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Stop Procrastinating - How to Improve Personal Effectiveness

Ever found yourself putting off those important or boring tasks, when you really should be ripping into it? Well, some people struggle with this more than others and it is certainly a topic of conversation in the Incorporate Psychology Coaching Practice.

Whether it is a habit that irritates you on occasions, or on the other hand, it could be one of those issues that is becoming a real blocker for you and your career? Either way this short & practical article provides some practical techniques that are helpful. With these techniques, we draw upon some ideas and approaches from cognitive psychology as well as many conversations with executives and professionals who have tackled procrastination.

A critical first step is to accept that it is something that you want to address and recognise that it is a type of habit. Once procrastination is accepted as a type of habit, then practicing some techniques every day will help you ‘un-wind’ some of those pesky, blocking habits and ‘wind-in’ some more constructive and adaptive approaches.

To procrastinate less follow these steps:

  1. Understand what procrastination is and accept that you want to change

  2. Spot when you are procrastinating

  3. Work out why you are procrastinating and select the best course of action

  4. Adopt a new approach to lock in the changes

So what is procrastination?

One colloquial explanation of procrastination is that we procrastinate when we have something important to do and we just put it off or get distracted by others less important tasks. It could be that we are avoiding the important task, or perhaps we just prefer to do the more interesting and attractive task. In any case, the brain is rewarding us in the short-term, for doing something that is more comfortable. Alternatively the brain is rewarding us for avoiding something unpleasant that creates anxiety. The Cambridge dictionary tells us that procrastination is ‘to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring’.

A leading thinker in the field is Dr Clarry Lay, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto. Dr Lay offers the technical explanation as “a temporal gap between intended behaviour and enacted behaviour.”

So when we intend to do a job and then actually do some time later, then we are in fact procrastinating.

Getting better with procrastination

Excuse the ‘dad-joke’, but there is no point putting off dealing with procrastination. Not only is it pretty straight-forward if you work at it, but there is no time like the present to get started, and like any habit that you are trying to replace or extinguish, it takes daily application and some time to see the changes. We have had plenty of conversations with people who pick this topic as something that they want to target to make themselves more personally effective, and there seems to be some common themes that are working. We would like to share some of these general themes.

Recognition - Begin at the beginning

The first step is to recognise that you are procrastinating by spotting that you are doing it and that it is actually procrastination. Here are some signs that you might be procrastinating:

  • ‘I will do it when I feel in the mood’. If you notice this sort of internal dialogue and you are waiting for the ‘right mood’, this might be an excuse. Yes, some things are easier when you are in a good mood, but many important tasks we may never be in the mood for, and they stay important.

  • I will just make a cup of coffee …”. If you find yourself about to start an important job or task, but you jump up and go off and to something else, you are procrastinating.

  • “Haven’t I read this before?!” You find yourself going over emails and not actually doing anything with them or making a decision, are you putting things off?

  • “Doing the fun things first”. If you notice that you reward yourself by doing the fun things first, and put off the important and urgent things that make a difference to you, will you hit your goals.

  • “I will get to that later”. If you find yourself leaving an important task on your ‘To Do’ list for far longer than you should, especially if you know that it is important, then you might be procrastinating.

  • Taking on too much of what people ask you to do. If you notice you are adding things to your list that others ask you to take on, and this impacts your ability to get on with your important tasks, then you might have difficulty saying no, as well as a habit of putting off what you need to do.

  • “OMG – What happened to the time!”. Finding that the deadline on an important assignment or milestone has crept up and you now have to cram or pull an all-nighter just to get something delivered.

Using this list as a general guide, you will be able to pick most occasions when you are procrastinating. For more information exploring procrastination, fill out a popular and quick test to see how you score, complete Dr Lay’s Procrastination Scale.

There may also be some quite personal and common ‘tells’ that you are procrastinating, so use some self-reflection and try to identify your own signs that you are putting off the important things in life. For example, you might feel an increase in anxiety or worry, as your mind is trying to get busy and keep itself occupied in the face of a daunting task. Or you might notice yourself starting meaningless tasks and not actually completing any of them; or you could find yourself wasting time on a soft distraction; “Oh my, have I just spent 30 minutes on YouTube again?”

