How to End Procrastination Once and For All
To paraphrase English poet and satirist Alexander Pope, to procrastinate is human. It’s something everyone struggles with from time to time: you know you have work that needs to be done, but instead you find yourself whiling away the time checking your email, watching television or idly surfing the web. Before you even realize it, you’ve gone hours without making any meaningful progress toward your goal.
Procrastination is a troubling habit that can destroy your productivity and leave you feeling deflated at the end of the day, but the good news is that it’s just that: a habit. And, like other habits, procrastination can be changed and unlearned with enough time, dedication and perseverance. To get things headed in the right direction, it’s helpful to begin by understanding just what procrastination is and why it occurs.
Procrastination: Know Your Enemy
While the popular sentiment is to blame procrastination on the internet, smartphones and other technologies that constantly pull at our attention spans, the habit has been around for as long as humans have roamed the Earth. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs offer pithy quotes on the importance of doing work when it needs to be done. Some of the finest minds in Classical Greece wove tales of procrastination gone awry. Philosophers have long pondered the phenomenon and how it could best be addressed. The fast pace and short attention spans of the modern world certainly haven’t helped, but you can take some measure of comfort in knowing that you probably don’t procrastinate much more than your ancestors did thousands of years ago.
Many people view procrastination as the simple act of putting off work until the last moment, but the truth is far more insidious. Rather than a simple case of poor time management, true procrastination is a complex psychological phenomenon centered on a fundamental failure in self-regulation. This failure can manifest in several ways, but it most often shows as an inability to delay immediate rewards or accept short-term discomfort in exchange for more meaningful long-term payoffs. Even when procrastination is sure to result in a clearly negative outcome like missing a deadline, losing money or being reprimanded at work, it may not be enough to kick-start your malfunctioning self-regulatory mechanisms.
Go for the Goal
No matter the particular reason for your procrastination, addressing it begins by repairing your ability to self-regulate. One surefire way to do this is to set clear, attainable goals. In order to keep yourself on track, you need to understand precisely what it is that you hope to achieve. The human brain, and particularly that of the chronic procrastinator, does not do well with ambiguity. Setting vague goals such as “I will finish my project” or “I will write a novel” leaves a lot of room for you to slip out from under your responsibilities, whether consciously or subconsciously. Such broad goals may also overwhelm you, leaving you fixated on the sheer amount of work ahead and unsure of where to begin.
Instead, break your tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks and set realistic deadlines for yourself. Rather than aspiring to complete a novel at some undefined point in the future, challenge yourself to sit down and write 500 words in the next two hours. If you have a project due by the end of the week, divide it into specific, actionable steps that can be done each day. Since you probably wait until the last moment to finish your work anyway, creating these artificial deadlines is one way to make your procrastination work for you. To further boost the effectiveness of this approach, take a few moments to consider why each step is important to your overall goal, and be sure to remind yourself of the ultimate payoff for your efforts rather than the negative consequences if you should fail.
Power up Your Willpower
Science tells us that willpower – the ability to resist temptation and exert self-control for a beneficial purpose – is a finite resource that is easily depleted. This should come as no surprise to chronic procrastinators, but it’s not all bad news. Willpower is also a skill that can be learned and improved. Just as procrastination tends to lead to even more procrastination, employing your willpower successfully now makes it easier to do so again in the future. In fact, this is one of the secrets behind breaking your goals into small, easily achievable chunks. Even if you begin with a very modest task – say, turning off your phone for half an hour and completing the paperwork that’s been sitting on your desk for the past week – the resulting sense of accomplishment will help to refill your willpower and ready you for the next task on your list.
Another step in protecting your willpower reserves is to learn self-forgiveness. While it’s not a good idea to excuse away your procrastination entirely, it’s important to forgive yourself for the occasional slip-up. Becoming upset or stressed out about your procrastination takes a toll both physically and mentally, and it can sap you of the willpower needed to stick it out and finish your next task. Finally, you can also enlist outside help. A common tactic is to publicly declare your intentions to those who are important to you, whether it be friends, family or coworkers. While it isn’t a magic bullet, sometimes a little bit of peer pressure can be the extra kick you need to will your way through that tough task you’ve been putting off.
Procrastination is a cunning and formidable foe, and it’s easy to fall into a vicious and self-defeating feedback cycle. However, there’s no need to despair if you’re a chronic procrastinator. With earnest commitment and a bit of patience, the simple tips above will have you well on your way to becoming an ex-procrastinator. Now, it’s time to stop reading and get to work!