Procrastination is a common struggle. In fact, Dr. Piers Steel shares research in his book, The Procrastination Equation: How To Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done: 95 percent of people admit to procrastinating at least some of the time.
But what is procrastination? It is the act of delaying, postponing, or ignoring tasks. Procrastination often accompanies feelings of guilt, stress, and anxiety. Despite knowing the negative consequences of procrastination, it can be difficult to break the habit. With these 6 strategies, it is possible to conquer (or at least tame) procrastination and become more productive.
Procrastination is not just a matter of a lack of willpower or time management. Procrastination is a stress response.
You might think: “I know that not filing an expense report is a cause of stress. But why would it be the result of stress?” Procrastination isn’t always logical. In the case of an expense report, your brain logically knows that you need to file it to get reimbursed, but when you are feeling overwhelmed, burned out, or stressed, you see the fight-flight-freeze system from your nervous system kick in.
Most of us understand that if we see a car barreling toward us, our stress system kicks in to keep us safe. But our stress response kicks in for situations that aren’t life-or-death. Maybe the reason you aren't filing the expense report is that you spent more money than you were supposed to, or maybe you got into an argument with your spouse, or maybe you lost your receipt from your client's dinner, or maybe this is the first one you have filed with your new organization and the process seems complex and confusing.
How the Freeze stress response can look
If you find that you are stuck on the couch and are mindlessly watching Friends reruns, continually on your phone or iPad, feel exhausted, or feel dread, you may be in freeze mode. A good way to counteract this is through gentle actions - journaling, deep abdominal breathing, gentle stretching, or gazing outside.
How Fight or Flight stress response can look
If you are experiencing busy-ness procrastination like cleaning your coffee pot rather than filing your expense report or your thoughts are racing you may be in flight response. If you feel irritable or want to argue with your spouse you might be in a fight response. A good way to counteract these two stress responses is with more action-oriented: talking with friends or going on a walk.
By understanding the underlying causes and implementing effective strategies, we can tame procrastination and improve our productivity and overall well-being.
Strategy 1: Get curious about why you procrastinate
Chances are, you don’t procrastinate everything. What is something you procrastinated on but ultimately completed on time? Why did you complete it? Was it because of a deadline? Was it for someone else? Was it something that was important to you? Did it have implications if you didn't complete it?
For example, I don’t procrastinate everything. I tend to be highly organized and time-aware when I am doing something for others. I want to be efficient and respect and appreciate their time. When I’ve presented at conferences the last few years, I’ve had my presentations completed a week or two in advance. I presented at a summit a few weeks ago and was able to re-use a slide deck with only a few changes. But these activities involve other people.
I’m not as time-friendly with myself. Doing the dishes? I still feel a little overwhelmed. Putting the finishing touches on my online program I’ve been designing? Organizing (or reorganizing) my digital files seems easier. I am great with a deadline. I am on top of things when it comes to other people. I tend to be more lax with my own to-do list. Thankfully, the remaining strategies help me immensely.
Strategy 2: Get Clarity
One of the reasons for procrastination is feeling overwhelmed by what you need to do. When you have a clear understanding of what needs to be done, it becomes easier to break down the task into smaller, more manageable steps. Filing expense reports might be broken down into several steps. Ask colleagues, find process documentation, scan receipts, and submit report.
Realistic goals help us prioritize our tasks and focus on what is important now.
Strategy 3: Break Things into Smaller Tasks
You don’t need to know all of the steps, just identify several steps or even just the next step you can do now. In the expense report example, the steps could be asking a colleague and scanning in receipts. Much more doable! In fact, I share this strategy in more detail in my "Getting Stuff Done" guide.
Strategy 4: Use the "5-Minute Rule"
The idea behind the "5-Minute Rule" is to commit to working on a task for just five minutes. Often, the hardest part of a task is getting started. By committing to just five minutes, you can overcome this initial hurdle. This strategy is especially useful for tasks that you have been avoiding or find particularly overwhelming.
And remember, action leads to motivation, not the other way around. Most of us think we have to be motivated to take action. But action leads to motivation, and we can do anything for 5 minutes.
Strategy 5: Eliminate Distractions
Distractions can be a major obstacle when it comes to productivity and overcoming procrastination whether it’s the colleague who stops in your office with the question “Gotta sec?” or the email notifications that routinely pop up. This could include minimizing digital distractions by turning off notifications on your phone, finding a quiet workspace, or using productivity apps to block certain websites or apps. By limiting distractions, you can focus on the task at hand and complete it more efficiently.
Strategy 6: Reward Yourself
There is research that shows celebrating successes activates the reward center of our brain by releasing dopamine, which gives a sense of pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation.
Rewards should be something that you look forward to. You might look forward to a cup of coffee with a friend, while I look forward to dancing to my favorite disco song.
Procrastination is a common struggle, but it is not impossible to overcome. By understanding what causes procrastination and implementing effective strategies, we can become more productive and achieve our goals.