Actions to take
- Plan your tasks before starting
- Focus on getting long productive hours
- Visualize results
- Try using distractions as breaks
While some research has proven that procrastination can be a good thing and can boost the creative process, that is usually a different story within itself. If you are human you would have surely experienced a pending task on top of your head with a tight deadline and you just can’t just get started with it. Why is it that we seem to delay some of those tasks even when we know getting them done is so important to us? Overcoming procrastination can be simple if you are mindful about it.
You are not alone
We all have been there and it is one of the most common productivity pitfalls that we face in our day to day lives. No matter how much we want, it feels so impossible to get things done when we are in that grasp of procrastination. The solution to procrastination sounds so simple and straightforward, “just get started”, but why it is so difficult to get started. Once the procrastination kicks in, it triggers a loop and it affects the way we think about ourselves and the tasks that are still due.
It doesn’t matter if you are productivity ninja or a lazy bundle, each one of us feels the urge to delay an important task. It is all about how you deal with it and understand the actions that need to be taken.
There are so many studies that have been done on the effect of procrastination on our mood and self-confidence and the results are not so great for procrastinators. Procrastinating, quite often, can lead to higher levels of guilt and anxiety. Procrastination is also one of the reasons for low self-confidence, low energy levels throughout the day, and depression.
Once you are in this habit of keeping things for later, the later time is overbooked and there is little you can do about it. As time passes, the pile of tasks does not go down until you finish them. For example, if you don’t do the dishes, the next time you eat the pile of dirty dishes will increase and it will keep on increasing until you run out of clean dishes. Eventually, you will have to do the dishes, but a small task of doing a few dishes would have turned into cleaning all the dishes you own.
You are listening to your prefrontal cortex
You follow your instincts more often, you rely on your prefrontal cortex for most of your decision making. The problem is these decisions are automatic and are mostly driven by your past experiences.
The thinking is fast but is not so reliable. Let’s understand this with an example:
When you see 2 + 2 you can quickly figure out the answer is 4, but when you see 34 x 73 you don’t take the time to calculate and move on. This is your prefrontal cortex in action – finding the easy way out.
Similarly 34 x 73 is the task that you procrastinate on and to make it easier you will have to break the steps down. Your brain has already done some decision making, things like:
This is a multiplication problem.
Ooops the number is too big.
This is going to take some time.
Let’s move on.
But if you change the steps towards finding the solution, it will look like this:
It is important to get it done.
Should I use paper or calculator?
Let’s use the calculator.
Here is the answer.
The number of steps is the same for ending up with a result and skipping the calculation, but the mindset towards the problem was different.
How to stop procrastinating?
The way you approach your tasks and think about them has patterns. One of the major things that you need to identify is the nature of the tasks you are procrastinating. Are you procrastinating on everything or are you procrastinating on just a few types of tasks?
If you are procrastinating on everything you will have to make a shift in your mindset and make some tough choices. But if it is just about some particular tasks then you need to change the way you approach the tasks.
No matter on which side of the table you are at, here are some of the patterns that will help you overcome procrastination.
Don’t take too many decisions
Keep things simple. If you have a lot of things to decide on, you are most like to procrastinate. To avoid this, just pre-plan things and don’t think much about when, how and why to do certain things, just get going. You need to quieten your inner voice from your prefrontal cortex which is telling you to take shortcuts and move on.
That is one of the reasons people schedule their tasks on a calendar, to not be making decisions about whether the task needs to be done or not in the moments when you actually need to get things done.
If you are not a calendar person there are still ways you can manage the tasks and plan them. Start your day by taking all the decisions about when you want to do those tasks. Just create a simple list of things that you need to do and put them in 2 time slots – one before lunch and the other after lunch. Don’t overwhelm yourself with too many tasks, just keep things simple and have a few focus tasks for the morning time and maybe one for the afternoon. You need to understand that you should be working on important tasks when you are most active (Link to article).
Once you remove the decision making part from doing the tasks, you will be procrastinating less and feel more in control of the things that you need to get done.
