Why We Procrastinate and What To Do About It

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Defining Procrastination

Characteristics of Procrastination

  • Avoidance: Avoiding the location, situation or person associated with the expected task.
  • Denial: Pretending that the behavior is not actually procrastinating, but rather doing something else which is more important; or that the essential task is not that important.
  • Distraction: Engaging in activities of the task — usually pleasurable — that provides instant gratification or success. This weakens will power and perseverance.
  • Comparing oneself to someone worse: Comparing consequences of one’s “procrastinatory” behavior with others’ worse situations (e.g. “Yes, I procrastinated but so did ______ or a lot of people)
  • Rationalization: Pointing in satisfaction to what one achieved in the meantime while one should have been doing something else.
  • Blaming: Delusional attributions to external factors, such as rationalizing that the procrastination is due to external forces beyond one’s control (e.g. “I’m not procrastinating, but this assignment is tough.”)
  • Trivializing: Using humor to validate one’s procrastination. The person uses slapstick or slipshod methods to criticize and ridicule others’ striving towards the goal.

Research on Procrastination

  • Boring
  • Frustrating
  • Difficult
  • Ambiguous
  • Unstructured
  • Not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find the process fun)
  • Lacking in personal meaning

Causes of Procrastination

Why Stopping Procrastination is Difficult

ADHD and Procrastination

Can We Blame Technology?

What to Do If You Are a Procrastinator

  1. Take planned and frequent breaks. According to MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Bob Pozen,author of the bestselling book Extreme Productivity: Boost Your Results, Reduce Your Hours, taking regular timeouts can help you refresh your focus and get more done. In a Fast Company article, Pozen says that the question to ask is not how many breaks you should take in a day, but “what is the appropriate time period of concentrated work you can do before taking break?” Pozen suggests taking a time-out every 75 to 90 minutes. He comes to this duration based on studies of professional musicians, who are most productive when they practice for this amount of time in a single sitting. In addition, research by Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, shows that humans naturally move from full focus and energy to physiological fatigue every 90 minutes. To help you could the Pomodoro Time Tracker. It is a great tool to help you take breaks at set intervals.
  2. Reward yourself. It’s important to acknowledge and reward yourself for achieving even the small tasks. It creates a sense of motivation and releases those feel-good, productive emotions that spur you on to achieve even more. Make your reward proportional to the task you completed. “Our brains are always looking for relative rewards. If we have a habit loop around procrastination but we haven’t found a better reward, our brain is just going to keep doing it over and over until we give it something better to do,” said psychiatrist and neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research and Innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center.To rewire any habit, we have to give our brains what Dr. Brewer called the “Bigger Better Offer” or “B.B.O.” In the case of procrastination, we have to find a better reward than avoidance — one that can relieve our challenging feelings in the present moment without causing harm to our future selves. The difficulty with breaking the addiction to procrastination in particular is that there is an infinite number of potential substitute actions that would still be forms of procrastination, Dr. Brewer said. That’s why the solution must therefore be internal, and not dependent on anything but ourselves.
  3. Keep track of how you use your time. By having a clear idea of where you spend your time, you can always review your productivity and know which areas to improve. You could use the app Rescue Time, to help. It gets you a categorized breakdown of how you spend your time and helps you to find out how much time you’re really on-task. You can even label activities as productive and non-productive so as to block your biggest distractions.
  4. Remove your obstacles and distractions. Prior to getting started on a task, take a moment to carefully consider the obstacles and distractions that might get in your way. Then, develop a plan to ensure that they don’t. For example, email or smart phone notifications or messages will distract you from your task and reduce productivity. Research shows that it takes between 12–24 minutes to regain your focus when you are distracted from the task at hand.
  5. Start with something small. Procrastinators find it hard to begin a task, often because they want it to be perfect or take too big a step. Focus on taking a small action, and think of it only as a “draft,” not a finished product.
  6. Be in a friendly environment. Working in the wrong environment can make you succumb to procrastination. This physically distancing yourself from distractions such as television, electronics, friends, and loud places.
  7. Take control of your negative self-talk. Telling yourself not to do something focuses your attention on not doing it, and can have the reverse effect.Telling yourself positive messages of how you are going to do it successfully, and the reward that is waiting for you will help
  8. Stop trying to be and do perfect. As mentioned before perfectionism — wanting the conditions prior to doing the task to be perfect, or hoping the outcome will be perfect, are demotivators, and can actually prevent you for starting the task. First, adopting a measurement of doing the best you can under the circumstances rather than demanding 100% will help. Also, conditions will never be perfect to start something, and taking an attitude of trial and error will be much more productive.
  9. Use a habit system to control procrastination.In the late 1990s, a group of neuroscientists at MIT discovered that habits are formed in the brain, a process that The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls “the habit loop.” To establish good habits or get rid of bad habits, learning how the habit loop works can be a powerful tool for controlling procrastination, says James Clear, in his book, Atomic Habits. One of the techniques he describes :“Another way to overcome the trap of chronic procrastination is to use visual cues to trigger your habits and measure your progress. A visual cue is something you can see (a visual reminder) that prompts you to take action.Visual cues display your progress on a behavior. Visual cues can have an additive effect on motivation.As the visual evidence of your progress mounts, it is natural to become more motivated to continue the habit. The more visual progress you see, the more motivated you will become to finish the task. There are a variety of popular behavioral economics studies that refer to this as the Endowed Progress Effect. Seeing your previous progress is a great way to trigger your next productive action. Clear suggests two strategies that use visual cues are The Paper Clip Strategy, which is helpful for beating procrastination day-after-day, and The Seinfeld Strategy, which is great for maintaining consistency over longer periods of time.
  10. Forgive yourself in the moments you procrastinate. In a 2010 study, researchers found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating when studying for a first exam ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next exam. They concluded that self-forgiveness supported productivity by allowing “the individual to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts.”
  11. Practice self-compassion, which is treating ourselves with kindness and understanding in the face of our mistakes and failures. In a 2012 study examining the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination, Dr. Sirois found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, suggesting that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events.”
  12. Set deadlines close to the present and not far off. Psychologists Neil Lewis of the University of Michigan and Daphna Oyserman of the University of Southern California attempted to prove this in a recent study published in Psychological Science. They found that if people considered far-off events from the perspective of days rather than months or years, they acted more quickly.

Dealing with others who procrastinate

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Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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Ray Williams

Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others

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