How to stop procrastinating: advice from a chronic procrastinator

Procrastination. It’s the act of delaying what we know we should be doing with, in my case, anything and everything else I can think of other than the task I set out to do. The urge to re-watch House of Cards is never stronger than when I have an assignment due and my house is never as clean as before a major presentation at work. I even felt the need to clean the drains (yes, really) before writing this article.

If procrastination was a competition sport, I would be a champion. And I am not alone. We’re all familiar with the burning mix of shame, guilt and anxiety in the gut when it happens. It’s human nature to procrastinate (the Greeks called it “Akrasia”) and in today’s world of endless online distractions (I’m looking at you Netflix), it can be harder than ever to find the self-discipline to do what we know we should.

So how do I deal with my tendency to procrastinate? I practice the following six actions.

Just start

Picture yourself in this typical scenario. You have a report due in a couple of weeks. You know you should start it but you’ve got plenty of time so you’re relaxed about not starting right away. As time goes by, you get the occasional twinge of anxiety when you think about the report but you quickly smother it with justifications and distractions. Slowly the looming deadline balloons into an all consuming dread that freezes you in inaction until finally, the night before the report is due, full blown panic propels you into action and you pull an all nighter to get it done. Sound familiar?

If you’re like me, the feeling of building anxiety when procrastinating is a lot worse than the pain of actually doing the work. So the problem is not doing the work, it’s starting it.

When we’re faced with a task, the enormity of doing the whole task can be off putting. The trick is to just make a start, no matter how small, and trust that motivation and momentum will kick in once you get into the flow of the work.

Prioritise and focus

I find a great way to get through my to-do list is to list all of my tasks and then prioritise them. I break down the tasks and focus on one at a time. The conventional wisdom at this point is to order the tasks by urgency. Of course, this makes sense, but I find it’s not the most effective method for me (because I’m a rebel). Unless I have something due immediately, I find the best way is to start with the easiest task on my list. This goes back to my first point about just making a start and then allowing the momentum to carry through to more difficult tasks. I apply the same principle whether I have a single task or a long list of things to do and it works for me.

Regardless of how you prioritise, make sure you commit to focus on only one task until its completed before moving onto the next one. Multi-tasking is not as effective as single tasking and just opens the door for time wasting activities to sneak in. The point here is, if you commit to nothing, you’ll be distracted by everything.

Bundle what you’re putting off with something you enjoy

I had a friend who would study by placing gummy bears at the bottom of each page of her textbook. She would reward herself with the gummy bear (which she loved) only when she read to the end of each page. Whilst this is a bit of an extreme example (and not very good for your teeth), I find the concept of bundling the task you’ve putting off doing with something you enjoy to be a sound one.

The idea is that you’ll be psychologically more willing to do the task you’ve been putting off if it’s bundled with something that feels good. This might be listening to your favourite music while exercising or working from your favourite café.

Remove temptations

The environment we are in has a large impact on our behaviour. So create an environment that nudges you to be more productive by removing temptations for procrastination. There are numerous apps to stop you procrastinating such as AppDetox and Procraster (available for IPhone and Android) but I find the simple method of turning off my phone and closing my emails to be the most effective when I need a block of time to get some work done.

Use the stick approach

This is somewhat the opposite of bundling in that it requires you to attach some consequences to your procrastination. Again, there are various apps that can help you do this such as StikK where you pledge a sum that goes to a charity that you hate if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do.

Again I’m old school and find the best motivator is often a no nonsense friend who will hold me accountable if I ask them to. It’s often effective to exercise with a friend as it’s enjoyable doing it together (bundling) but I find it can be just as effective asking a good friend to harass me if I don’t go to the gym like I said I would (stick). My friends actually prefer this method as they get the fun of harassing me without having to commit to exercising themselves!

Commit your future self

There is a lot of research supporting this one. The behavioural theory is we find it easier to commit our future selves to an action because our present self does not have to face the immediate pain of actually doing it. The trick is to design your future action ahead of time so when the time comes, you have already pre-programmed what you will do and can just follow through without any further thought. This works as long as you don’t second guess the commitment you’ve already made.

Article by Ni Gao

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