“The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy” ~ James Surowiecki
As an introvert, my greatest ‘tell’ for procrastination is when I head out of my office to talk with people and see how they are doing. I know that sounds terrible – I should, and do, want to do that more often, and I know it’s important, but the real ‘tell’ is when I start talking about completely non-work related things. I stop by, I drop off the thing, a chat about a couple of work things, and then we launch into a discussion about… the merits of single-sex schooling over co-ed. Or… the recent spate of slips and land-slides in Wellington, and whether it’s ‘normal’ or related to climate-change. Well at least, I do.
Either way, not really work related. Very enjoyable, but not work.
One of the most enjoyable descriptions of procrastination I’ve ever come across is from Tim Urban of the brilliant long-form blog: waitbutwhy.com. Or if you prefer video, the TED talk based on it…
So I’m not going to ‘define’ procrastination – others have already done that remarkably well. Instead, I’m going to focus on what you can do about it.
Beat Procrastination with Mindfulness
Like most things in life – if you don’t know you’re doing it, you can’t really stop it. So the first thing to do is to learn your ‘tell’. I have three:
- The one I mentioned above, also known as socialising
- Playing with my phone/tablet (can range from social media, to scanning news sites, to mindless games)
- Tidying/sorting/filing/making to-do-lists – loosely referred to as ‘organising‘.
This last one is particularly insidious. I used to believe that I could only work in a tidy workspace, and that the clutter around me prevented me from getting my ‘flow’ on. But actually it was more that the only time I’d get any work done was when I’d run out of things that needed organising!
It took me a great many years to figure this out. But I also know that if I’d started my meditation practice sooner, I would have figured it out sooner.
My office/house/life would be a whole heap less organised, but I’d probably be a multi-millionaire by now!
So how do you become sufficiently mindful? Well, you meditate. I use Headspace. But there are other ways. Classes in your community, books, apps and videos.
There are many benefits to meditation (I personally believe it slows down time… but that’s because I want it to, and I’m an optimist) but most important here is that it enables you a degree of emotional detachment from your thoughts. Almost like becoming objective about them, instead of involved in them. Which is pretty cool.
As a consequence, you are more likely to notice that you’re doing something you weren’t intending to do, AND more likely to be able to pull yourself back on task.
As your practice develops, you may also identify your ‘tell/s’. Which will allow you to speed up the ‘noticing and intervening’ part.
Beat Procrastination with Planned Procrastination
My husband likes to tell me that the opposite of an optimist isn’t a pessimist – but in fact is a realist. (At which point I suggest, politely, that optimists and pessimists can both be realists – I have an abundance mindset, after all.)
So regardless of whether you are naturally more or less optimistic, bringing a little more realism to your own self-management and planning can go a long way.
Parkinson’s Law stipulates that work expands to fill the available time. So why, oh why, do you think your work is any different?
Knowing the amount of time available for the project almost gives you permission to procrastinate… I mean there’s no point finishing early, right? You probably won’t be paid any more, or get any additional praise. And if your work involves other people, well you can guarantee that they won’t be planning on finishing early. So… Facebook it is!
Accept it. Schedule it in. Set a timer – and stick to it. Be a little kinder to yourself. And try to space it out through the project so you don’t end up trying to do the whole thing on the last night before it’s due, and doing a crappy job.
Unless the things you do when you’re procrastinating are amazing. Like sky-diving. Or giving millions to charity.
In any other circumstance, you’ll regret it later.
Beat Procrastination with Task Blocking
For some people, a common cause of procrastination is perfectionism. If this is you – take a look at a recent post about overcoming perfectionism.
For me, the most common cause of procrastination is not-knowing.
- Not knowing how
- Not knowing who
- Not knowing what
- Not knowing when
- Not knowing where
- Not knowing why
- Not knowing some other thing that seems monumentally vital to the project.
Not knowing makes the task seem much bigger than it might actually be – because we overestimate the quantity of work attached to the unknowns.
Knowing this means that I also know that a good way to beat procrastination is to break the task up into much smaller chunks. Sometimes ridiculously small chunks. Finding the phone number. Finding the website. Finding the form that needs to be completed. Printing the form that needs to be completed.
Then take the first step. And celebrate it.
Then recalibrate. You might just find that with a handful of very small steps, the task is much more knowable – and therefore your overwhelming-desire-to-send-your-mum-the-kitten-picture-you-just-saw-on-Facebook diminishes.
(Actually in my case it would be an elephant picture. My mum loves elephants.)
I hope this helps! Let me know how you get on in the comments below.