How to conquer procrastination

clock with proverb: Procrastination is the thief of time

Photo credit – petradr via Unsplash

Do you procrastinate? Who doesn’t? Here are some techniques to conquer it! 

Why do we procrastinate?
We procrastinate when we have to do something that we feel uncomfortable about. When we think about that task, our brain reacts.  If we were able to see an fMRI image of it at that moment, we would see it light up the pain centres. Typically what we do is shift and narrow our attention to something more enjoyable. Then we feel better – temporarily. However, in the long term, putting off things can cause bigger problems and far more pain later on.

Procrastination is a habit
In fact, procrastination shares features with addiction! It provides excitement and relief from a sometimes boring reality. It is easy to persuade yourself that alternative activities are worthwhile – like surfing the web to find other ideas instead getting down to that report you have to write. You might also find yourself justifying your avoidance of something because you aren’t good at it. Perhaps you tell yourself superficially reasonable reasons for not doing something – like that you don’t want to study too much and get too far ahead in your course.

By engaging in procrastination – just a little bit, and then doing it habitually, gradually increasing the amount of time spent procrastinating increases your tolerance for it. It’s a bit like building up an immunity to the task or work to be done. It is also becomes a bad habit that is harder to break.

Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday.
~ Napoleon Hill

Understanding habits
A habit is an energy saver. When you do something that is a habit, you don’t have to think in a focused manner to do it, so it saves energy. Habits can be short – like brushing your hair out of your eyes – or longer, like driving home from work. Each of them you can do, almost unconsciously (the car example is a bit scary, but it happens).

Habits have four parts.

  1. The cue – is the trigger that launches you into a habit. Triggers are not good or bad.  It’s what we do in reaction that matters, especially if/when a routine develops.
  2. Routine – this is the habitual response your brain falls into when it receives the cue.  Whether a good or bad habit develops depends on the response to the cue and the routine that forms with it.
  3. The reward – every habit develops and continues because it rewards us. It gives us an immediate feeling of pleasure.  Procrastination is easily developed because the reward happens so quickly – the thing we do is immediately more pleasurable than the thing we ought to do.
  4. The belief – habits have power because of our belief in them. To change your habit, you have to change your underlying belief.

Let’s look at our habits but from a procrastination perspective.

  1. The cue – can you work out what triggers your procrastination?
    Cues fall into four areas: location, time, how you feel and reactions to other people or something that happened.
    What are your cues?
    * Do you look something up on the internet and get distracted?
    * Do text messages distract you resulting in ten minutes off task before you get back into flow?
    Because procrastination is so automatic, it happens and we don’t even notice until we’re right into it.
  2. Routine – develop a new ritual so you don’t have to fight an established routine. Make a plan:
    * Try leaving your mobile phone in another room.
    * Try sitting in a particular place to work without internet access.
  3. The reward – can you work out why you are procrastinating? If so, substitute a reward for that.
    * Perhaps a sense of satisfaction in completing something?
    * Reward yourself with a coffee/break after you make certain progress.
    * For a bigger achievement, have a bigger reward. Go to a movie? Have a night out?
    * Sometimes putting time limits on your task time helps.
  4. The belief – the most important thing is to believe you can beat the procrastination habit.

 Enough analysis?  How about some practical tips?

“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
~ Mark Twain

Four practical tips

  1. To do lists:  Make yourself a weekly “To do” list. From that, do a daily “To do” list. Complete it the night before so you have your day’s tasks ready in advance. Put in a time limit. Planning a finish time is just as important as planning working time.
  2. Focus on process over product: If you focus on the outcome you have to achieve, it can be a daunting task. Instead, focus on the process required to complete the task. If your product is a report, break it up into sections and focus on the process in each phase.Pomodoro
  3. Pomodoro technique: Set a timer for 25 minutes of uninterrupted, focused attention on your work/task. Turn off mobile phones and email.  Follow the session by some relaxation for a few minutes. Do these in sequence with breaks between. Frequent breaks are thought to improve your mental agility.
  4. Eat your frogs first in the morning: Some people identify challenging tasks as eating frogs (refer Mark Twain). Try to work on your most important and most disliked tasks first. Eat your frogs in the morning.

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