I have a recurring dream. I have something I need to get to on time. I might be going to work, it might be an appointment. It varies. I’m already running late, but I keep doing things that make me even later. Small things that don’t require immediate attention under the circumstances. I might brush my teeth, put on a load of washing, check my emails, water some plants. I get later and later and more and more frustrated, but I just keep doing more things. It’s starts with me needing to be work at 8am but I wake up late at 7am. Then it’s 9am, then after lunch, then nearly dinner time, and yet I’m still trying desperately to get there. It’s a weird, extended self-sabotage and I wake up puffing with frustration and exhaustion. And that right there, my friends, is grand-scale, capital letter Procrastination.
dictionary.com defines procrastination as: the act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention. The Cambridge English Dictionary adds that this is something that is “often unpleasant or boring”. Wickepedia adds, “It could be further stated as a habitual or intentional delay of starting or finishing a task despite knowing it might have negative consequences.”
It’s something we all identify with and frequently grapple with, but why do we do it? Why would we deliberately self-sabotage this way, why is it bad and what can we do about it?
Most things that have significant importance to us (or severe enough consequences) eventually get done. Things we procrastinate regularly about are usually a little further down our priority scale. Occasionally our procrastination can cost us quite obviously - for instance, putting off a routine car service may result in an expensive breakdown, putting off a regular health check might mean an illness discovered prohibitively late. Mostly though,
procrastination results in a low grade, toxic erosion of good attitude and good mood. It is a big source of frustration, guilt and anxiety and in pursuit of a happier, simple life it is well worth tackling.
As illustrated well in my recurring dreams, procrastination is an internal argument. Future Me, who arrives at the appointment on time is fighting it out with Current Me who has an apparently inexhaustible list of other “important” things to do. I see it more obviously when I’m being lazy though. Future me: You’ll feel great if the dishes are done and the kitchen is clean. Current Me: But I really feel comfortable sitting on the couch. Current Me occasionally has a point, but Future Me usually has the high ground. Some things Just Need to Get Done, regardless of them being boring or unpleasant, and an internal argument just extends the time in which I experience negative feelings.
So, what to do?
Tasks that we regularly procrastinate about are rarely very complicated and once we get started, the nagging task will get done. How do we give ourselves the proverbial kick in the pants and beat the inertia? Here’s a few strategies.
Pave the Way.
If something is difficult to do, do everything you can to make it easier. Identify the roadblocks and strategise some improvements.
Procrastinate about exercising? Find the best time of day for you to do it. Say you decide it’s first thing in the morning (before your brain catches up to what you’re doing). Lay out your workout clothes the night before, right next to the bed. Have your exercise (at least roughly) planned. Shoes and full water bottle ready for jogging, DVD out for aerobics, bag packed for the gym.
Never put your stuff away when you come home (and then you can never find everything when you need to leave again)? Make a dedicated space to put your bag, hang your keys or jacket, drop your wallet, plug in your phone. Make it within easy reach of your normal “drop zone”. Make it easy to see and use.
Block the Way.
If you have a certain things that you gravitate to when you procrastinate, make those things harder to do.
Do you jump on your phone and play games or use social media to procrastinate? Go put your phone in the bottom of your bag or a drawer on silent while you complete your nagging task.
Turn off the TV until your task is complete. I’ve noticed how much faster my son gets ready for school when the TV is off!
We all respond to reward. If you’re procrastinating about something, completing the task is clearly not enough reward in itself, as it is still Future Me’s territory. Think about a more immediate reward.
My gym used to have cable TV, which I didn’t at home. There was a show I really liked and to see it I would have to go get on a cardio machine at the gym (for at least the half hour duration of the show). At home, you might only allow yourself to watch a favourite show while exercising.
Only allow yourself to have your mid-morning coffee/tea/snack AFTER you complete your nagging task - empty your nagging email inbox/do the morning tidy up/walk the dog.
We will respond to greater negative consequences. If you’re procrastinating about something, NOT completing the task is clearly not negative enough in itself, as it is still Future Me’s territory. Think about making the consequences of not completing your nagging task more immediate.
Arrange to exercise with a friend or trainer. If you call and cancel, you’ll be letting someone else down too.
Use a friend, family member or a social media group for accountability. Arrange to email/text/post a photo a day (or whatever your metric is) showing your task complete or being completed.
Are you procrastinating because you are overwhelmed by the kind of never-ending to-do list of little things like I do in my dreams? Simplifying you to-do lists might be an obvious way to simply have less nagging tasks to end up procrastinating about. Maybe reduce some things and cut a few out completely.
Procrastinating about cleaning up piles of toys/clothes/junk around the house? What about just having less of all those things? Consider a big declutter or purge. More stuff means more looking after more stuff.
Unsubscribe to a bunch of junk emails and newsletters and there will be less notifications distracting you and less in your inbox to go through and delete.
There are many great resources out there that tackle procrastination and positive habit building. If you’re interested, go look them up (but only when you have some free time, not as a form of advance procrastination). The next big step is finding ways to make completing your tasks part of your everyday routine. Forming positive habits means setting these tasks to “automatic” . When this happens they no longer become a chore. Just remember when you’re putting something off that procrastination really is a thief of time and joy.
“Procrastination makes easy things hard and hard things harder.” - Mason Cooley
Now go get stuff done.