How To Prevent Procrastination

Photo: kaibara87

I’m among the most disciplined people I know, but when it comes to avoiding procrastination I know one person who’s even better than I:  my wife.  She delays nothing.  Even when it seems like she might be, it’s only because she’s getting a long series of other things done first.  She’s been gifted (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with an inability to leave any open items floating around in her brain.  I’m far more tolerant of open items, so not quite as fast to close them as she.  As a result, I sometimes have to rely on specific strategies to complete tasks, where she need only rely on a powerful inner drive to clear her “mental inbox.”

When discussing procrastination, of course, we’re only talking about tasks we don’t want to complete.  Tasks we enjoy doing are in fact often hard not to do.  (We don’t struggle with ourselves to do them because we like doing them, so those tasks aren’t the ones for which we need anti-procrastination strategies.)  But regarding tasks we don’t really want to do, we need to establish a set of rules that we follow automatically—as habits rather than conscious choices (allowing ourselves to choose whether or not to follow a rule requires willpower, which actually turns out to be a far less powerful mental force than the force of habit):

  1. Leverage the tasks you want to do by withholding them until your more odious tasks are completed first.  That way, desirable tasks become a motivating reward.
  2. Make lists on paper of all the tasks you need to accomplish and the dates by which they need to be done.  This will help us parse our time so that we aren’t forced to choose between completing one task or another.  We need to order our tasks into groups so that tasks upon which other tasks depend are listed—and therefore done—first.  Then we need to place the most burdensome tasks first.  Whether it’s answering an email, calling someone, reading a report, or writing a paper, our goal should always be to dispense with our most difficult tasks first.
  3. Eliminate distractions.  Distractions used to be far less of a problem—but now are ubiquitous.  Especially when we want to be distracted (as when facing an odious task), we will be.  So shut off the push notification on your smartphone, switch your email “send/receive” to manual, keep your web browser closed (some software programs will even prevent you from using it at intervals you set if you find you can’t resist it), and forward all calls to voice mail.  Batch those distractions only once you’ve accomplished a predetermined number of tasks.
  4. Ensure you have adequate energy.  Get enough sleep (few of us do).  If you’re depressed, get help.
  5. Understand all the reasons you don’t want to complete a task.  You very well may not know them.  Perhaps you’re actually afraid to talk to a particular person.  Maybe you think that what you have to say about the topic on which you need to write is banal.  The reasons we do things—and don’t do things—may seem obvious to our conscious minds, but our conscious minds are champion storytellers.  They come up with reasonable explanations that are far from proven and then accept them completely even though they’re often dead wrong.  Keep asking yourself:  Why don’t you want to make that condolence call?  Why don’t you want to write that book report?  Why don’t you want to go to that meeting?  Whatever the true reasons, when you apprehend them, they’ll lose some of their power to induce procrastination.
  6. Remind yourself why a task is important.  Follow through in your mind to the worst consequences possible of not completing it.  That way you can positively—
  7. —leverage anxiety.  Too much anxiety is paralyzing.  But a little anxiety is motivating (nothing like the fear of failing a test to motivate you to study for it).  Learn to gauge your anxiety level.  If it’s too high, and you’re procrastinating because you’re simply overwhelmed by it, get professional help to manage it.
  8. Make a plan first thing in the morning (or even last thing at night).  Decide what tasks you’re going to accomplish and actively anticipate doing so as you approach the time you’ve planned to begin tackling them.  Like a professional skier mentally rehearsing each and every twist and turn of a ski run, you’re more likely to succeed if you succeed first in your mind.
  9. Plan rewards for yourself.  Looking forward to a reward for completing a task eventually creates a craving that can be highly motivating—even if the rewards are small (ten minutes of reading for pleasure, for example).  If you jump to the reward before you’ve earned it, stop yourself, and return to the task at hand.

I use these strategies all the time and find they mostly work.  When they don’t, I ask myself if perhaps I’ve simply lost my drive.  We all have days like that.  Sometimes, in fact, I need to allow myself to procrastinate to regain my energy and enthusiasm.  Especially when driving myself hard many days or weeks in a row, I often need a break.  If so, I take it with a promise to myself to return to my important tasks once I’m refreshed.  I have an enormous capacity for hard work, but if I don’t recognize when I’m getting burned out and take a long enough break to re-energize, I don’t just get tired.  I get resentful.  And that’s just not a good place to be.  It is, in fact, a major procrastination inducer.

Next WeekHow To Pull Good Things Out Of Others

 

26 comments to How To Prevent Procrastination

  • Anne Robertson

    I excel in procrastination. It’s one of the things I do best. Other than my gardening and the time I spend writing articles here and there I’m pretty much untalented. However, I can play THE RADIO, lol.

    Very good suggestions. I must post those by my computer. As soon as I go find what I’ve done with the tape anyway. Thanks.

  • J L Rivers

    There is a great book that just came out called The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Business and Life which deals with how habits are formed and take over our life. Procrastination can be thought of as a habit and tackled with the insights offered in the book.

