Prevail over procrastination

Is constant delaying slowing you down? We spoke to the experts to find the tried-and-tested ways to stop putting things off and get the job done.

When was the last time you tried to start a not-so-enjoyable errand when — wait — there’s an interesting Twitter thread to read, that new series on Netflix is calling your name, it’s definitely snack time and, yeah, the laundry isn’t going to do itself. The adage “if it weren’t for the last minute, I wouldn’t get anything done” defines those of us dubbed serial procrastinators. Our mantra? Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?

Fellow heel-draggers, let’s commiserate. Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing. So when you really need to make a dental appointment but it keeps getting pushed off today’s to-do list and onto tomorrow’s, you’re following the procrastinator’s mantra to a T. Here’s why: we procrastinate, says Timothy Pychyl, an associate professor in the department of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa and director of the school’s Procrastination Research Group, because we use avoidance to cope with the negative emotions that are associated with the job we’re sidestepping. “When we face a task we don’t feel like doing — it’s boring, frustrating, difficult or all three — we can escape these negative emotions by putting it off. Seen this way, procrastination isn’t a time-management problem; it’s an emotion-management problem.” (In other words, it’s not that you don’t have time to book a dental appointment, it’s that you fervently want to avoid the negative feelings you have when you’re in your dentist’s chair.)

It makes sense, but there’s a problem, says Danielle Molnar, an assistant professor in the department of child and youth studies at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont. Deferment, it just so happens, is a flawed strategy. Molnar, who also describes stalling as an issue of emotion regulation, says, “While avoiding or abandoning the aversive task may provide relief from these negative feelings in the short term, it often results in long-term negative consequences, including lack of productivity, anxiety and ultimately shame.” Pychyl adds that early in life we learn that avoidance has some short-term benefits. “We can escape, at least for the moment. Given that this is rewarding, it can become a habit, hence serial procrastination. The key here is to learn other coping responses. Avoidance, because it is so self-defeating in the long run, is not the only or best strategy.”

Procrastinators not only use avoidance, but can be an impulsive bunch and have perfectionistic tendencies. “They abandon long-term goals for immediate rewards,” says Molnar. “A person may have a report that he or she is working on and can be invested in the task, but when feeling frustrated, he or she may abandon the report to go out with friends on a nice sunny day.” As for perfectionism, Molnar says people with perfectionistic concerns, defined as those who set super-high standards and feel compelled to reach them, tend to be preoccupied with what other people think of them, are more sensitive to external pressure and criticisms and are motivated by fear of failure. “They’re so afraid of not meeting their lo y goals that they tend to ruminate about their negative feelings surrounding the task and engage in avoidance techniques rather than make meaningful progress toward their goals,” she says. These people are more likely to manage their negative feelings by disengaging from the task altogether. Consider writer’s block — “you can easily imagine a person higher in perfectionistic concerns trying so hard to find that perfect word that he or she never actually gets the word down.” (Guilty, as charged.)

The point in all of this is that despite the fact that so many of us do it, there are no benefits to procrastination. “It’s self-defeating. We’re delaying not because it’s the best choice at the time, but because we can’t face the task, so we escape it,” says Pychyl. He adds that if we look at ourselves in the future — something he has been focusing on in recent research — we can actually reduce our dilly-dallying by developing empathy for our future selves, realizing that procrastination hurts more than helps. “If you’ve developed the habit as one of your go-to coping responses, you’re in trouble,” he says.

And there’s the good news in all this: procrastination is a bad habit and bad habits can be broken. Here’s how to get out of that pattern of postponement today (read: not tomorrow).

GET MOOD OUT OF YOUR HEAD

That’s Pychyl’s No. 1 tip on beating procrastination. “Being in the mood is not a prerequisite for getting things done. If it were, I wouldn’t get much of anything done,” he admits. “I can be aware of my feelings such as, I don’t want to do this, but then I simply ask myself, What would be the next action on this project if I were to begin? I keep this action very concrete so it seems easy and doable.” From this perspective, action doesn’t follow motivation (which we typically believe), but motivation follows action.

JUST GET STARTED

“Today I was on the ground floor of a building where I work on the 15th floor, but I had a meeting on the 18th floor. I take the stairs, but I never feel like taking the stairs,” says Pychyl. “In fact, on the way to the building my mind was busy making excuses as to why I didn’t have to today — I would be late for my meeting, I had already done many stairs, I’m tired. I accepted that my mind was doing this. When I reached the building, I simply opened the door to the stairwell and took the first step. I can always quit if I want, but getting started is everything!” That’s Pychyl’s motto — “just get started.” Sometimes that’s all it takes to avert your penchant for procrastination.

TAKE AWAY TEMPTATION

To Piers Steel, a professor at the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary and author of The Procrastination Equation, the problem procrastinators have is often with temptations. He says we need to figure out what’s distancing us from our tasks — it could be Facebook, a trip to Starbucks, a time-sucking game on your smartphone, etc. — then make it harder to get to that temptation by controlling its proximity to you. When I tell him the culprit for my procrastination is too often Netflix, he tells me to simply remove the Netflix app from my laptop and smartphone so that I can only watch The Mindy Project on television, making it less available to me. It’s the same reason why people who go to the gym on their way home from the office are more likely to work out — “if when you’re driving home and you go by your gym and have your gym bag in your car, there’s a much better chance you’ll actually go than if you have to go home first and pick up your gym bag.”

GET SPECIFIC

Sometimes it’s hard to have a firm mental idea of what we should be doing next, Steel says. That’s where goal-setting comes into play. “Define your task as if you’re explaining it to a lazy six-year-old. The more specific you can be about a task, the better. For example, don’t just say you’re writing this weekend. Say you’re writing on Saturday. Now sharpen that to the time you’re writing on Saturday and where,” he says. “And decide on a cue. Maybe it’s after bringing your breakfast dishes to the sink — that’s your cue to go to your computer and start working.”

FIND YOUR MAGIC TIME

When your energy level peaks — whether you’re an early bird, a night owl or you fall somewhere in between — that’s your magic time and it should be reserved for committing to getting the hard stuff done, says Steel. This isn’t the time to put away laundry, check Instagram or pay bills. This surge of get-up-and-go should be set aside for that specific job you’ve had trouble starting. “It will take half as long to do when you have the most energy; it will get done so much quicker that you’ll have more time to reward yourself. The more productive you are, the greater the payoff in leisure time.”