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Tricks and Treats: Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination

H alloween’s just round the corner, but forget creepy clowns and sugar-crazed kids: sometimes nothing’s more frightening than a growing pile of tasks you’ve been putting off. Time is arguably our most precious commodity – so why are we so good at wasting it? Because this is what procrastination does: it robs us of the opportunity to achieve something meaningful. It undermines our efficiency, decreases our productivity and increases our stress. And let’s face it: these consequences are unlikely to have a positive effect on your work or personal life.

There’s a substantial quantity of research into the psychological origins of this universal human trait. And one of the biggest causes? Fear of failure. At its most basic level, fear is designed to protect us from pain – including emotional pain. We cling to the hope that if we procrastinate long enough, we will feel more confident, be better prepared or a difficult situation will improve. Unfortunately, more often than not, the reverse is true.

So how do we counteract this unhelpful instinct?

The following are four useful techniques for overcoming procrastination:

1. Just make a start – no matter how inconsequential.

Timothy Pychyl is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where he specialises in the study of procrastination. He recommends the following strategy for those who lack motivation: break your tasks down into tiny, achievable steps. This may be the simple action of opening a new file. Then think about what your next small action should be. Making progress – no matter how slowly – makes you feel better about your task. And the better you feel about it, the easier it is to face.

2. Harness your fear.

If you focus on what you don’t want, you can harness your fear to make it work for you. Write down how you will feel a year from now if you do nothing. Be honest with yourself about the consequences of inaction. Remember: if nothing changes, nothing changes!

3. Do the worst thing first.

Mark Twain once said: “If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first.” So first thing in the morning, before checking voicemail and email, ask yourself, “What is the worst thing I have to do right now?” Then do it. Repeat this question at least one more time during your workday and do the worst thing first each time. Finally, before you leave for the day, ask yourself the same question, and do the worst thing first before you leave.

4. “Do It Now”.

At PEPworldwide, we advocate a methodical approach. If a task will take ten minutes or less, do it now. If it will take longer than ten minutes, decide now what the next step will be and progress the work accordingly. This may involve delegating a task to someone else or scheduling a time when you will do it. The important thing is to make a start – as Timothy Pychyl recommends – and then maintain productive momentum.

Of course, it’s never easy to change the habits of a lifetime. But these simple techniques can dramatically improve your efficiency – and again, all you have to do is make a start. Counter your fear of failure with a commitment to stepping out of your comfort zone – even in the smallest, most inconsequential way – at least once a day. Stop feeding your fears by dwelling obsessively on times when you did fail and focus instead on your many successes. Implementing a strategy which increases your productivity, decreases your stress, saves you time and, perhaps most importantly, increases your self-confidence is not something to put off.