  • Dianne Wilson

    You may find “The beginner’s guide to procrastination” a bit amusing and learn what not to do in having a productive life:

    http://www.sequimgazette.com/spandrio/article.exm/2012-02-08_the_beginner_s_guide_to_procrastination

    Seriously, thanks for the helpful tips for preventing procrastination.

  • Astrid

    Alex,

    I am curious…Is procrastination nature or nurture?

    Astrid: My brief search in the literature didn’t turn up any studies that address this question, so I don’t know.

    Alex

  • It feels damn good to cross “stuff” off lists (such a GRAND reward)—even if it’s just emptying the cat litter!

    ~everyday chores become so boring~and unsavory duties delayed.

    I’m back to making a list every night, so the first thing in the morning I know how to plan my day. The chores I hate to do are done first (cat litter again). The dog gets walked/field run with absolute joy! (no delay there) 🙂

    Self control is a huge factor. I’m thinking I might have been the kid that gobbled up the one marshmallow rather than wait and get two.

  • I thought you had children. You need to take a break and procrastinate with them. This comes from one who didn’t get to for various reasons.

  • dianne aslett

    My main procrastination problems are: getting up in the morning; any repetitive, mundane tasks such as cleaning and tidying; anything that requires lengthy concentration; starting or keeping up, an exercise regimen. Basically, any task that I don’t find attractive.

    How do I deal with it? I am afraid I don’t, not really. No doubt one day I will.

  • MarinaV/allarts

    I find Happiness adds to my happiness, measurably; thank you. Originally sent to me by my SGI son who lives in Vietnam, and I am on the periphery of a splendid group in London; but I had to laugh almost uncontrollably at your post on procrastination. I write all the time, have written for fifty years, have been employed as a writer, never write on spec. It is always commissioned articles. I love writing and thinking about writing, and I am a genius almost at procrastination. I will do almost anything NOT to get down to writing, and most of the writers I know are the same…so we have guilt, lots of tea/coffee/missed deadlines….what to do, printing out your suggestions three times accidentally is a start. And at the moment, doing this, procrastinating about getting to the gym. Meanwhile, thank you thank you thank you.

  • David Hare

    I like no. 3 but your blog is definitely a distraction so your advice presents me with a big dilemma 🙂 because I should be working now…

    I have done no. 8 for years and it really is best to make a list at the end of the working day of what you will do tomorrow, gets you off to a much better start in the morning.

    And of course Nichiren Daishonin had some good advice on the downside of procrastination: “Deep in the Snow Mountains lives a bird called the Kankucho bird that, tortured by the numbing cold, cries that it will build a nest in the morning. Yet when day breaks, it sleeps away the hours in the warm light of the morning sun without building its nest. So it continues to cry vainly throughout its life. The same is true of human beings.”

    Which gets me thinking about “delayed gratification”—I would love to hear your thoughts on that topic…

    Right, back to work now, now, right now…

  • George Colombo

    This looks like a fascinating post. I’ll try to get around to reading it later.

  • Shivani

    Thanks, Alex, nice post. Had some thoughts to share on Astrid’s question: “Is procrastination nature or nurture?”

    I feel that at some level of procrastination is our innate nature and probably exists due to the following reasons:

    —Basic human nature is that “we value today more than tomorrow.” Procrastination is a natural response that supports our fundamental inbuilt value system and prevents information overload from past and future thoughts.

    —It is a natural defense mechanism displayed by the reptilian part of our brain that manages: “avoidance of unpleasant and/or unknown and postponement of it to a later time.”

    —We are transactional being by nature, only moving when there are incentives. Procrastination reflects that quality as well, only perform actions when incentives are sizable.

    So, all in all, I think that procrastination is innately natural, manifesting as nurture in our day to day lives.

  • Stephanie

    I was surprised to read that procrastination as you define it only applies to odious tasks. Perhaps you call it something other than “procrastination,” but I find that I frequently put off doing things that I want to do. Some of it may be creative resistance, some fear of failure, and even a desire to postpone joy because of the desire to prolong it, believing that once you’ve done something there will be nothing more to do as rewarding as that. This is wrong thinking, of course, and can only be overcome by actually doing what needs doing. I consider myself a fairly disciplined person but making a habit of valuing what is essential to my well-being continues to challenge me.

  • I live with a high-drive, nothing-stays-on-the-list-longer-than-a-day-or-two type of person. Boy, it sure can get exhausting. I’m no slouch when it comes to completing my chores, but sometimes you just need to let things slip for your own sanity. On the other hand, there’s rarely ever any panicked activity in my home trying to meet a deadline.

  • Mark

    “Remind yourself why a task is important.”

    What if the task really isn’t important? What if we think it is important only because of social pressure, only because most people think it is important?

    Mark: I guess I’d ask: if it’s not important to you, why are you doing it?

    Alex

  • I recommend you read The Underachievers Manifesto by Ray Bennett, M.D. You need to relax with the kids, quit going to work every day or writing this article. Take your pick. If I never hear from you again I will feel good about the kids.

  • Chuffed to report that I am doing a lot of these things, particularly doing the least-pleasant stuff first. And rewards!

    Now trying to teach four children the same principles: whatever you hate the most, do first, kids. And also the writing lists at night works well for me. I can get distracted when there are too many things on; some few minutes of concentrated planning go a long, long way.

