FROM ANCIENT TO MODERN…
Around 800BC, Greek poet Hesiod was warning us,
…don’t put your work off till tomorrow and the day after, for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn.
Meanwhile in more recent times, Nobel-winning economist George Akerlof admitted to procrastinating for months over the simple task of sending a box of shirts home from India to his friend in New York. So much so that when he finally did mail the shirts, he was due to arrive home before they did — one wonders why he didn’t simply pay for the excess baggage!
…PROCRASTINATION IS NOTHING NEW
We think we’re just going to read one more article, or check on more reference on the internet, maybe ask a question in a Facebook group. And then hours have gone by and we’re no closer to starting the work.
Or maybe distraction is your preferred procrastination – tidying the desk (and yes, while clutter does limit your ability to focus, research shows that we are pretty good at zoning out), or watching an episode of your favourite TV comedy show.
Even the best of us get sucked into the constant distraction. I know I’ve gone online to do one thing, and an hour later I can’t remember what that one thing was, yet I’ve managed to while away the time on social media or browsing Amazon.
Chronic procrastinators actively look for distractions, sometimes even lying to themselves about the importance of the task in order to relieve their fear of failure, or to give in to their immediate urges.
PROGRAMMED TO SABOTAGE
The act of procrastination is all about our ability (or rather lack of!) to self-regulate. Procrastinators will often brush aside important tasks in favour of more immediate, emotional rewards.
It’s almost as though we were pre-programmed to sabotage our productive momentum!
Although it can be tempting to think that procrastination ‘just happens’ – that it’s part of the process, or that there’s little we can do to combat the distractive nature of the internet, in fact there’s a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation for procrastination.
And where there’s reason, there is also remedy.
PROCRASTINATION ISN’T ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL
According to the Association for Psychological Science, procrastination has been with us, and been studied, since science and philosophy began.
And we know that not all procrastinators are equal. However similar the behaviour looks on the outside, the motivation for the procrastination comes from a different place. Joseph Ferrari identifies three types of procrastinators:
1. THE THRILL-SEEKING PROCRASTINATOR
We all know someone who waits until the very last minute to get started on an important task, or who finds distractions when the more organised of us are already half-finished.
The husband who decides to pull up the weeds just at the moment we’re setting off on a family journey (and yes, I speak from experience!), or the office worker who takes a phone call when they should be on their way to a meeting.
Maybe we even are one of those people?
This habit of waiting until a project is absolutely urgent provides thrill-seeking procrastinators with a sense of euphoria and adrenaline.
These procrastinators may even become dependent on this method to provide them with the urgency and discipline to get a job done. Waiting until a deadline is looming becomes a chronic addiction that fuels a last minute burst of productivity.
2. FEAR OF FAILURE AKA ‘THE PERFECTIONIST’
And then there are those who procrastinate because they prefer to fail than to risk success.
Ironic though it sounds, many procrastinators are so afraid of failing, they prefer to wait until the very last moment and use avoidance to get a poor result, rather than risk being judged as less than perfect if they give something their all.
This type of procrastinator worries about the opinions of others, and often professes to put things off because of ‘perfectionism’.
Perhaps this one rings true for you?
Your procrastination, or a diversion into minute improvements with ever diminishing returns, is really an unconscious (or even conscious) attempt to delay sharing your work because deep down you fear what others may think. A natural response that many can empathise with, but one that will hinder you getting the results you want and hold back your long-term success.
Whatever the motivation, calling it perfectionism is likely to be nothing more than an excuse.
3. DECISIONAL PROCRASTINATORS
And the third kind of procrastinator is the one who changes his or her mind to the extent that they never seem to make a decision – the aptly named ‘decisional procrastinator’.
Perhaps it’s a personality trait, or perhaps there’s a built-in desire to avoid taking responsible for an outcome?
Instead of making, and sticking with, a decision, this kind of procrastinator will often make a ‘deal’ with themselves – something psychologists call moral compensation.