Now work out why you are procrastinating

So you have gotten better at spotting when you are procrastinating and you are reading your signs, so the next step is to work out why you are procrastinating. This can vary depending on what is going on for you and on what the task is. As you get better at identifying why you are putting something off, you get much quicker at selecting the best strategy to deal with it and get moving on something more important.

Some possible reasons for procrastinating that are to do with you

Broadly speaking there are a few different reasons why you are procrastinating that centre around you. It could be that you are not organised generally, or it could be that you are feeling overwhelmed. The third broad issue that might be behind your procrastination is anxiety; you could be feeling anxious about the task.

Lack of organisation – So if you are procrastinating because you are disorganised and not effective with your time, then here are some tips to getting more organised;

  • Be clear about your life priorities – if you have not taken time out to be really clear about what is most important to you for this stanza of your life, then how can you prioritise. One suggestion here is to do a Personal mission statement with some goals.

  • Use a diary accurately and check / update it a at least at the beginning and end of the day.

  • Use a to do list

  • Organised your to do list according to what is important as well as urgent

  • Schedule things in advance, and estimate accurately how much time things will take

  • Set your-self goals with time-frames; “I want to get the research on this assignment done by Monday morning”

  • Be mindful & present – Focus on one thing at a time.

Feeling overwhelmed - If you are procrastinating because you are feeling overwhelmed generally and this task is another straw that is going to break your tolerance, then you need to check your well-being, get organised and do a list of what is really important then act.

  • Well-being check - Check in to make sure you are feeling well, resilient and energised. Do you feel physically well (enough sleep, eating well, exercise good) and do you feel in a healthy frame of mind, (having some fun and balancing work with some interests, connecting with people you love and appreciate, clear about your sense of purpose).

  • Get organised - Use the tips outlined above to do a list of important things so you have things in perspective and you know what is important.

  • Act on your list – When it is time to act, then you need make decisions. What are you going to do yourself, what are you going to delegate out and share responsibility, what are you doing to delay or drop off your list?

  • Feeling anxious – if a feeling of anxiety is behind your procrastination, then our advice here is to address the anxiety and use problem-solving.

Reasons to do with the task itself

Similarly, there are a few reasons to do with the task that could be behind your procrastination. It could be that you perceive that the task is going to be unpleasant or distressing in some way. On the other hand, it could be that you find the task boring and you put it off.

  • The task is unpleasant or distressing – If you feel that the task you need to do is unpleasant or distressing in some way, then you would not be alone in succumbing to the temptation to put it off. Most people reflect after this sort of task however, that it was not nearly as bad as they suspected it would be. A technique here is to use perspective taking and also ask for someone you trust to offer some peer review or support ahead of tackling the task.

  • The task is boring as … - If you suspect or know that the task will be boring, then here is an approach. First break it up into sub- tasks so that it is more measurable and you can get your head around your progress through it. Then find a way to measure how you are progressing through the task. Finally, set some rewards for yourself along the way or at the end. In a sense you are using some of the elements of gamification to get through the activity.

Adopt a new approach

So how much of a procrastinator do you think you are and what is your way to being more personally effective?

Procrastination is an ingrained habit so working on these techniques regularly and with discipline will see results. Many people have asked how long it will take to get on top of this and be less of a procrastinator, and whilst the answer is ‘it depends’, the guidance we give our coaching clients, take this seriously and you will see things improve in a matter of weeks. But you need to practice it every day.

Broadly speaking these general tips are also quite helpful:

  • Spend some time working out your personal mission statement and three or four important goals for this stanza of your life - This will be very helpful when prioritising and making decisions.

  • Reward yourself - For example, promise yourself a healthy snack or a brief task that you enjoy.

  • Be clear about the cost and consequences of not getting it done.

  • Peer review – ask for someone to keep you accountable.

If you have any questions about this coaching module, or you want to explore other approaches to improving yourself, feel free to get in touch with Incorporate Psychology (07) 3852 2441 or email us to make a coaching appointment today.

References: Lay, C. (1986). At last, my research article on procrastination. Journal of Research in Personality, 20, 474-495.

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