  • helen

    I don’t make lists to deal with procrastination although sometimes I procrastinate and sometimes I don’t. I make lists so I remember to do things.

  • dianne aslett

    I think Mark’s point is a very interesting one. Often I find I imagine a task is more important than it really is. I think a lot people do this. Sometimes we can make life more complicated, and give ourselves tasks and then bemoan those tasks which we ourselves have actively promoted through previous actions. Other times, we think we must wash up the dishes immediately, or dust every day—when in fact neither chore has any legislation attached to it. Often I might wash up straightaway after a meal or dust every day because of what others might think—that I am lazy for instance. I probably am lazy in many people’s eyes, but indeed, Alex, why should I care about what anyone else thinks? 😉

  • Diana

    I agree with Helen, making lists to remember to do things. Especially helpful because I have a chronic illness and must plan ahead to do things.The illness helped me feel ok about sorting through piles of paper and cleaning, though I was not happy with others who weren’t helping. Lately I’ve been doing both, without complaining or criticizing. And pleased about both.

  • DigitalDeconstruction.com - How To Prevent Procrastination

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  • Steven P

    Well it is no accident that I put off reading this essay. Ha! I am a great procrastinator in two instances: 1. When the task is boring—such as a low level administrative task, like putting together a list of business expenses incurred; or 2. When the task is at the highest creative level and I am afraid of starting.

    So boredom or fear cause procrastination for me. I overcome these roadblocks by being conscious of them. Next, I reward myself after completing boring tasks with undertaking something entertaining and where fear prevails, I make sure the first couple of steps are easy ones to get the ball rolling.

  • patrick

    I only procrastinate when the task is important to me and only me. My narcissistic parent taught me that I’m not entitled to pursue my own wishes.

    Fear is what causes me to procrastinate in hopes of avoiding my highly developed critical voice.

  • Spencer

    Very nice article and strategies. According to Psychologist, 20% are hard core procrastinators and need cognitive behavioral therapy. The rest of us are regular procrastinators. There are 10 insights from PhDs, i.e., it is a problem of self-regulation. It is not a problem of time-management or of planning. Procrastinators are not born. Procrastination is learned, etc.

    Though some of the strategies are sound, the mind is most important part in this equation. Many things can be postponed yet again. So, focusing on Buddhist mindfulness at the time of procrastination is important.

    Read the article on 10 Things about Procrastination from PhDs, 3 Types of Procrastinators, and 3 Steps to Stop Procrastination with Buddhist Mindfulness at http://buddhist-meditation-techniques.com/3-steps-to-stop-procrastination-with-buddhist-mindfulness/

  • Stephanie

    This article is far too facile and simplistic. I found myself on this page after following the link from another article you wrote that suffers the same short-comings.

    People procrastinate for a multitude of reasons; reasons that cannot be reduced to, nor adequately addressed by, a “how to” list.

    I have tried the less-than-novel suggestions in the article and found them all wanting.

    For me, procrastination stems primarily from a debilitating illness which makes my energy a precious commodity to be meted out with great care. Not surprisingly, I too often chose to use what little energy I have on things that bring pleasure into a life too filled with pain and strife. I say “too often” because the degree to which I procrastinate ultimately ends up making my life still more difficult.

    You write from the perspective of one who is essentially healthy, with many of the aspects of your life that support you having been dependent on the fact of your wellness for their arising. For instance, had you been severely chronically ill, the odds that you would have become a physician (one of the most well-remunerated and prestigious professions in the U.S.) are vanishingly small.

    You would do well to consider that some people have been dealt very lousy “hands” in life, and that the reasons that they procrastinate are necessarily going to be substantively different from those who were more fortunate.

  • Diana

    Stephanie, I also have a debilitating illness. After doing laundry or visiting a doctor, I must rest for two days, rarely leaving my bed. I live alone and must do everything myself. I’ve been able to do a newsletter for a cactus society and volunteer with my business communication org., because I can do most of it on the computer, spending a few minutes on the project, then rest in bed. I always have my calendar book nearby so I can plan my schedule and have less post-exertional relapse, which can be extreme. I also am always making lists of what must be done, so I can plan. I’ve procrastinated vacuuming for a long time because I don’t have the energy after doing the things I must do. It helps to look at all of this as a benefit rather than an obstacle. Because of the illness, I have made great progress on one lifetime challenge. I’ve asked Alex a while back how to do one of the things in a post with a chronic illness and I’ve kept his kind and helpful response. I think he does know the difficulties of those with physical illnesses and challenges. He often includes comments about positive ways to handle difficult challenges. I wish you the best.

  • Diana

    Stephanie, a while back, Alex recommended a book, How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers by Toni Bernhard, who has the same chronic illness as I do—even though, Alex said, that he and Toni practice different forms of Buddhism. He also is one of many people who wrote recommendations listed on the first few pages of the book. Alex and I practice the same kind of Buddhism. I checked the book from the library for many months until I bought my own copy to underline and mark things that definitely helped me. I now also get Toni’s blog, which always relates to illness. Maybe reading the book or reading her blog, Turning Straw into Gold, would help.

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