So, let’s say you were planning to head to the gym, but ‘don’t’ feel like it’, you make a trade with yourself that would involve being productive in a completely unrelated way – perhaps you’ll use the time to do research for your book instead, or to see a little-visited family friend. This moral compensation is something we manufacture to assuage any feelings of guilt and replace them with a parallel (unrelated) reward.
Typical of this decisional procrastinator is the person who promises to start the diet ‘tomorrow’, while trading it off against going for a walk today.
Does this person sound familiar? I can think of a few of these in my circle of friends.
THE THIEF OF TIME
The root of all of them may come from something deeper; an evolutionary quirk that makes us want to avoid the new and that therefore protects us from change. But we know, as writers and creators that, whatever the cause or the type, procrastination is an enemy to getting the work done.
And, if we can identify which procrastination trap we’re most likely to fall into, we can more easily find a solution that works.
HOW TO STOP PROCRASTINATING
If procrastination is holding you back from maximum productivity in your writing life, or any part of life, use these five golden rules to achieve increased efficiency and self-regulation:
1. THE TWO- MINUTE RULE
This tactic works on the basis that many of the tasks we procrastinate over aren’t difficult or complicated in themselves. In fact, many of them could be finished within a few minutes! The technique comprises of two parts (or two separate rules):
Step One: If it takes less than two minutes, do it now
When it comes to the small tasks like replying to an email, filing that bank statement, or a domestic chore like washing the dishes, it’s so easy to put it off until ‘later’. But those little things can accumulate on (and eventually saturate) our to-do list.
The answer? If it takes less than two minutes, do it now. In twenty minutes you’ll find your list is clear, you feel decluttered inside and out, and you’re ready to get cracking with the larger tasks.
Perfect for: The Decisional Procrastinator. Don’t give yourself any wiggle room to think about whether you might do it ‘later’ If you have only two minutes, dive right in and get it done.
Step Two: Every goal can be started in two minutes or less
Not all goals take as short a time as two minutes. But, if you simply commit to spending two minutes on the most important item on your to-do list today, then your ability to follow through with that one simple task will increase tremendously.
This is a trick I play on myself with running: I don’t have to go for an hour, I can go for fifteen minutes. And, of course the fifteen minutes invariably turns into forty.
Or remember a time when you said to yourself that you’d spend five minutes revising an article, and a whole hour went by in productive activity?
This technique is aimed at encouraging exactly the kind of behaviour that gets you started. And we know that once started, we’re likely to spend longer on that important task or activity.
Perfect for: The Perfectionist. If you have only two minutes you have no chance of focusing on what people might think – it’s all about the doing.
2. CHUNK IT DOWN
In a similar way to the starting strategy above, chunking an overwhelmingly large project into manageable pieces makes it all the more likely to get done.
We often get confused between projects and tasks and will put things on our to-do list are really an amalgam of activities – what I prefer to call a ‘project’.
Things like ‘update the training course / book’ appear on my list, and never seem to move off. And that’s because it’s a task that can’t be completed in a single session.
Although it seems simple, it isn’t. I might need to review the old materials, perhaps ask for feedback from the trainees, I have to create a list of what sections need to be updated and I have to update them one by one.
Even then there will be a sequence of tasks involved in republishing the material – do I need to create something new, have it formatted, perhaps it needs a new cover if it’s a book, or some new video material if it’s a course. And then I need to announce the changes, and so on.
And this is exactly why we procrastinate – so many of those things on our list aren’t tasks we can do in a session of 20-30 minutes, so the whole project becomes overwhelming and we start to fear a whirlpool of long hours and late nights.
The solution is simply to divide your list into projects and tasks, and then chunk your projects into tasks. Each task should be a small, manageable chunks, something that can be done in a couple of 30-minute sessions. If that’s not long enough, then chunk it down again rather than allocating a longer time period.
It comes back to the first strategy – it’s easier to feel motivated about smaller chunks of time.
