Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. – William James
It’s midyear exam time for students around the world. I thought I’d do a post on procrastinating to hopefully help some of them out. If you know someone studying at the moment why not email them this article as a friendly reminder to work harder!
Procrastination is the art of putting things off until later. Many people are notorious procrastinators; their entire life is wasted putting off projects until a later time. The thing about procrastination is that is causes stress and anxiety. When we don’t get things done right away we think about it over and over again. In this post I am going to talk about how to beat procrastination and get things done now.
Why do we procrastinate?
Before you can solve any problem you need to know the cause of the problem. It is like treating a disease. If you do not know what causes the disease there is no way to find a cure. Procrastination is the same. We need to know what causes people to behave like this. Once we know that we can attack the cause instead of running around trying to deal with every symptom that procrastination causes.
Many psychologists belive that people procrastinate as a way to cope with the stress that is associated with beginning a new task. This makes good sense. If you have a major thesis due it is much easier to find excuses as to why not to start writing than it is to make a plan, do research, write a draft, etc.
I have noticed that I do this many times during a day. For example, if I have just had a half an hour off work to have lunch I will put off going back to work for as long as I can. If I really think about this behavior it is probably because I am avoiding the stress of starting work again.
Psychologists cite a whole host of others reason as to why we procrastinate. Some say it is a fear of big tasks while other say it is about not wanting to interrupt the natural flow of life with “less meaningful” tasks. Others say it is a form of laziness. Still others say it is about impulsiveness meaning that the person gives in to every little impulse thus never getting around to starting those big important ones.
However, I believe there is one bigger cause.
I am convinced that people who procrastinate a lot are under the sway of a strong ego that is largely perfectionist. For example, there are many people who deliberately underachieve in life because they are afraid of failing and afraid of how their peers will view them. You see this a lot in high school and college. You have smart kids who procrastinate because they want an excuse if they fail. They are also stressed about starting the task because this means they will have to put in effort and, in some respects, be judged for that effort. If their work is not going to be perfect they would rather put it off. I think a lot of us would rather be known as procrastinators than attempt to be achievers and not quite make it. But I could be wrong.
What problems does procrastination cause?
Now that we know some of the causes of procrastination it is good to look at some of the problems that excessive procrastinating can cause. It is good to have a little bit of fear. To use another example, knowing the problems associated with procrastination is like knowing the problems associated with smoking. It is good to delve into the negative sometimes if it helps you avoid going down the wrong path.
1. Procrastinating causes you to lose energy
When you put things off all the time you no longer have the drive and energy to approach tasks that require a fair bit of work. The longer you leave things the harder they are to complete.
This is taught by the buddhist meditation masters all the time. They say that as soon as you learn the meditation you must start right away otherwise it will get harder and harder to start.
2. Procrastination causes stress and anxiety
The main problem with procrastinating is that it causes you to become stressed and anxious. The reason for this is that when the task drags on and on we think about it in our head and we stress about when it is going to get finished. This is quite ironic because it is we who are causing it to take a long time!
3. Procrastination stops you from achieving things in life
One of the really sad things about this thing called procrastination is that it stop you from achieving your goals and dreams in life. I know people who have dreamed of being a doctor all their life who probably won’t get the entry score because the procrastinate with their studies. This is such a shame.
When we look back at our life as old folks it is important to have no regrets. One thing that we will surely regret is wasting our fantastic opportunities because we we procrastinating. This is like a begger having a lump of gold his whole life and not spending it to change his crappy situation.
How to stop procrastinating and get things done now
Now I want to look at some tools that can be really valuable for beating procrastination. Learning to overcome procrastination is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. You will be a happier person with less stress, you will achieve more and you will not look back on your life with regrets.
1. Just do it
One of the best slogans ever created was by Nike when they told the world’s aspiring athletes and sportspeople to “just do it”. Of course they meant “just do it while wearing our gear” but the essence is still helpful.
Getting in to the habit of just doing it is a very helpful thing to do. As soon as you get a task you should start on it. It might be about losing weight, starting a new assignment, changing jobs, moving house, etc. The best thing you can do is start and finish it as soon as possible. Forget all the mental chatter that is going on in your head and just do it!
2. Realize that you are procrastinating
If you do not acknowledge that you are a procrastinator you will not be able overcome this problem. One of the most powerful things you can do when thoughts of putting it off arise in your mind is to look straight at those thoughts and realize that you are about to procrastinate.
If you catch your mind at this early stage it is a lot easier to overcome the power of procrastination. It is when you entertain those thoughts and acknowledge them as important that it becomes a problem that is difficult to control. For example, I know a lot of people are addicted to Facebook at the moment. During the work day they will procrastinate by saying, “I’ll just spend five minutes look at Facebook and then I will do some work”. This has already gone past the awareness stage and you have now conceptually justified your actions.
If you look closely at your mind you will see a tiny conversation going on – your procrastinator mind is trying to get you to put it off and is thinking of a 1000 reasons why you shouldn’t start work yet. However, if you can see that mind for what it truly is you will be able to beat the urge to put it off.
3. Remember your motivations
If you have been putting off an action or an event like losing weight, going to the dentist, finishing an essay, etc. then it it sometimes helpful to remember why you are doing that thing in the first place. If we can remind ourselves of our initial motivations we will be less likely to stay off task.
For example, if your are having trouble starting with your weight loss diet it is a good idea to remind yourself of all the reasons why you must lose weight. You could write down a list of these reason – it is unhealthy to be overweight, bad diet causes heart problems, I want to be alive for my kid’s weddings, etc. These motivations will help us stay disciplined when the procrastinator bug bites.
4. Write down a timeline for every goal
Another way you can kick yourself up the rear and and get in to gear is by writing down exactly what you want to achieve and by what date. For example, if you have a big assignment due at the end of July you might write down three or four dates in July when you need to have things done by – July 3rd; finalize draft, July 10th; complete research, July 12th; begin introduction, etc.
When you write down goals and give them a date you make it much more accessible. You take it out of your head and put it down on to paper where you can continue to remind yourself without going crazy with thoughts and concepts. You stop procrastination because you now have certain deadlines that you have to work with in some way, shape or form.
5. Take away distractions
Something that a lot of people (myself included!) need to do is take away distractions. When I was studying at university I could never do it at home. If I was home I would soon close the books and go workout, watch TV, play video games or do anything to put the study off. So I would go in to university with a coffee and some food and find a lonley little desk in the back archives of the library. Here I was better able to beat procrastination because I had no distractions immediately on hand.
This isn’t a failsafe method though because there are always going to be distractions. You could be in jail cell and find distractions if you tried. A fly on the wall suddenly becomes extremely interesting to a student who has been studying accounting for the past six hours!
The real key with this one is to have some sense of inner discipline. You will want to find distractions but it is up to you to keep yourself on target. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how many distractions you take away, you will still find an excuse to procrastinate.
At the start of this post I suggested that you email this article to people who are studying or having problems with procrastinating. It just occurred to me, however, that reading this article would just be a further procrastination for them! So perhaps think twice before sending it.
Nothing useful ever comes from procrastinating. It creates more stress in our life and stop us from getting the things that we really want. It is important to actively work to beat procrastination as it is not a problem that will go away by itself. Take some of the strategies in this article and apply them to your situation. Keep experimenting until you find something that works for you.
If you do manange to stop putting things off you will find your life is much more meaningful and you will have more time and energy to do the things you really love. This is possibly the best reason to stop procrastinating.