Procrastination is a form of self-regulation failure that involves prioritizing short-term mood repair over the long-term pursuit of intended actions (Sirois & Pychyl, 2013). Basically, it’s more fun to watch TV or read a book than to clean the toilet. At least, in the moment. The problem is that the toilet isn’t going to clean itself. Long-term, its dirt weighs on you. It’s also important to note that making dinner for the family instead of getting that report out is not procrastination. That’s delay. Children, partners, pets, and other things out of our control are not procrastination. Procrastination is avoidance.
Why is procrastination a problem?
25% of adults procrastinate, and that shoots up to 80-95% in college or university students (Steel, 2007). And it’s not just a work problem. When I ask the question, “What is the one thing that you are not doing everyday that, if you did do it, would have a significantly positive impact on your life?” most people do not talk about work. They talk about things like exercise, healthy eating, and meditation. When we procrastinate on things to do with our mental and physical health, it can lead to anxiety, depression, poor sleep, and other nasty side effects.
When and why do people procrastinate?
It’s a misconception that procrastination is a time management problem. It’s not poor time management, it’s poor mood management. People procrastinate on tasks that are boring, frustrating, unpleasant, lacking meaning, or lacking structure. These kinds of tasks cause negative moods and humans are wired to avoid those feelings. It turns out that people who don’t procrastinate aren’t better at time management. They’re better at mood management.
Unfortunately, while it might feel better in the moment to stay up late watching the latest show on Netflix, procrastination ultimately leads to guilt, shame, and stress, which will ultimately cause more negativity and entice you to stay up late again the next night to try to feel better. Of course, that only causes more guilt, shame, and stress. The vicious cycle gains momentum spiralling toward despair.
How can we reduce procrastination and improve productivity?
- Set a clear work schedule with breaks.
- Tasks without structure create uncertainty, which feels bad and increases the chance of procrastination.
- Breaks are a part of productivity. If you don’t take one, then suddenly you are exhausted and you take an exceptionally long break. Quick breaks can pique your interest back into the task.
- Reduce distractions.
- Tell people you’re working and can’t be interrupted. The quick ask that can derail productivity may be avoided and make you less likely to turn the interruption into a procrastination rationalization.
- Plan for distractions.
- Just because you let everyone know you need to focus doesn’t mean they’ll respect your wishes. Come up with a plan. For example, when the kids come running in to tell me something, I’ll take a five-minute break and then get back to work.
- Reduce task uncertainty.
- Lack of clarity on what you’re trying to accomplish or what “finished” looks like breeds negativity and can cause analysis paralysis, anxiety, and self-criticism. Try to define the task before you get started.
- Practice self-compassion and self-care.
- Procrastination happens. It’s okay if you’re struggling. We all have those days. If you can find a way to manage your focus, not your time, you’ll make some progress toward your goal, reversing (or slowing) the vicious mood cycle. Celebrate the small victories! Sleep well, get outdoors, eat properly (a bag of chips is not lunch!). Treat yourself as you would a friend going through a hard time.
- Cultivate meaning.
- Tom Peters suggests making every project a Wow! project. It’s not fun to clean out the junk closet, but if you recognize that cleaning it out will give you that desperately needed space to declutter your work space and make every day feel a bit more serene? That’s worth it. Find purpose in your work by answering why the task is important to yourself, your clients, and your family. If you can find more meaning in a task it will counteract the negative, procrastination-inducing feelings.
- Time block.
- For the truly mundane tasks, keep a list of them and set a dedicated time each week to accomplish as many as possible in the allotted time. Once the time is up, you’re done! You’ve made some progress which you can feel good about. Whatever you didn’t get to will still be there next week when you tackle that list again.
“But what if I do my best work when working to a deadline?” Well, you may feel that way. But the research has shown that people who report working better to a deadline, in fact produce higher quality of work when they haven’t procrastinated.
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