I meant to write this piece two weeks ago. I created a Word document (November 4th, was it?) and fully intended to start banging away on my Mac.Â But I had to contact some experts for advice, and that can be time-consuming, so I decided it might be better to push the story to the side for a day, and tackle something a little easier. The next day, unfortunately, I kind of had a brain freezeâthat happens sometimesâso I figured Iâd put it off for another day, when I had a little more mojo. Thing was, I wasnât all that inspired the following day either. And then my allergies kicked in, I popped a Benadryl, andâ¦well you get the picture, right?
So here it is, a week and change later, and Iâm finally rolling up my sleeves to work on this story aboutâwait for itâprocrastination.
Embarrassed? You betcha. But while I may not be proud of my âthere's always laterâ mentality, Iâm hardly alone here. In fact, research shows thatÂ that as many as 20% of us areÂ chronic procrastinators.
You know who you are: Visa bills fall by the wayside. Income tax returns get to Uncle Sam a couple weeks late. And letâs not even get into Christmas Eve crunch-time shopping (wonder if CVS is going bring back that cute chocolate fondue fountain this year?).
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But before you start getting all guilt-trippy, know this: Procrastination isnât about slacking off or lacking the intention to work; itâs not a time-management problem, either. More to the point, itâs about self-regulation, or the lack thereof. âItâs that six-year-old inside each of us saying, I donât want to! I donât feel like it!â says Timothy Pychyl, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, and the author of Solving the Procrastination PuzzleÂ ($9, amazon.com).
You see, we fully intend to get to the matter at hand, onlyâ¦later. For this reason, as strange as it may seem, many procrastinators tend to be highly impulsive. Or as Pychl puts it: âThe pleasure of now trumps all the future stuff. We discount future rewards for sooner rewardsâeven if theyâre not aligned with our goals.â
The irony here, according to Dan Gustavson, a researcher of cognitive psychology and behavioral genetics at University of Colorado, Boulder, is that procrastination rarely makes us all that happy. âThereâs a feeling of growing pressure because youâre only delaying the inevitable,â says Gustavson. âYou understand that putting off the task is only going to hurt you in the long run. But you do it anyway.â
Of course, not all procrastinating is about giving in to temptation. Some procrastinators are actually perfectionists. Basically, these are people who are so worried about living up to the standards of others that they freeze in their tracksâsay, tweaking and re-tweaking term papers. Or, as Pychyl puts it: âYou address your fear of putting yourself on the line by delaying your actions.â
But while dancing around deadlines may not seem all that serious, putting things off over time can have serious repercussions that far go beyond ticking off your boss or college professor. Let's face it: shelving a string of exercise classes or delaying an appointment with your MD or dentist can have serous consequences for your health. âSimply put,â says Pychyl, âthe sooner you take care of a health problem, the better the outcome tends to be.â And the stress that procrastination creates isnât all that great for your health either.
Message received. But how do you break free from the âIâll deal with it laterâ habit? Check out these stay-with-it strategies.
Do away with distractions
In a world of iPhones, Kindles, and other kinds of techie temptations, distractions have multipliedânot surprising, since everything is just a quick click away. You might tell yourself, Itâll take only a minute to check these messages, but 10 minutes later, youâre still at it. Whatâs more, many of us secretly welcome interruptions (whether theyâre of the tech or human kind) because they take us away from whatever it is weâre working on.
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But check this out: A study done at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, found that the average worker is interrupted every three minutesâthatâs almost 20 times per hour. Even worse, research shows that you donât immediately return to what you were doing before you were interrupted; it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track. So before digging into any task or assignment, try closing yourself off from anything that can possibly divert your attention. Turn off your phone, and stow away that candy jar on your desk that just encourages chatty co-workers to stop by and shoot the breeze.
Say âhiâ to Future You
Usually we donât feel all that bummed about temporarily blowing off an assignment because we trick ourselves into thinking that weâll be more in the mood (and feel more inspired) laterâwhich, letâs face it, is pretty wishful thinking. So maybe itâs time you became acquainted with your âfuture selfâ (you know, the one who is going to be seriously stressed out tomorrow, when she has to deal with all that work with a rapidly approaching deadline). âMost of the time, we think of our future self as a stranger, someone weâre not all that connected with. But itâs important to acknowledge how your present self affects your future self,â says Pychyl. âTake a few seconds to really think about how much better youâll feel in the days and weeks ahead if you roll up your sleeves now.â
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Broad, general goalsâlike, Iâm going to hit the gym tomorrow, for sureâdonât mean a whole lot. Being more precise (as in, Iâm going to set aside 45 minutes at 7:30 to hit the gym) makes it easier to stay on track, says Gustavson. Another trick: Make it damn near impossible to ignore the task at hand. âIf you want to exercise when you get home from work,â says Pychl, âmake sure your workout clothes are near the door, so you can practically trip over them when you come home.â
Just do it
Intimidated by a big task? Try this trick: Just tell yourself, You know, Iâll just work on it for five minutes, then stop. Funny thing is, once you actually dig in, youâll most likely realize itâs not all that difficult or stressful as you thoughtâand keep right on going. Or as Pychyl puts it: âJust spin the pedals and remind yourself that you can get off the bike at any time. Before you know it, youâll be deep into whatever it is youâve been dreading.â Another trick: Separate your goal into manageable chunks to be done throughout the day or week. âAfter all,â says Gustovson, âa complex task isnât just one thingâitâs a lot of little things.â
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Hit the ground running
If youâve got a task you just dread, do it in the a.m., says Pychyl: âMark Twain once had a great line: If itâs your job to eat a frog, itâs best to do it first thing in the morning.Â What that means: Most difficult tasks take willpower, and willpower is a limited resource that is quickly exhaustedâa muscle that can tire easily. So the trick is to engage that muscle when itâs still fresh.â
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