You might have heard the term “procrastination" before, and it is likely you might have experienced it more than once. The definition of the word is: deciding to delay or not complete a task for no valid reason despite the negative consequences of doing so. Making time for doing something of more importance or urgent than the task we are delaying, would not be considered procrastinating. Neither would be making time for an unforeseen event. We procrastinate when there is no good reason to delay the action.
The procrastination cycle has the following steps: I face a task that generates discomfort or negative feelings (I don’t feel like doing it, it’s frustrating, boring, difficult, makes me anxious…) à I try to avoid that discomfort by engaging in another pleasurable task or postponing my goal à I immediately feel better à I face negative consequences long term.
The problem with this cycle is that we tend to repeat actions that have positive short term consequences, despite them having also negative long term consequences. We are wired to prefer immediate gratification despite the possible long term consequences. That is why we might struggle to keep a diet when offered a chocolate cake, or fail to remain focused on completing a boring report.
The negative impact of procrastinating can be severe, depending on the frequency and severity of the behavior. For starters, it deteriorates our health for two different reasons. The first one is procrastinating increases anxiety and remorse levels, which in turn create a state of heightened stress that weakens our immune system (particularly if this state is maintained for long). The second reason is when we are procrastinating, we also postpone other important health behaviors, such as getting enough sleep, exercising or keeping a balanced diet. Another negative effect would be decreasing our work or study performance and having to relinquish activities that matter to us. Lastly, other than creating strong and frequent negative emotions, procrastinating also alters the way we perceive ourselves: as less efficient, therefore lowering our self-esteem.
During the Coronavirus crisis, it is possible you may have noticed your productivity taking a dive. Tedious or difficult tasks require a great deal of self-control, which is a limited resource that needs to be recharged often by resting. Disordered habits, the loss of access to pleasurable leisure and social activities, fear and uncertainty create a great deal of stress that make it difficult to recharge our capacity for adequate self-control. It is possible we might feel overwhelmed or unable to properly respond to the current situation, which impacts our ability to function normally.
However, despite being confronted by a situation we cannot change, it is important we don’t get carried away by the paralyzing anxiety and instead we focus on what is actually on our power: our own behavior and the way we manage our time. To avoid procrastination, we recommend the following strategies:
1. Identify whats tasks you procrastinate and why.
The first step to stop procrastinating is to identify which tasks you usually postpone unnecessarily and why. First, you can ask yourself what type of tasks you have the most trouble initiating or concluding. Are you postponing your chores or budgeting? Work or study activities? Leisure or social events? Health related or self-development tasks? When we identify the type of task we have the most trouble initiating, we can better prepare for it by mustering all of our self-control and motivation.
On the other hand, as we previously mentioned, we usually avoid tasks that generate negative emotions. In order to gain insight on how our feelings are playing an important role in the difficulties we may be having, we can develop a simple list of tasks we are procrastinating. In that list, we can write how we feel about each task. It is possible we feel the task is not appealing or fun, that we do not know how to start because we lack information, or that we feel we must complete the task perfectly and those rigid standards prevent us from even starting. Identifying why we are reluctant to start or engage in something will gives clues to solve the problem.
2. Recognize and confront your excuses
When we decide it is preferable to postpone an important task until the following day without a proper reason and despite the negative consequences, we have found an excuse that allows us to feel comfortable with that decision, at least momentarily. The excuses are usually not adjusted to reality despite seeming believable in the moment. Some examples of the type of justifications we might use are: “It is too late to start it now”, “I won’t get much done, so I’ll just leave it for now”, “It is better to do it when I am in the mood or feeling inspired”,“I will do it once this other thing is finished”, “I have plenty of time, so I can do it later” or, “I work better when I am stressed, so I will leave it to the last minute”. We can find a myriad of examples, but it is likely that you have recognized some of the excuses in this list.
Once we have become aware of how our thoughts are mere excuses to cope with the remorse of not having started or completed an important project, we can refute those thoughts. In order to do so, we will use more adjusted thoughts. Some examples are: “I will not be more motivated to start this tomorrow” “Even if I don’t have time to finish everything, I can start this and make it easier for tomorrow”, “It is not true I work better under pressure, I simply finish things faster but my work suffers”, “I have other things to do, but this one is the most important now”.
You can use your list of identified excuses as a sign that you are about to start procrastinating. This way, you can try to prevent it beforehand.
3. Tolerate discomfort
As we have previously mentioned, procrastination is a habit triggered in part by a low tolerance to discomfort: We avoid a task that generates negative emotions so we don’t have to experience or deal with them. Tolerating discomfort is an ability that can be trained with some practice so it does not become such an obstacle.
One way of achieving this is to expose yourself to the dreaded emotion for a short period of time. For instance, if the emotion we are trying to avoid by procrastinating is boredom, we can remained bored (by not doing anything) for 5 or 10 minutes before starting a boring task. After we have done that, we will be more able to withstand the negative emotion when we start working. The more we practice exposing ourselves to uncomfortable emotions, the easier it will be to stop postponing important activities.
Another way of improving our tolerance to discomfort is to think about negative emotions as something temporary, as a wave that we can surf: First, the emotion intensifies or rises, then it reaches its highest point (the crest of the wave), and finally, it diminishes until it disappears. Being aware of the temporary aspect of emotions makes it easier to tolerate the negative ones.
Another effective strategy to combat procrastination is simply starting a task, even if it is during a short period of time, or if everything we will do for that day is creating a new file and write the title, or reading necessary information. We usually overestimate how negatively we will feel about doing a task before starting it. However, once we start it, the discomfort is not as intense as we initially assumed and we can power through it.
When we cannot manage to start an action, we can ask ourselves: What is the amount of time I am currently motivated or willing to dedicate to this task without postponing it? Is it 30 minutes? 15? 5? Once you have set a time limit, you can start the task without dreading it so much. If you feel motivated to continue working once the time limit you had initially set finishes, you may do so.
We hope this advice has been useful to you. We will also like to remind you of the importance of setting rewards for yourself once you have exposed yourself to the task or completed it. This will make you more motivated towards the task, and help you replenish your energies after.