We have all been there - a deadline for a long report or project is looming. Although you have known about it for months and have a week left to complete it, somehow any distraction seems preferable to making a start. The sheer scale of the task at hand is overwhelming, and the thought of working on it induces panic.
Procrastination, when left unchecked, can become a chronic problem. When we don’t feel like completing a task in the moment, we are unable to see the impact of avoiding it long term, or how failing to do the work will stop us from reaching our goals. This can create a negative downward spiral, which becomes difficult to get out of and reset.
While delaying work is seen as a net negative, historically, the ancient Romans and Greeks valued thinking over doing. When looking at procrastination from this perspective, it could be viewed as an opportunity for a big idea to come to the fore. Yet, for those focused on a productive working life in the modern world, it is definitely seen as the enemy.
So, where does procrastination come from? And how can we learn to recognise and manage it?
Why do we procrastinate?
Human beings have a long evolutionary history of procrastination, and the proliferation of technology in our world today has made overcoming it all the more difficult.
Initially thought to stem from a lack of self-control, latest research reveals that procrastination it is more an issue of emotional regulation. In other words, we hesitate to avoid negative feelings associated with a task, such as fear, and opt instead for the momentary relief other activities can offer.
On the flip side of this, Wait But Why author, Tim Urban, explains that while some people claim to be procrastinators and others do not, those who claim to never procrastinate simply have a better control over their impulses. A key factor in the process is what he calls the ‘instant gratification monkey’, who is secretly trying to sabotage all of us when we need to be getting on with something important, but perhaps a little scary. Of course, there are many things we would much rather be doing than work, and our brains are very good at tempting us into doing these first, like catching up on Instagram or grabbing a coffee.
Another piece of the procrastination puzzle is motivation. Not every activity or task we do is naturally enjoyable or rewarding, and whether or not a task is enjoyable will depend on individual preferences. When we are intrinsically motivated to complete a task, we want to do the work because we naturally enjoy it or find it satisfying.
When a task does not motivate you in this way, it can be helpful to find a way to extrinsically motivate yourself to do it. This simply means building in a reward for completing the task, or a section of it. The reward then becomes the motivation, and you have created your own incentive for getting the work done.
Cast your mind back to the school classroom, and you will likely remember many ways you were extrinsically motivated by your teacher to do things you didn’t enjoy much. Stickers, prizes, praise - you name it. Your teacher would have tried everything. As human beings, we are hard-wired to seek out rewards and can use this psychology to our advantage.
How can we get around procrastination?
If procrastination is impacting negatively on your life, we have a few simple tricks to help you get around it. The goal is to trick your brain into getting some momentum without the psychological battle. Remember, starting the task is usually the biggest hurdle. Once you are over this, you may well find that the work is not quite as challenging as it originally seemed.
- Getting started: Making a start on a task, however small, is always beneficial. This will begin a positive feedback loop in your brain, and give you the all-important momentum you need to see the work to its completion. As with exercise, putting your runners on is usually the hardest part of the workout!
- The ‘Pomodoro Technique’: This is a time management trick developed by Francesco Cirilllo in the late 1980s. The idea is to tackle a piece of work you need to get done in 25 minute intervals, followed by a short break. Why does it work? This comes back to our reward systems. If we promise ourselves a reward at the end of completing a section of work, we are extrinsically motivated to complete the task. This can be very helpful for getting started, particularly with tasks you are not intrinsically motivated to do.
- Break the work down: Thinking about the enormity of a task before starting it can also trigger procrastination and anxiety. A great way around this is to think about how you could break the task down into smaller chunks. For example, if you have to write a report, aim to write the first 100 words, and then have a short break. It might also be helpful to plan out the task first, with headings and bullet points to guide you through each step.
- Take breaks regularly: This is a must for beating procrastination. Going for a quick walk or a coffee when your attention begins to wane can re-energise you to continue. While it may seem as though you’re wasting time, you will come back to your desk more focused, and less likely to be tempted by other activities.
- Switch up your tasks: If you find that your productivity on a task has reduced (or you find yourself meandering to other, less productive tabs open on your laptop!), switching to a different task can help to keep your mind fresh and improve concentration levels. You might only need to break from your original task for 15 minutes or so, and find that you come back to it rejuvenated and ready to complete the next goal you have set yourself.