Do you procrastinate? Congratulations – you’re human.
What are you putting off? Did you make that doctor’s appointment? Write that paper? File your photos? “Saying ‘I’m a procrastinator’ is like saying, ‘I breathe,’” says Life Management expert Robert Rhode, Ph.D., Canyon Ranch in Tucson. Around 90 percent of us procrastinate on a fairly regular basis, he says.
Writings as far back as 3,000 B.C. bemoan procrastination. But take heart: “Procrastination doesn’t create as many problems as most people think,” says Rhode. In fact, “Procrastination accounts for only three percent of decreased performance.”
You complete required tasks eventually, but getting there can be agony. Procrastination drags behind it a slew of unwanted penalties. Back-burnering tedious jobs brings short-term relief, but anxiety over a looming task can be more stressful than actually working on it. In the meantime, you decide to play just one more game of online Boggle.
Why do we procrastinate?
Procrastination, notes some unknown sage, is usually harmful, sometimes harmless, and seldom helpful. This is common wisdom, so why do we do it?
- The task seems too big: You’re overwhelmed before you begin.
- Too many distractions: The neighbor’s dog is yapping; the refrigerator’s tempting; the kids need attention.
- Poor organization: There’s never enough time. You have several tasks and complete none of them.
- Perfectionism/unfounded fear of the future: You know the result you want, but you avoid starting in case you can’t produce. Only seven percent of procrastinators report this problem, says Rhode, but if you’re among them, it could be blocking your path to success.
- Rewards are too distant or too small. You intend to write that novel or redecorate the house, but shrink from the sustained effort and uncertain results.
- Self-handicapping: You drop obstacles in your own path that stop you from achieving goals. That way you avoid risk and can’t be blamed if you fail.
Why wait? You can change
When you procrastinate, you invite stress into your life. Even worse, you miss out on solid rewards you could be enjoying already. But how to get started?
You can train yourself not to procrastinate, says Rhode. “The key is to think of procrastination as a behavior, not as a personality trait.” You’re pretty much stuck with your personality, he says, but behaviors can be changed.
It takes self-control to dust things off and begin that long-shelved task; everyday frustrations can be more draining than we realize. “Respect self-control as a limited resource,” Rhode says. If you leave unwelcome tasks till late afternoon, your self-control dial may already be pointing to ‘empty.’ When you’re tired or over-stressed, you’re more likely to break your resolve, procrastinate, or lose your temper. Exercising self-discipline is like using a muscle; after so much “heavy lifting,” you’ve physically had enough. Tackle important tasks while you’re fresh and energetic.
Where did the time go?
Allow enough time. “Often, people vastly underestimate the requirements for things to go smoothly,” Rhode says. Plan for the reality that “technology, coordination, and traffic take more time than you think,” he says. Start early on that presentation. Then, when your computer freezes, the copy center changes its hours, and your freeway exit is closed for construction, you’ll still have time in hand.
Do it gradually
Lengthy, self-imposed tasks – like that memoir you mean to write – are especially intimidating. The bigger the challenge, the more you procrastinate. The secret to success? Make the task simpler and more pleasant:
Break down the task into manageable parts: “Set a goal that’s achievable, about which you can feel good,” says Rhode. “Now we’re rolling.”
If you’re decorating, decide to paint just one item per day – maybe the trim, or a dresser. For that long writing project, promise yourself you’ll write one paragraph every day. It’s not scary, and you’ll be surprised how they mount up.
Make use of rewards: Pair the task with something pleasant. When you’re done, you get to play your favorite computer game, have a favorite meal, or curl up with a great book. Do the same tomorrow.
Remove distractions. If you can see it, you’re more likely to cave. Psychologists say we munch candy at twice the rate if it’s in front of us. Put the same candy in a closed container four feet away, and it’s half as tempting. Likewise, remove “time-waster” icons from your desktop, and turn off the ringer on your phone.
Don’t delay – this is the perfect time to start moving toward less stressful behavior. Just rearrange your schedule a little and be kind to yourself. There’s a world of opportunity waiting for you. Don’t let procrastination stand in your way.