Oh the irony of putting off writing about ‘putting things off’.
Oh the pain of resisting getting started with something and finding endless ways not to do it.
Oh the frustration of procrastination.
I was prompted to reflect on this subject by a recent discussion with a client. She spoke about how hard she finds it to get started with certain projects and tasks. The inner-me nodded knowingly.
Given that 95% of us admit to regularly putting things off (according to The Procrastination Equation by Dr Piers Steel) and 20% of adults in the US identify as chronic procrastinators, I imagine this maybe familiar to you too?
But I bet, like me, you feel you are busy most of the time, hectic even, working hard with endless To Do Lists? That you are constantly striving to get things done and forever juggling different needs or wants and that fine balance between work and the rest of life?
Procrastination isn’t the same as being lazy. In fact, it often goes hand in hand with perfectionism; if you can’t do it just right, you won’t start it at all – better that than doing it wrong or risking failure. I recently read that procrastination is an active process and therefore different to doing nothing. I found this quite reassuring.
When I put my mind to something, there is no stopping me. I feel that wonderful sense of purpose, creation and achievement, all things which I value and know I am good at – when I choose to be. I can move mountains when I feel like this.
So why do I have other days when I struggle to get going, when I find it hard to make decisions or just lose my momentum?
It’s often about the task itself and how we feel about it. What is your internal voice telling you when you are faced with certain tasks?
Maybe you find the task boring. As my client pointed out, it’s generally the activity that she finds least exciting that she puts off most.
Sometimes it’s the perceived enormity of the task – when it feels so onerous, where do you start?
Maybe it’s because it is a bit scary or puts you out of your comfort zone.
So you avoid doing it. You turn to all manner of distractions (this is what YouTube and social media were designed for right?). You feel the urge to do other things, anything but the thing you know you should be doing. You tell yourself that you know it needs to happen, but you don’t feel like doing it now. It’s almost as if you are seeking comfort in doing other things – at least you get to tick something off your list, even if it wasn’t actually on the list.
[In my student days, when I lived with 3 housemates, I was known to have headed off to the laundrette with a term full of dirty tea-towels, rather than get started on my essay. At the time, this was an extreme measure of avoidance!].
If you find yourself getting to the ‘dirty tea towel’ stage, try these steps instead:
Step 1: recognise when you are procrastinating. Become more aware of how you feel about the task. What is happening, what is concerning you and what dialogue you are telling yourself? E.g. “I should do, I don’t want to do, I don’t feel like doing, I feel stressed about doing, I’m not sure how to do, I’d rather clean the loo than do……”
Step 2: re-frame the task. Ask yourself:
- Are you catastrophizing the task; is it really the terrible thing you think it is?
- How will you feel when you’ve done it?
- What are the benefits of achieving it – what will it give you? Consider the short and long term benefits e.g. feeling proud, prepared or confident, pleasing someone else, the impact on your career, your development or reputation…..or simply being able to move on and not having to do it again.
Step 3: focus on – no, implore yourself to….just…get…started. Do something, a tiny part of the task, even just for 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just a start. It’s easier to come back to something than nothing. Then each day, try to do one thing that helps you to make progress with it.
Experts on this sort of thing advocate starting each day with the most unpleasant task first. I know people who actually do this, so they get those things out of the way before they move on to something they find more interesting. It’s almost an annoying trait, but oh how I envy them. Give it a go, you may find you hit anti-procrastination gold.
Step 4: use a prioritisation strategy (e.g. urgent vs important model). Just think how amazing it would feel if you spent most of your time on the ‘important but not urgent’ stuff! Schedule time in the same you would if you were having a meeting. Commit to it and minimise any distractions. You wouldn’t arrange to meet someone and not turn up, so treat the time on this activity with the same respect.
Step 5: reduce the pain of starting by breaking the task down into bitesize chunks. Taking one small step at a time is easier than staring at an enormous mountain. Oh, and give yourself a deadline so it doesn’t trail off into the ‘should have, could have, would have’ ether.
Ha – so what makes you stick to the deadline and not put it off?!
Step 6: promise yourself a reward for completing the task, or perhaps for each chunk of it. A cup of coffee, a slice of cake, a look at your social media or just some of whatever you’d rather be doing.
Step 7: enlist the support of someone else; someone to check in with you, to help you keep on track and hold you to account for what you have committed to. Not wanting to go back on your word or let others down can be a powerful motivator. Perhaps you can offer the same in return?
Step 8: be kind yet firm with yourself. Forgive yourself for past procrastinations and drop the notion that things have to be perfect before you can start (or finish). Life and work rarely are, so you could be in for a long wait.
Breaking the pattern of procrastination isn’t easy, especially if your natural preference is to leave things to the last minute, relying on the subsequent surge of energy to get the previously put-off things done. But as with all changes in behaviour, it starts with focusing on your awareness and consciously taking small steps towards the benefits and the place you want to be.