5 Tricks to Stop Procrastinating for Good
Always putting things off? Join the club: Research shows 20% of people are chronic procrastinators.
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 freezeâ€”that happens sometimesâ€”so I figured Iâ€™d put it off for another day, when I had a little more mojo. Thing was, I wasnâ€™t 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 Iâ€™m finally rolling up my sleeves to work on this story aboutâ€”wait for itâ€”procrastination.
Embarrassed? You betcha. But while I may not be proud of my â€œthere's always laterâ€ mentality, Iâ€™m 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 letâ€™s 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 isnâ€™t about slacking off or lacking the intention to work; itâ€™s not a time-management problem, either. More to the point, itâ€™s about self-regulation, or the lack thereof. â€œItâ€™s that six-year-old inside each of us saying, I donâ€™t want to! I donâ€™t 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: â€œThe pleasure of now trumps all the future stuff. We discount future rewards for sooner rewardsâ€”even if theyâ€™re 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. â€œThereâ€™s a feeling of growing pressure because youâ€™re only delaying the inevitable,â€ says Gustavson. â€œYou 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 tracksâ€”say, tweaking and re-tweaking term papers. Or, as Pychyl puts it: â€œYou 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. â€œSimply put,â€ says Pychyl, â€œthe sooner you take care of a health problem, the better the outcome tends to be.â€ And the stress that procrastination creates isnâ€™t all that great for your health either.
Message received. But how do you break free from the â€œIâ€™ll 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 multipliedâ€”not surprising, since everything is just a quick click away. You might tell yourself, Itâ€™ll take only a minute to check these messages, but 10 minutes later, youâ€™re still at it. Whatâ€™s more, many of us secretly welcome interruptions (whether theyâ€™re of the tech or human kind) because they take us away from whatever it is weâ€™re 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 minutesâ€”thatâ€™s almost 20 times per hour. Even worse, research shows that you donâ€™t 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 donâ€™t feel all that bummed about temporarily blowing off an assignment because we trick ourselves into thinking that weâ€™ll be more in the mood (and feel more inspired) laterâ€”which, letâ€™s face it, is pretty wishful thinking. So maybe itâ€™s time you became acquainted with your â€œfuture 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). â€œMost of the time, we think of our future self as a stranger, someone weâ€™re not all that connected with. But itâ€™s important to acknowledge how your present self affects your future self,â€ says Pychyl. â€œTake a few seconds to really think about how much better youâ€™ll feel in the days and weeks ahead if you roll up your sleeves now.â€
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Broad, general goalsâ€”like, Iâ€™m going to hit the gym tomorrow, for sureâ€”donâ€™t mean a whole lot. Being more precise (as in, Iâ€™m 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. â€œIf you want to exercise when you get home from work,â€ says Pychl, â€œmake 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, Iâ€™ll just work on it for five minutes, then stop. Funny thing is, once you actually dig in, youâ€™ll most likely realize itâ€™s not all that difficult or stressful as you thoughtâ€”and keep right on going. Or as Pychyl puts it: â€œJust spin the pedals and remind yourself that you can get off the bike at any time. Before you know it, youâ€™ll be deep into whatever it is youâ€™ve been dreading.â€ Another trick: Separate your goal into manageable chunks to be done throughout the day or week. â€œAfter all,â€ says Gustovson, â€œa complex task isnâ€™t just one thingâ€”itâ€™s a lot of little things.â€
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Hit the ground running
If youâ€™ve got a task you just dread, do it in the a.m., says Pychyl: â€œMark Twain once had a great line: If itâ€™s your job to eat a frog, itâ€™s 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 exhaustedâ€”a muscle that can tire easily. So the trick is to engage that muscle when itâ€™s still fresh.â€
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