How to Stop Procrastinating
Do you have a habit of putting certain tasks off? Are there things you find yourself doing when you want to avoid doing something else? In recent blogs and videos, we’ve covered behaviours like binge eating, scrolling, or the inability to say no, which are all types of self-sabotage.
Procrastination is another of these self-sabotaging behaviours that prevents us from living our full life or reaching our full potential, because we are standing in our own way of making progress. This video and blog explore the kinds of things we procrastinate over and why and give three tips to help stop!
Procrastination is the action of delaying or postponing tasks. And not just any task, because we could all avoid doing relatively unimportant things like clearing the table or tidying a cupboard; procrastination is where we delay tasks that actually matter.
What do you procrastinate over?
I can remember when I was at university, anytime there was an exam or a deadline for a piece of coursework, of the 6 of us in my house, 2 of us just couldn’t knuckle down. Our rooms were messy most of the time, but in that period leading up to a deadline, we’d suddenly find time to tidy them. Or we would end up going out. We’d go to the cinema, or to the Harvester (which used to have a really good deal for students), anything but getting our work done. And yet our other 4 housemates seemed to be able to crack on with their work without any problem.
More recently, one of the members on our Healthy Whole and Free group shared how she ended up tidying out all her handbags instead of getting on with something she was meant to doing one morning. She even washed her hairbrushes. Cleaning out her bags was quite a helpful thing, but it wasn’t really important she did it there and then. It was procrastination to avoid doing the thing she really needed to do.
Procrastination doesn’t seem to be all that productive, so why do we do it?
We do it to avoid some kind of pain, although the pain we are avoiding might not always be that obvious. It might be that we are trying to avoid boredom. It might be physical pain or discomfort, especially if the thing we are avoiding is exercise, or if the thing you need to do feels like you are depriving yourself of something. It’s worth trying to pin down the reasons you slip into procrastinating behaviour.
One of the problems with procrastination is something called ‘time inconsistency’. Our brain sees immediate reward as a higher priority than future reward. So, while know at the age of 20 or 30 that face creams, or perhaps even sunscreen, are good for us and will protect our skin, helping to reduce fine lines or colouring of the skin in the future, when we are younger, the future rewards just don’t seem big enough and just don’t outweigh the present reward of not bothering. Similarly, tasks like organising a pension or doing a tax return are often things we put off, because we just don’t see that the reward of doing them now is big enough, when there are other, more appealing things we could be doing. There’s an inconsistency in the brain where for a while, it doesn’t put value and weight on a future reward.
But eventually, the pain of not doing the thing we have put off starts to outweigh the pain of doing it now. So, if you’ve got a deadline looming then you can procrastinate for so long, but eventually the consequences of not taking action becomes the immediate issue, and there will be more immediate reward for doing it now than putting it off any longer. It can take a lot of control and discipline to think forward to the future and consider what your future self will really thank you for! We need to be able to convince our brains that doing the thing is actually far better, and ultimately less painful, than procrastinating.
It’s clear that procrastination wastes our brain energy and prevents us from reaching our potential, so here are three things we can do to stop procrastinating:
1. Make the rewards more immediate: One way to do this is something called ‘temptation bundling’, where you pair the tasks that you don’t want to do with something that you love, but will only do while you’re doing that task, or after you finish that task you don’t like. For example, if you don’t like ironing but you love watching Bake Off, then you could only allow yourself to watch Bake Off while you are ironing. Or, if you’ve got a favourite coffee shop, you might only allow yourself to go there after you’ve finished your weekly accounts, or your food planning, or a similar chore you don’t like doing. This approach won’t work with something more generic, like ‘listening to music’ or ‘watching TV’, it must be something specific that you only do when you’re doing the specific task you have been trying to avoid.
2. Make the consequences matter: If we put off starting a pension in our 20s or 30s, we probably won’t feel the consequences of that action yet, although not acting on something like this could eventually have consequences for our future. We know this, but at the time our brain just can’t handle it, because the consequences are some way off. We can get around this by trying to make consequences of not taking the action more immediate. For example, if you want to start exercising but know that you are not likely to feel the benefits for a few weeks, months or even longer, you could create some more immediate consequences by arranging to have some accountability with a friend. If they are exercising with you, and you choose not to go, you will be letting them down, and that could cause you feelings of guilt or discomfort making it harder to back out.
There are even apps that can help to keep you on track too – one call StickK gets you to set goals and make pledges, and if you don’t stick to them there is an option to set a financial penalty (your money is donated to a charity that wouldn’t be your first choice – for example if you are not an animal lover, it may go to a zoo, or if your child is at one school, the money is donated to a different local school).
3. Break tasks down into smaller chunks: The pain of procrastination is a bit like the pain of getting into a cold swimming pool; the hardest thing is to ease yourself into the cold water, toe, then leg, then body, and so on, but once you are in, it feels fine. The key is to reduce that friction of getting started; how many times have you experienced that feeling, once you get going on the task that you’ve been avoiding, that it’s not so bad after all! Consider how you could reduce that friction by giving yourself smaller chunks of things to do.
Take your tax return: try not to see it as some big, looming thing you must do all in one go, but perhaps commit to 5 or 10 minutes to complete the first page, and so on. It won’t feel quite such a challenge. And you can apply the same approach to other tasks. Think about how you can break them up into smaller chunks, and if you can start to tackle those things you are procrastinating over, you will experience less stress and less anxiety. It will feel easier to move past those blocks to get on with the rest of your life.
We look at procrastination and other self-sabotaging behaviours in the Healthy Whole and Free course and the next one starts on Wednesday 12th of January 2022. You can find out more and register here. We’d love to have you join us.