And don’t just stop at chunking. For each task, or small set of tasks, completed, create positive reinforcement with a small reward — a tea break, a walk in the park, or a favourite (healthy) snack. We then begin to associate the activity with the reward and this encourages more productive behaviour.
Perfect for: the Perfectionist as well as the Decisional Procrastinator. For both these types it’s important to get out of your head and start doing. Even the Thrill-seeker will find some benefit from chunking projects so that activity is done ahead of time and you’re not up against a deadline, leaving colleagues or associates frustrated and angry with you.
3. ELIMINATE DISTRACTIONS
When you’re trying to complete a task, or give your full focus to something important, one of the best possible ways to set yourself up for success is to completely eliminate distractions.
Take one activity at a time, serial tasking rather than multi-tasking, close down all the surrounding tabs on your browser, turn off the phone and close down your emails (even the wifi if possible), so you aren’t sidetracked by demands and distractions.
If it’s a writing task, try software like OmmWriter or Scrivener, both of which can be used on a distraction-free mode to help you focus on your writing.
Or use software like RescueTime or FocusWriter that block out certain sites for a given period of time.
We might like to think we have free will, and can maintain our focus, but really we don’t.
Perfect for: The Thrill-seeker. Although YOU might thrive on the last-minute rush, you’ll get more done if you set aside some focus time in advance. You’ll perform better if you have a chance to revise the work, or can manage any hiccups that might come along.
4. PLAN AHEAD
Procrastination can most often be beaten by well laid plans. However planning itself can turn into procrastination, so make sure you get this one right.
With your project, don’t rush to complete it all at once. Take enough breaks throughout your day that you manage your energy (not just today’s energy – chances are your project is a marathon, not a sprint!).
Don’t over-saturate the mental or physical space that surrounds your project by giving yourself too much to do in a short space of time. Make sure you budget your time effectively and plan for no more than the three most important things you need get done.
If necessary, take yourself to a new location and listen to specific music that you associate with productivity. I personally love Spotify’s focus playlists as they really help me get into the zone when I’m writing!
Perfect for: The Decisional Procrastinator. Use your mental energy in setting yourself up for success rather than finding ways to delay decisions. You’ll find yourself getting more at ease with the habit of productivity and, as you get more done, you’ll find that confidence to make decisions that support your success, not your failure.
5. HOLD YOURSELF ACCOUNTABLE
A problem shared is a problem halved, and this epigram applies perfectly to overcoming procrastination.
Share your goals with a friend or colleague, or find an accountability buddy to help you monitor progress towards a specific goal.
It works best if that person is also working on something significant – it doesn’t have to be the same task, although that can help. Try teaming up with a fellow writer if you want to write an article a day for the next month. The support from your buddy will help you through the low points and we none of us like to let anyone else down.
Or pay a coach – the mechanism is the same but having money at stake can make it more likely you’ll achieve your goals, and some people just prefer to be accountable to someone who isn’t a friend.
You’ll find that, as you follow through on your plans and minimise the urge to distract yourself, you’ll compound the sense of urgency to improve and complete whatever challenge you’ve set yourself.
Sometimes the ‘how’ is as important as the support so for an added chance of success, find someone who understands what you want to focus on and can also help you with tactics and solution when you get stuck.
Perfect for: The Decisional Procrastinator. Just as services like weight watchers help you with specific food management strategies and peer support, so too can you find the same from a colleague or a coach.
MAKE SUCCESS INEVITABLE
We like to think we’re grown-up enough to manage our work schedule. But the reality is that our brains are wired for procrastination and we need to find strategies to fool those ancient neural pathways.
The first part of success is to know yourself, because it’s through this knowing we will find out what works best for each of us.
And the second is to get the right support.
One size is never likely to be the best solution for everyone, but work out what works best for you, and you can more quickly turn procrastination into productivity.
What type of procrastinator are you? And which if these solutions works best for you? Let us know on social media.
Best-selling author, mentor and highly-regarded trainer, Cathy is widely published, has over 15,000 students in her online training courses, teaches writing for The Guardian Masterclasses series, and is an engaging and popular speaker.