It's the day before a big deadline and I find myself busily tidying the papers on my desk, and then I move on to having a big clear out of my drawers and files, followed by a bit of shredding. I congratulate myself on completing this task, because it's something I've been meaning to do for months. The feeling of accomplishment, however, is short-lived. Soon my stress, anxiety and self-doubt about the looming deadline return, now compounded by regret, guilt and self-blame about having wasted an hour of my precious time on such non-urgent tasks.
Procrastination. I'm sure we've all been there and can agree it's incredibly stressful. And it can easily send us into a downwards spiral of stress and anxiety, because the additional negative feelings sap more of our emotional and cognitive energy, making us even less likely to start the task. So we keep putting it off, and round, and round we go… And the thing is, this isn't so much about external pressures - it's largely self-made. So this Stress Awareness Month, I want to share with you some tips that I've come across recently while trying to tackle my tendency to procrastinate.
1. Recognise that procrastination has nothing to do with time management or productivity, it's about the negative emotions that are associated with the particular task that's being avoided. It's a habit that we develop to avoid those negative emotions because of our present bias - our tendency to prioritise our short-term needs over longer term ones.
2. To overcome procrastination, we have to find a better reward than avoidance. Scheduling to do "the worst thing first" is an approach that helps to deter overthinking and creates a habit of tackling the hardest thing when our brains are at their freshest and most creative - typically early in the day. Also, behavioural psychologists have found that one of the most effective ways of creating an enjoyable experience is to stack the most painful parts of the task early in the process.
3. Forgive yourself for procrastinating. This will help you move past the burden of your past acts or failures to focus more effectively on the task at hand.
4. Practise self-compassion. At byrne•dean, our aim is to help create kinder, fairer, more productive workplaces. If we're going to achieve this, of course we have to start with kindness towards ourselves. So try to notice, accept and then let go of any regretful feelings you may have about tasks you have been avoiding. Not only will this help to overcome the procrastination itself, but studies show that self-compassion also boosts motivation and fosters positive emotions like optimism, wisdom, curiosity and personal initiative.
5. Try to reframe your thoughts around a particular task - perhaps remind yourself about the success of previous tasks that you had initially avoided. Envisage how good you will feel when you complete the task.
6. Cultivate curiosity and awareness. What sensations are you feeling in your mind and body when you notice that you're tempted to procrastinate? What is it about the particular task that makes you feel uncomfortable and want to avoid it? Awareness is the key to transforming any negative habit - mindfulness and meditation can be particularly effective ways of developing this.
7. Start small and find momentum. What would you do next if you were to start the task. This makes it easier to get started and then once you've got going, you'll be more motivated to continue.
8. Make your temptations more inconvenient or harder to access. There are lots of ways of doing this, including using technology. For example, I've recently found that freedom.to is a very helpful app to remove online distractions.
9. Create more deadlines and structure to make yourself accountable. For example, find an "accountability partner" with whom you can share what you're committing to achieving and who can follow up with you to hold you to account. We're less likely to postpone what we should do if we know we'll have to explain ourselves to someone else - especially if it's someone we admire. This also helps to increase the rewards felt by achieving the task, because we're hardwired to care about what other people think of us.
10. Abandon perfectionism. If you tend towards perfectionism, remember the maxim, “Done is better than perfect". Usually "good enough" will do. After all, it’s better to do the task competently than to not do it at all because you’re anxious that it won’t be perfect.
And on that note, now I really must finish writing this article and get on with designing that new session!
“The really happy people are those who have broken the chains of procrastination, those who find satisfaction in doing the job at hand. They’re full of eagerness, zest, productivity. You can be, too.” – Norman Vincent Peale