Staying motivated to get more work done. Maintaining focus throughout the working day. Keeping on top of our commitments and responsibilities. These are things most of us aspire to, even if we struggle to enact them in our own lives. And yet despite our best intentions, overcoming procrastination is among the list of tasks that we tend to put off.
Procrastination is the act of not doing what we think we should be doing. It’s a phenomenon that often stems from holding certain anxieties about your work. Such anxieties make you put the work off for longer and longer until it seems insurmountable, which in turn simply causes you to procrastinate more and more. It’s telling that this cycle of inaction is familiar to us all.
Numerous studies have shown that procrastination is on the rise for workers and students, as explained in part by the copious deadlines and commitments that define modern working life. Such is the irony of procrastination: the more we have to do, the less inclined we are to do it.
However, researchers have found that the phenomenon is by no means unique to modernity. Civilisations have been delaying their work for as long as work has existed, and references to procrastination have been found in ancient Egyptian and Greek texts. Writing later in 1751, Samuel Johnson concluded that procrastination is “one of the general weaknesses that prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind”. And he was not wrong…
How procrastination works
We all struggle with procrastination. Even the most organised people with the greatest responsibilities struggle with procrastination. But nobody actually wants to be putting off work, and the act of doing so isn’t one of conscious refusal. Often it’s just that no work is happening. The intention to get work done is certainly there, it’s just not here right now.
Nor is the experience of procrastination at all pleasurable. Indeed, it isn’t even a guilty pleasure. In The Procrastination Equation, the psychologist Piers Steel shows that our tendency to procrastinate can lead to poor health, smaller wages, and even a lower sense of wellbeing. When we delay from working, it makes us feel worse about working. But given that our procrastination is at once universal and undesirable, how should we go about overcoming it?
If only creativity and motivation could be ‘switched on’ like a light. But we cannot just force ourselves to do work, we need to make some basic changes to our approaches and attitudes. We should work to make our goals more achievable and make our distractions less accessible. So let’s take a look at some recognised strategies for overcoming procrastination.
Start small, finish big
The first step is always the biggest hurdle. You can’t be expected to go from procrastination to motivation in a matter of seconds. We all need a warm up before working out.
When your work seems insurmountable or you have a really big project, you need to start small. Begin the day with the easiest tasks on your schedule to get those gears turning. Soon you’ll be running at full speed and more pressing tasks will feel a lot easier.
If you’re really struggling to get started on something, doing anything productive is often enough. Respond to some emails. Sort out your desk. Whatever it may be, these smaller tasks can give you enough of a boost to tackle bigger ones.
Just remember that those bigger tasks don’t vanish overnight. Tomorrow is always inescapable. Face up to your responsibilities today. You may think tomorrow will be different, but the fact is that tomorrow will soon become another today. You might stand still, but time certainly will not.
Breaking it down
One of the best strategies for overcoming procrastination is to sit down and untangle your work. Those with an overwhelming amount of work often can’t find the energy to get stuck in. That’s why psychologists always recommend breaking your work down into smaller chunks to make it all more manageable.
This will give you a clearer view of the task at hand and help make progress a lot quicker. Writing a long article can seem like a huge challenge when you’re staring at a blank document. But what about planning an introduction? Or conducting a touch of research? That you can do…
Complete little tasks such as this over and over again. Perhaps reward yourself after each task. Then before you know it you’ll have a complete article in front of you.
Deadlines are your friends
Motivation often requires external incentive – that’s why so many people rely on last-minute panic to get stuff done. If this sounds familiar, you should be creating incentive in your work. Adding your own deadlines. Ramping up that pressure. Feeling the urge to complete your work.
But just telling yourself that you’ll have something done by a certain time isn’t always enough. We procrastinate less when the deadline is imposed by other people because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves or disappoint them. But this isn’t a consequence with personal deadlines, so you need to create your own reasons and incentives.
The more public your deadlines are, the more likely you are to meet them. For instance, promising to email some friends the completed work at a certain time will make you feel extra motivated as we don’t like looking incompetent before our peers.
Less distraction, more action
Overcome procrastination by making procrastination impossible. Because procrastination simply cannot take place when there is nothing else to do other than work.
Eliminate the distracting influence of our phones, our friends, our playlists, or our internet. Reduce the likelihood of common interruptions. And work in surroundings that bring you focus , motivation, and happiness.
Your environment makes a big difference to how well you work. If you can’t work in a café without staring out the window, maybe work somewhere less public. If you work right next to a busy doorway with lots of traffic, it’s probably about time you moved desks.
Maybe the solution is not a matter of overcoming procrastination, but accepting it for what it is. While procrastination may seem indicative of being unsatisfied with your work, you could also construe it as an inevitable part of your working routine. Something avoidable that you should try to embrace in small bursts.
We often hear phrases like “you will never feel like doing it” or “the time will never be just right” in common discourse about self-help. These help us to expect a certain lack of motivation when faced with big tasks. They prepare us for the inevitable so that we can calmly surpass it.
Accept that procrastination is going to happen, but keep it in control. Make it work for you.
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