The bane of many of our existences.
Once upon a time, I thought I would grow out of it. Proper adults don’t procrastinate. How wrong I was.
True, sometimes it doesn’t look like procrastination because we’re busy. But we’re still avoiding the most important item on our to-do list. And to me that is procrastination, not doing what we should be doing. The form the avoidance takes is irrelevant.
Procrastination is a fairly ubiquitous challenge. But by understanding your procrastination style and learning how to manage it, procrastination can be overcome.
Why do you procrastinate?
This question needs to be asked on two different levels:
- Why am I procrastinating right now?
- What are my common triggers for procrastination?
Answering the first will help you to understand and interrupt the procrastination in the moment. Answering the second enables you to recognise patterns in yourself and combat them. You can see situations that commonly lead to stalling and take mitigating action.
Common reasons people procrastinate:
- Rebelling against expectations. You know you should do that task but you simply don’t want to. So you avoid it.
- Fearing the unknown. What might happen if you did launch that business idea? By not doing it you can hold onto your fantasy of the outcome, avoiding both being wildly successful or failing miserably. It is possible to be afraid of success.
- Insufficient information. You know you need to write a presentation but it’s pretty vague what you need to cover and where to source your information from. Because you don’t quite know what’s required, you simply avoid doing it.
- Combining the previous two points is doing something you’ve never done before. Lot’s of question marks can make it hard to get started.
- Unclear priorities. You’re not sure what is most important so you just complete whatever comes to hand, all the while feeling that you’re not making the best use of your time.
- The task is too big and overwhelming. You don’t know where to start so you don’t.
- Boredom. You’re not into it, enough said.
Already by understanding the drivers behind procrastination will have you thinking of ideas on how to combat it.
But before we get to the tips and tactics, you need to understand your procrastination from a different perspective.
What does your procrastination look like?
Knowing why you’re procrastinating isn’t enough to beat it. You also need to recognise the form your procrastination takes to figure out the best tactics to employ.
I’ve identified four different styles of procrastination.
- Focusing on other work, so you’re productive while avoiding something important.
- A lack of boundaries characterised by constant interruptions and allowing other people to run your schedule. You’re now too busy or don’t have a sufficient window of time to complete your work. Looks like procrastination to me.
- Doing something else entirely. How many people tell you that they do housework to avoid work. Or maybe you catch up with friends. Or exercise. Whatever you’re doing, it’s not work.
- Finally, doing nothing. Mindlessly scrolling social media, going to the bathroom, getting a drink, chatting to a colleague, staring into space. You’re drifting along and suddenly you’ve wasted an hour refusing to start on that project.
The primary reason you need to understand what procrastination looks like is to identify it. You know what to look for which makes it much easier to catch yourself procrastinating. And when you do, you can use the tools and tactics below to overcome it.
Tools and Tactics
There are a bunch of ways to deal with procrastination but most of them centre around interrupting the procrastination or dealing with why your procrastinating.
Here are a couple of golden questions from Tim Ferriss that are particularly effective if your issue is prioritising.
– “If this were the only thing I accomplished today, would I be satisfied with my day?”
– “Will moving this forward make all the other to-do’s unimportant or easier to knock off later?”
Another question to ask yourself is what are you avoiding. You’re busy but you know you’re prioritising the right things. This is probably the most insidious form of procrastination because you’re being productive (thus mentioning it again). So why are you avoiding it? Are you protecting your ego? Lacking information? Afraid of something?
I find it helpful to journal on what’s holding me back. Then I can drill down through the layers, really unpick what’s going on. Keep asking myself why and see what comes up. Writing works for me but a physical practice like running or yoga may help you better.
Journalling is a fairly heavy duty tactic for ongoing procrastination. It’s for every time you hit the ceiling of your current level and need to reflect. Learn more about yourself. Face up to your limits and bust through them. Other tools are better suited for dealing with procrastination in the moment.
If your issue is insufficient information, then the obvious answer is to write a list of what information you need, where you can get it from or who to ask, then get cracking. Similarly, if you’re overwhelmed, break the task down into smaller chunks.
Related: What I Like Wednesday: Ironing
Taking a break is often touted way to combat procrastination. To ensure it’s effective, before you walk around the block, commit to what you’re going to complete when you get back. You need to make the decision before you leave so when you get back you get on with it. Otherwise, you risk just procrastinating again while you decide what to do.
A new tactic I’m trying is putting all of my to-do items in a bowl to draw at random. I’ve just discovered this idea reading The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (affiliate link) so stay posted to see how it works out. I can imagine that I’ll pick out options until I find one I want to do. Which will still get me being productive.
Another tactic Rubin mentions is writing ‘should-do’ lists instead of to-do lists. For some of us, this reframing can help address the impulse to rebel against expectations. Reframing is a powerful tool for getting in the right mindset to be productive. Consider how your task is important to someone who is important to you or make it into a game. I actually enjoy ironing because I focus on doing the task, drawing satisfaction from the creases smoothing out, rather than on completing the task.
Combatting procrastination is all about having tools in your arsenal to help you effectively get unstuck when it strikes.