Think of the benefits
When you plan a holiday you think about the things that you will do when you are there. You usually don’t focus on the things like how you will pack stuff, what cab you will take or how you are going to sit through the flight. These all are tasks that will be taken care of while focusing on how you are going to spend the holiday.
It is fun and engaging because you are focusing on the benefits even while working on the tasks that are needed to make it happen. Similarly, if you can keep this similar mindset to your daily tasks, you will find less difficulty in getting started. Set goals and instead of focusing on the task, focus on the benefits you will get after finishing the task.
This will not only allow you to understand the importance of getting things done but also give you a why. You will be driven by a powerful emotion of hope and anticipation which can help you look at the short term benefits.
Take the time to think
You might need to step away from the flow for some time and take a breather. Pick up a notebook or a piece of paper or a note-taking application on your phone, and plan the things that you need to do. You don’t have to over complicate it, just write down keywords that will help you take decisions.
Every task has three action points:
Most of the time we just jump to starting without going through deciding and that makes it difficult to get started. If you want to stop procrastinating and get started with the task you need make sure that you have the first step figured out. You need to have every requirement in place, making it smoother to start and also reducing the friction to the task.
Thinking through the task before starting will help you be more comfortable with the task, it will seem like you have already done it. Our visualization patterns are much more powerful than we think and can help in overcoming procrastination. You might have read stories of successful sportsmen thinking about the moves that they will take before a big match.
Many times you will find yourself procrastinating because the task seems intimidating and you feel that you are not fully equipped to complete it. You need to be aware of your limitations and have a learning mindset instead of a fixed mindset. You need to be mindful that you might have to learn a few things before you can tackle the task.
Instead for procrastinating, write the things that you need to work on and break them down into achievable steps and then start tackling them. This seems a little counter-intuitive as the work now has grown but maybe you don’t have to dive into the new skill at one go. Your goal should be to know enough about the new topic that you are able to get started with your task.
Once you are in the task you can get back to updating the new skill or information at any time when you need it.
Mix it up with something fun
You need to get into the habit of rewarding yourself. One of the ways is to turn your distractions into rewards. If a TV series you just can’t stop binge-watching is distracting you, make it the reward and set some rules.
You can watch one episode after 3 hours of work and track yourself for those 3 hours. Do keep in mind that 3 hours is not 3 hours on the clock but 3 productive hours. Reward yourself with 15 mins of social media after 1.5 hours of intense work. Find a reward system that works for you, maybe you can even throw some candies into the mix.
Create a daily system for yourself
Nothing fancy or complicated but some set of rules that you can fit in a few lines. For example. Morning is for the most important tasks, afternoon for pending tasks, evening for less important tasks and night is for self-improvement. This just filters your work into time slots and by default you will know what to focus on and when. By having a productivity system in place you are less likely to procrastinate.
All the things we discussed above will help you find a daily system that is unique to you. Remember, not everything will work, but that’s the fun part and keep experimenting until you find your daily system. Try a system for a week or two and that will be enough time to figure out what is working. If you get a few unproductive days, look at those bad days as discounts. Don’t feel too bad about those bad days – they happen and they are the ones which help you realize how the good days make you feel.
Don’t be stuck
Give yourself a time limit and if it’s not done, let it be that way and come back to it later with a fresh mind. Don’t mess up your deadlines though. Spending long hours at a problem doesn’t always solve the problem, so it is important, at times, to get away from the problem. You can try to take a long break or maybe work on something entirely different.
Once you are in a particular pattern of solving problems you stay that way. If it is working, that is good, but when it doesn’t it becomes difficult to come out of that pattern. So procrastinating on the problem might help you out in this, but don’t stretch it too much.
No matter how much you have been procrastinating lately, it doesn’t define that you will be continuing to do it. Procrastination is not necessarily a habit but a natural automated response to slightly challenging situations or tasks. If you understand why you are doing it, it is easier to overcome procrastination. Though, once in a while, procrastination may be what you need to get unstuck. Once you are able to reduce the number of tasks you procrastinate on you will feel more positive about yourself and more in control of the work in hand.
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