Please read Part 2 here. Procrastination is a common struggle experienced by many of us. We often find ourselves feeling guilty and self-critical about it, yet the behavior persists. Why? Several factors contribute: the lack of effective habits and systems (reflecting poor discipline), an aversion to specific emotions (such as anxiety or boredom), and our own flawed patterns of thinking.
Understanding these underlying causes empowers you to employ targeted strategies. By addressing these factors, you can curb minor instances of procrastination, like delaying the start of a project until the last minute, and prevent the larger issues that stem from your patterns of delay.
A prevalent theory suggests that procrastination stems from a lack of discipline, where individuals opt for leisure and enjoyment over diligent work. A contemporary perspective on this explanation highlights the absence of effective systems and habits. Research has consistently demonstrated that robust habits decrease our reliance on self-control, making it simpler to adhere to demanding tasks and avoid diversions. However, developing habits that yield these advantages typically requires several months of consistent effort.
To evaluate whether this is a concern for you, consider asking yourself: What habits do I currently employ to handle my most significant tasks? If your answer is none, consider implementing these strategies:
Schedule sessions for your more important work objectives
Deep work involves concentrating on your most critical long-term projects, such as developing a business strategy, conducting intricate data analysis, or writing a book. Although it can be challenging, consistently dedicating time to deep work each day in a regular pattern can significantly reduce the difficulty.
Habits streamline sequences of behavior, making them more automatic. Consider driving; experienced drivers no longer consciously think about their actions behind the wheel. Similarly, more complex habits like going to the gym or learning a language can become automatic through repetition and cues. Therefore, it’s important to establish a consistent routine for your deep work. Avoid switching the timing arbitrarily, aiming for a regular pattern instead. For instance, following a set period of email and administrative tasks each day, you can begin a deep work session, usually involving writing. This structured approach enhances the automaticity of the habit and promotes productivity.
Develop a personal organizational system for accomplishing new tasks
How about when you’re dealing with new responsibilities that seem unfamiliar? Creating a master system for approaching novel tasks can prevent procrastination. Establishing a systematic approach for handling new challenges can transform the steps you take into a habit, minimizing decision fatigue about where to begin.
How can you create your own system? Reverse engineer it: Think of a challenging task you’ve successfully completed and pinpoint the steps you took to achieve it. I advocate for this approach over trying to replicate someone else’s methods, as it leads to a system tailored to your unique traits and strengths.
People often steer clear of tasks that trigger negative emotions. In psychology, avoidance and its close counterpart, rumination, are recognized as transdiagnostic factors, indicative of many common mental health challenges. Those who cope with stress through avoidance are more susceptible to conditions like depression, anxiety, ADHD, and eating disorders, creating a detrimental cycle. As their mental health deteriorates, so does their tendency to avoid tasks.
Even individuals who occasionally experience feelings of sadness, doubt, or anxiety about their work, or find it challenging to endure the boredom or stress it brings, are inclined to evade tasks eliciting such emotions. This inclination intensifies during periods of uncertainty, making procrastination more likely, even for seemingly straightforward tasks like replying to emails.
To determine if your emotions are the primary reason for procrastination, reflect on your mental well-being. Consider if specific tasks evoke emotions such as boredom, anger, anxiety, or resentment. If so, try employing these strategies:
Let go of your feelings momentarily
Precisely recognizing your emotions, a concept termed as emotional granularity by psychological researchers, can significantly aid in their management. When dealing with procrastination, it’s beneficial to assess the impact of each emotion on your attitude toward a task. For instance, you might realize that writing a presentation for your boss triggers anxiety at an 8 out of 10, resentment at a 6, and boredom at a 4 on a scale from one to ten. Once identified, you can address these emotions individually. This rating system serves as a tool to assess your effectiveness in mitigating these feelings.
When boredom sets in, consider scheduling a reward upon task completion or find ways to make the task more enjoyable, such as collaborating with like minded teammates.
If a task generates feelings of resentment or irritation, focus on what you genuinely value about it. For instance, despite your annoyance at revising according to your supervisor’s requests, you might value the opportunity to refine your skills. Similarly, although cross-division committee work may seem burdensome, you may value its potential to enhance your organization’s culture. Additionally, helping a teammate with tech issues, though frustrating, reflects your value of being a supportive colleague. Recognizing these underlying values can change your perspective on the task.
When facing a task that triggers anxiety, begin by tackling the least daunting aspects and gradually progress from there. This technique mirrors exposure therapy, where you gradually confront what scares you the most. Initially overwhelming elements become manageable as you work through the easier steps.
This method of transforming challenging emotions into enhanced focus and commitment is a component of psychological flexibility, a skill set developed by psychologist Todd Kashdan and his team. The more individuals incorporate this approach, the happier, healthier, and more high-performing they tend to become.
Employ self-compassion in the face of strong negative emotions
At times, our emotions toward a task are influenced by past experiences. Memories resurface, causing a regression into a younger, less confident self. Despite the skills and confidence gained over the years, those emotions can overwhelm us, making it challenging to tap into our areas of expertise.
When confronted with such powerful memories, even individuals adept at project management and problem-solving can find their abilities temporarily impaired.
If you find yourself experiencing a similar reaction, it’s essential to explore whether it connects to an event from your past, be it in childhood, early career, or recent work experiences. Additionally, consider if there’s a recurring pattern concerning the tasks and memories involved.
Numerous studies emphasize the potential for healing these emotional wounds through compassionate self-talk. Here’s an example of such dialogue: “I acknowledge my past disappointments, which make me hesitant now. These feelings are normal and understandable. However, I was a novice back then, and I’ve grown since. Learning from experience is part of the journey, and that’s okay.” Seek out and employ self-talk strategies that resonate with you personally.
Implement shorter work flow periods
When a task holds significance or has been consistently postponed, there’s a common misconception that we need lengthy, marathon work sessions to complete it. This belief often arises from self-criticism, fueled by guilt over perceived lost productivity. Paradoxically, the thought of dedicating an entire day to a daunting task frequently leads to further procrastination.
Certainly, there are two effective strategies you can consider:
- Start small: Commit to working on the task you’ve been avoiding for just 10 minutes today, and resume it tomorrow. Taking this small step can help you overcome the initial emotional barrier of starting.
- Set time limits: Allocate a dedicated 90-minute session to tackle the task today and limit your effort to that timeframe. If you are accustomed to deep work, accomplishing tasks within this duration is feasible. This approach provides a reasonable goal. Alternatively, you can modify this technique. For instance, gradually extend your work time by an additional 10 minutes each workday until you reach a total of two hours. Think of it as preparing for an endurance race, gradually building your stamina.
Your behavior, emotions, and thoughts are intricately linked. Therefore, regardless of the root cause for your tendency to procrastinate, the strategies provided here can assist you in consistently addressing tasks that you struggle to approach with energy or focus. Consider this array of options as a menu for fighting procrastination. Experiment with various techniques to discover the ones that resonate best with you.