Have you ever sat down to work on an important project and had the sudden overwhelming urge to tidy the pantry or re-organise your sock drawer? It could be a work project, assignment or mundane admin task that you keep putting off in favour of something else more immediately compelling.
Procrastination is a mysterious phenomenon, and we’ve all experienced it. It creates frustration and guilt when you realise that there is nothing other than your own self-defeating behaviour getting in the way of that glowing feeling of accomplishment that is waiting for you when you finally stop avoiding things and get on with it.
There can, of course, be much more serious consequences to procrastination than just feeling a bit guilty; for example, if you postpone important medical checks, fail to perform essential tasks on the job or avoid financial obligations. We make light of it but procrastination can be a serious problem. So what causes procrastination and how do you overcome it?
Partly, it’s the desire for instant gratification that causes you to avoid tasks you perceive as difficult, tedious or uncomfortable. Getting up and looking for something better to do when there’s a boring task in front of you is the same avoidance strategy that has you pulling out your phone and scrolling when you have an empty moment in your day. Perfectionism also plays a role in procrastination, when the pain of not doing something perfectly is enough to not want to do it at all.
If you’re at a loss to know how to overcome your perfectionism, I thought I’d share a few tips for how to ignore the call of the sock drawer and get things done:
1. Connect with your future self
When you procrastinate on a task, you essentially delegate it to your future self. Studies have shown that many of us perceive our future selves in much the same way that we perceive another random person who is unknown to us; therefore, we tend to lack empathy for the poor sucker who is going to be lumped with this task later (that would be you!) Engaging in mental imagery exercises where you picture yourself in the future feeling satisfied and accomplished by the work you do today can help to increase motivation to get on with what needs to be done. If you have trouble connecting with a future you, perhaps trick your mind by imagining that you’re helping out a friend by making a start on this task now. (We sometimes are more motivated to do good for others than for ourselves!)
2. Create inch-pebbles
Getting started is always the hardest part and usually once you get going, you wonder why you waited for so long. The worst part of procrastination is realising how much more you could have achieved if you’d only allowed yourself more time. With that in mind, break your task down into bite-sized chunks and aim to just get through one tiny chunk at a time. Each little milestone achieved (or inch-pebble if that feels more manageable) will give you a sense of satisfaction and increase your motivation to keep going. Until that intrinsic motivation kicks in, it can help to use extrinsic motivation by planning some rewards for each little inch-pebble you achieve.
3. Don’t wait to feel good
If a task seems unpleasant now, there’s a fair chance it’s going to feel just as unpleasant when it’s still waiting for you to do it tomorrow. Somehow we have the deluded idea that we need to feel like doing something in order to do it, and nothing could be further from the truth. What’s required here is not more motivation but more capacity to tolerate discomfort and do what needs to be done. Even if you don’t consider yourself to be the most conscientious character by nature, distress tolerance is a trait that can be cultivated and strengthened with mindfulness meditation.
So sit down and practise some mindful breathing before you get started on your task. Notice the feeling of resistance to the task and simply allow that feeling to be there. Also notice any negative thoughts you’re having and remember thoughts aren’t facts. Remind yourself of your small goal and your future self, and resolve to make a start.