Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines procrastination as, "Putting off intentionally the doing of something that should be done." But procrastination has been more simply described as 'the gap between contemplation and action.' Procrastination, that inability to start or finish a task we know has to be done, is one of the most common forms of avoidance, and is certainly a top success-blocking habit.
Humans are wired by evolution to favor obvious short-term goals and outcomes over nebulous future ones. We can experience conflict between the desire for easy gratification and the expected drudgery of working to long-term success. We need a way to address that conflict, and free ourselves up to move forward if we're stuck.
Although everybody procrastinates sometimes, some of us are bothered consistently by an inability to start and finish projects in a way that maximizes outcomes and minimizes effort. Most people procrastinate because they anticipate that taking on the task will generate more stress than they're currently suffering. But in reality, it's procrastination that creates and maintains the highest stress levels. Whereas the completion of a necessary task, or even just steps taken in that direction, offer stress relief. As well as emotional and mental freedom. And an increased sense of accomplishment. And rise in self-esteem. Not to mention the freeing up of energy to devote to things we fully love and enjoy!
Someone famously said, "99% of success is showing up." The biggest hurdle to finishing most tasks is starting them. Getting off the couch can be the toughest thing on some days, but once we actually stand up, we begin to develop momentum. How do we move from contemplation to action, minimizing procrastination and crushing the New Year?
1. Create an “I will” list! This is a great way to manage the feeling of "I'm overwhelmed" that can glue us to the couch, TV, video game. In the evening, take a few minutes to think of the things that need to get done tomorrow. If you had time to accomplish only one, which would it be? If only two, which two? And so on. Keep your list short, no more than five or six items for the day. Prioritize, and discern the difference between what actually needs to be done and what your sense of urgency tells you needs to be done.
World-famous over-achiever Tim Ferris talks about using baby steps in these lists to build momentum and create a history of accomplishment: "The biggest problem is that people bite off too much. Make your quota low so you can 'succeed' each day. One hugely successful ghost writer wrote just two crappy pages per day. That’s all he had to write to 'win' for the day, and of course, he often wrote more.
"Start small. I like the Pomodoro technique (breaking tasks into smaller units and using timers to begin and end the planned work)... Commit to a sprint of activity, using a timer, for just 20 minutes. It will help overcome the procrastination inertia."
For example, if your goal is clean your dorm room or garage workbench, and the overall task seems too big to accomplish in one go, put 'tidying up corner of the room', or 'organize one set of tools', on the list. Set your timer, and stop when it goes off. Then move on to the next task on the list (or don't, if you find yourself motivated to keep going)!
So every night before sleep, create your “I Will!” list for the following day. Review your list in the morning, and check things off after completion. At the end of the day, anything you didn't get to can go to the top of tomorrow's list (or not). Repeat this daily.
2. Control your self talk, or your self-talk controls you! What are you thinking when you're putting something off? Do any of these 'poison' words familiar: should, must, have to, can't, later, maybe, tomorrow, hate that, don’t feel like it, don't want to…? Our mental dialog influences our focus and motivation, and ordering ourself to do things can be as counterproductive as orders from someone else!
Treat poison words like alarms. Every time a should, must, have to, can't, later, you better or else pops into your head, hit the pause button. Reframe your thoughts by replacing those motivation-killing words with empowering ones like, "I choose, I can, I will, I'll do this for just 10 minutes," and so on, and then use that break in thought pattern as a signal to take an action toward completing the work.
3. Bundle tedious tasks with rewards! To ease the conflict between short and long-term rewards, look for ways to include things you like to do with things you need to do. Do you have four chapters due by Friday? Try reading on the spin bike. Or if what you're procrastinating is your New Year's exercise plan, bring an audiobook to listen to while you're on the elliptical. If you have a paper to write, can you do it outside in the warm sun (or in the warm, sunny window)? If you're using a timer to break tasks up into more manageable bits, can you schedule a reward at the end of each task?
And generally, plan to manage stress overall through exercise or other activities you enjoy. Maintain a balance between what you like and what you're required to do. Add these to your "I Will!" plan for the day. During periods when time seems scarce (which often triggers procrastination), keep your workouts or activities shorter, focused, and efficient, but don't trade them in for what you 'must do'. Staying active through exercise and fun activities will help you decrease stress, maintain energy, and focus.
4. Find an accountability partner! Who among your friends, family, or colleagues has either a similar goal, set of tasks, or issues with procrastination? Create an accountability partnership with them, or with a trusted advisor, and ask if they can help witness your self-accountability and mark your progress. Each day, text or email 'Done' for the items on your list you've completed. Having such a partnership really will help keep you, and/or each other, on task and goal-focused--and will reinforce each little success.
Remember, change doesn't happen overnight. It's not exactly linear, so cut yourself a little slack if you don't follow these suggestions (or any others) perfectly. But keep coming back to them. With time, you'll build a history of successful task completions, and the more of those you have in your mental files the easier it will be to unprocrastinate next time. Success feeds on itself; the better you do the better you do is the formula. Stick with it, one task at a time.
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