An exaggeration? Perhaps, but procrastination is like an illness: debilitating, hard to shake off, and utterly demoralising. When the procrastination bug hits you, suddenly there’s 3,942 things you *have* to get done before you can focus on The Big Thing™.
Meeting deadlines, starting projects, writing blog posts, calling people back, answering emails, ordering merchandise – all of this stuff just suddenly seems insurmountable. So you should have a bath, make a snack, scroll the ‘gram, do a third Buzzfeed quiz. Is that a due date? I heard Mexico is nice this time of year.
Why do we avoid stuff?
There are some people on this planet who are immune to the procrastination bug. These creatures who walk amongst us are what we mere mortals aspire to be – driven, motivated, organised. When you ask them to do something they *actually* do it, and do it on time. Incredible.
There are a number of reasons for why we might procrastinate ranging anywhere from “I can’t be bothered to do that right now” to “I have a crippling fear of failing this task”. Anywhere on this spectrum is valid. Human psychology is a broad and confusing thing.
Procrastination is more than just postponing a task: it is creating an intentional delay, knowing that in doing so you are compromising yourself. Basically, knowing that procrastination is bad for us isn’t going to stop us from doing it.
The 5 principles of procrastination.
Procrastination, like any illness, has symptoms. Feeling lazy, frustrated, irritable, tired or stressed are just a few. You’re allowed to feel overwhelmed, anxious and just plain negative. Be human. Feel stuff. And once you’ve done that, start getting over it.
Here are our 5 principles of procrastination. You might feel there’s more, or maybe less, but generally these are the things you need to conquer to get back on track.
1. Be organised & manage your time efficiently.
Time management and organisation are a skills; there are very few people out there who are naturally good at time management and being organised. Both are learned behaviours and they’re critical to productivity and combatting procrastination.
The trick to learned behaviours is finding a method that resonates with you. Generally, we can break down how people observe and retain information into four categories:
- Visual – a preference for images and spatial understanding. Diagrams, flowcharts, flashcards and pictures are useful for these types of learners.
- Auditory – a preference for sounds, music and aural aids. Associating instructions with particular sound effects or musical accompaniments can be useful. Studying or working to music is helpful.
- Verbal – a preference for hearing and reading spoken words or instructions. These learners are often good listeners and will repeat back instructions or record them in writing. Bullet journals, repetition and voice recordings suit these kinds of people.
- Kinetic – a preference for using the body and touch, especially in practical, hands-on situations. This method is good for people who don’t retain information well when it is written or explained; they learn by doing.
The first step to learning anything to know how you learn. Getting organised and managing your time becomes easier after that. So if you need to write down every last detail, or have instructions repeated, or just jump in and start doing something – go for it. Everyone learns differently.
2. Correct prioritisation is key.
Prioritising tasks correctly is another learned skill. Sometimes writing another to-do list doesn’t cut it. Some people choose to start at the hardest thing, or the easiest thing, or the smallest thing, or the most irrelevant thing. Order by date, by magnitude, or by whatever makes sense.
The real trick to good prioritisation is categories. Don’t lump everything in together – that’s how you get overwhelmed. Having “buy milk” on the same list as “collate monthly analyses with Debra” isn’t productive. When you see one tiny or easy thing, you immediately take up the brain space needed for The Big Thing™.
Having a work-life balance is essential in these cases. Keep your home priorities separate from those at the office. Keep in mind that part of being organised is being flexible, adaptable, and – most importantly – forgiving.
3. Insufficient knowledge & crazy expectations.
Being asked to complete a task you don’t know very much about is a situation ripe for procrastination. Between trying to learn enough, complaining about how hard it is, trying to motivate yourself, doing other things and getting help, you’ve used up all your energy. Having insufficient knowledge opens the floodgates to new issues.
Then there’s the whole expectations part of it. Doing a task you don’t know how to do is one thing, but having the expectation that it’ll be perfect and on their desk by Monday? Goodbye weekend, hello stress.
The best thing you can do in this situation is adjust your priorities and allow time to researching. You may have to make a sacrifice – just don’t make that sacrifice your sanity. If you can speak to someone about your issue or get help, definitely do that. Putting something off because you don’t know how to do it is counterproductive. The end goal is to produce something, but along the way you will have learned something new. Any opportunity for knowledge is an opportunity worth taking.
If that isn’t motivation enough, maybe lower the expectations of yourself. Don’t punish yourself for not knowing something. Once upon a time, nobody knew anything.
