Procrastination is an umbrella term to describe all the behaviours which avoid or delay doing things that we don't want to do, or don't like doing. There's a myriad of behaviours that we have at our disposal, from minimising the importance of tasks, to ignoring them completely, to justifying our approach as somehow more beneficial than just doing something.
We are all very different in what we like doing, how we like to do things and why we want to do things... So for me, the issue of procrastination is a complex one that will never be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. Some people really don't see any problem for themselves in leaving tasks until they become critical, or life-threatening. (Their colleagues, friends and family may feel differently, but that's another matter.) In fact, they may well 'defend' their approach to work/life by saying that they're a perfectionist, or that they work better under pressure. Others will say that they know they procrastinate, but they have no idea how to stop doing it - they have a yearning that 'someday' (when they're less busy, stressed, distracted...) they'll sort themselves out and learn to take control. But you know where 'someday' gets us: not very far at all!
Everyone sits somewhere along the continuum of "happy to procrastinate" through to "desperate to stop procrastinating". Where we sit on that continuum will depend on the day of the week/month, the season of the year, the tasks in question and the people by whom we are surrounded. I imagine it as a set of scales, with the desire to act on one side and the perceived dread or dislike of doing whatever it is, on the other side. Whichever is stronger will always win. So unless you really, really want to stop procrastinating more than you want to avoid doing whatever the task is, then you'll never break the vicious cycle.
So what's the solution? I believe the first step involves becoming more conscious of the choices we make on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis. Rather than just 'going with the flow', seeing where our mood and un-checked inclination takes us, we can choose to consciously consider what we do with our time and why we're doing it. If we sit at our desk in the morning, open up our emails and just click through until something interesting grabs our attention, the likelihood is that we won't be putting our time to particularly good use. If there's a task that never seems to get ticked on our to-do-list, or something that we always seem to do in a panic at the last possible minute, then the first step is to understand why.
This first step will need a fair amount of courage and honesty. Is it that it seems too much like hard work? or perhaps it's because we're afraid of failure (so we don't want to even try in case we get it wrong). It could just be that we don't know where to start, or that it seems like an overwhelming mountain to climb. On the other hand, it could be that we're just not into doing things that we don't enjoy - particularly if there's no obvious immediate personal gain. The list is endless.
Once you have your most likely answer (or combination of answers) then, and only then can you begin to create a plan of action to address the issues. If you find this step difficult, and you're genuinely determined to get to the bottom of it, you may need to enlist the help of a trustworthy and supportive friend or colleague to explore the issues with you. It's not helpful to see it as a personality assassination, or a blame game - simply a detached analysis of what's getting in the way of you tackling particular tasks before you get to the "oh no, now I'm in real trouble" stage.
Here are a few suggestions for counteracting some of the most common reasons for procrastinating:
Unconvinced that procrastination is a problem?
- Identify the price of procrastination in terms of your reputation and relationships. Ask your immediate colleagues, friends and family how your procrastinating affects them. Then ask yourself, is it really worth it?
- Admit that procrastination is a lack of self-discipline and not a skill or technique - but it is within your power to overcome it.
- Recognise the impact your procrastination has on others and show more consideration to people by planning properly and involving them at the appropriate time.
- Remind yourself that tasks rarely get easier, or go away because they have been postponed.
- Convince yourself of the benefits to you, your colleagues, friends, family or anyone else that matters to you - if you do it sooner rather than later.
- Make a plan that breaks down the task into achievable chunks with estimated time allowances and time scales. Small deadlines are so much easier to deal with than one large overwhelming task.
- Aim to get the task completed a while before any deadline - so that you allow for any unexpected interruptions and obtain a second opinion if required.
- Before you get going, identify any areas of the task that you may need help with, so that you can enlist the appropriate help in good time.
If you can, involve others early on in the task and approach it as a team effort. This could help you all avoid procrastinating, as you won’t want to let each other down.
If the task involves a particular frame of mind, such as being creative, or feeling positive, or having clarity of thought - plan to do it when you know you are most likely to be feeling that way. (Leaving a complex or creative task until after lunch is not usually very productive!)
Don’t allow the task to get out of control because you are being too fussy about certain elements – stay focused on the overall objective of the task, and what you are trying to achieve from it. ("Good enough is good enough")
The task is dull and boring, or something you don't like doing?
- Plan to do it when you are at your least energetic - you'll be pleased to plod your way through something un-challenging.
- Visualise yourself getting on with the task and realise how good you will feel if you complete it on time. Compare that with how bad you will feel if you don’t.
- Promise yourself a reward for completing it – and make sure you follow-through!
You're easily distracted, or you just keep forgetting to do things?
- Find and implement a reminder system that suits you - it could be Outlook task manager, an alarm on your phone, a simple diary/to do list on the wall, or a reminder by text or email from a friend. Use it to prompt yourself when it's time to start on a particular task that you've scheduled.
- When the time comes, try cutting yourself off from distractions (turn your phone off, go to a private room, or tell others that you don't want to be disturbed for an hour or so. Then just get on with it until your allotted time is up, or until you have completed the first stage.
- You may get distracted because you have a short attention span, or because you're attempting to do too much at once. If this is the case, make yourself stop, focus on something else and return to it at an allotted time.
- Tell others what you're getting on with, and let them know when you've finished, so they can congratulate you. (In a totally non-patronising way, of course!)
- Promise yourself a reward for staying focused and not being distracted – and make sure you follow-through!
You don't see the task as a major priority?
- Consider the consequences of continuing to leave the task uncompleted. If it genuinely won't make a jot of difference to you, or to others - cross it off your to do list and don't give it another thought.
- If you have other more important priorities right now, but you can envisage a future problem if you keep putting it off, schedule a specific date and time when you'll make a start.
- If you have lost sight of how important the task is in the grand scheme of things (you're getting too bogged down with small, less significant things) take time to write down your personal goals and priorities. Work out how this task fits in, and remind yourself of the value of completing it sooner rather than later.
To me, the most worrying part of the research findings shared by the BBC is that serious procrastinators are apparently less wealthy, less healthy and less happy than those who don't delay. So if you do happen to catch yourself justifying your procrastination to yourself or to others, it may be a good idea to stop and think about what's really going on, just in case you're inadvertently covering up a ticking time bomb...