yourself from your smartphone, TV, snacks, or even your loved ones. Requiring a walk or travel time can thwart temptations.
Like with most things, baby steps can bring about huge changes. As you read over the list, make note of the things that resonate for you, and see which strategies sound intriguing. Changing behavior is a process that begins with a new awareness, a decision to change, or simply a single step. Why not make things simpler, try something different, and see what happens?
Today, not tomorrow.
Looking for more help in understanding anxiety? Learn more about my book Hack Your Anxiety and access free tools to help you manage the fear and anxiety going around the world today.