4. The first hurdle is the highest.
Starting is typically the hardest part of any task, but it doesn’t have to be. The goal is to trick your body into starting without actually realising it. The best way to do this is to keep everything you do relevant to the task at hand. It’s a slow warm-up that you can do unconsciously.
If you need to write something, read relevant source material. Build up to that important call with a different call made to someone you like talking to. For speeches, presentations or any kind of public speaking ordeal, watch other (successful) people talk and mimic them. Or rehearse with your pot plant or to your cats. Once you have some momentum, you’ll be ready to go. If you can find a way to make yourself happy about what you’re doing, you’ll be okay. Don’t psych yourself out – nothing in real life will ever go as badly your imaginary worst-case scenario.
The crux of creativity.
Creativity is a tricky thing. Afflictions like the dreaded writer’s block thrive on procrastination. It can be difficult to start when you don’t know where the beginning is. If you need to be creative, give yourself some arty fuel: search for images, listen to music, pay attention to what’s around you, or completely zone out. The imagination is your most powerful tool – use it.
You can’t force creativity; whatever you produce will probably suck. But hey, that’s why the backspace bar exists.
Sometimes you don’t have to start at the beginning. If you know where you want to end up, why not start there? Not everything has to be linear. If you always get stuck in the same place, try something different, because clearly something about your method isn’t working for you. Break away, be bold, and the spark will come to you.
5. Fuzzy focus & missing motivation.
If you don’t know where you want to end up, things become a bit tricker. Writing lists and have goals may not be for everyone. Some people find crossing things out or ticking things off very satisfying – others don’t care for it.
Realise that, at the end of the day, you do have a goal: not to have a goal. By the end of the day, you want to feel that you’ve completed everything you set out to do.
It’s almost impossible to do a task if your focus is fuzzy. If you find yourself distracted, fidgety or spacey, you need to redirect your energy. There’s no point sitting around and waiting for lightning to strike. If you get up, go for a walk, maybe you’ll see something around you that flicks on the lightbulb. Ask people questions – any input is good input when you’re working with a blank canvas.
You can’t be focused without motivation, and it’s hard to get motivated without focus. Unfortunately, you can’t force either of these things into existence. We have to go back and do all the steps above so that we’re set on our instructions and have the knowledge to execute. Get organised, prioritise your tasks, ensure you know what you’re doing, and find a way to start.
Getting out of the procrastination slump
So finally, we’ve arrived at the tips. Here are some easy ways you can get focused, beat procrastination, and move on with your life.
Eat something, because food is fuel.
Opt for something light and nourishing that won’t bog you down. Salad, sandwiches, fruit or nuts are good options.
Drink water. A hydrated brain is a happy brain.
If water is boring, drink whatever you like – provided it doesn’t make you jittery or sluggish.
Go for a walk.
But don’t take an hour – make it short and give it a purpose. It might be to talk to someone, use the bathroom, top up the kettle, whatever. Moving keeps us sharper. If you don’t want to walk, you can stretch. Focus on one part of the body at a time, feel how it is grounded to the earth, and stretch it out.
You can be anywhere to do this. Use music or silence or neither. Shut your eyes or take in your surroundings. Just dedicate a few minutes of solid “you” time. You don’t even have to think about anything. Just let thoughts in and out as they please. Come back when you’re ready. Mindfulness is important.
Read something, or if you can watch something, watch something.
But keep it relevant. Don’t crack open the latest Gillian Flynn thriller at the desk or launch Netflix unless it’s going to help you. Read an article or watch a motivating TED Talk.
A massage is quintessential you time. If you’re procrastinating, you’re probably stressed. Massages are scientifically proven to significantly reduce stress. They also improve concentration, boost creativity and re-energise the body, leading a much more motivated and productive individual. A massage works the brain and the body – so even if you’re using massage as a way to procrastinate, you’re genuinely helping yourself.
You’re going to hate us for this one – but honestly, just do it.
Think back to a previous task you resented doing and peeled off like the world’s biggest Bandaid. How long ago was that? Two years ago? Last week? Yesterday? Doesn’t matter – it’s over now. You’ll look back on The Big Thing™ when it’s done and wonder why you were so fussed about it. So just rip off the Bandaid.
There are dozens of other ways to stop procrastinating. If we kept writing them all down, we’d be guilty of procrastinating ending this post. Beating the procrastination bug is an age-old battle, but it’s definitely possible. The easiest cure is just a few taps away.