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Procrastination - we all are guilty of this vice. Missed deadlines are only some of the consequences of putting things off. Procrastination also influences the quality of work. To be blunt, it lowers the standards. Moreover, procrastination impacts your health and wellbeing. What to do to overcome procrastination and start doing things ahead of time? Piotr Modzelewski - psychologist, educator, and graduate of SWPS University provides 21 tips on overcoming procrastination.

In a study conducted by Professor Timothy A. Pychyl and his team, 94 percent of 9000 study participants reported that procrastination negatively impacts their level of happiness1. Why does it happen? Because procrastination triggers stress and guilt. People regret that they have not taken care of things as they should have or that they have not begun something sooner, which would have prevented the consequences caused by procrastination2. So how can you overcome procrastination?

1. Be aware

Pay attention to the situations when you procrastinate. Procrastination is a voluntary delay of planned tasks, which means that there are no objective circumstances, such as an illness, an accident, a crisis, that would prevent you from completing the task. Take note of the times when you have the intension of completing the task, but you are not doing it. You might find that a journal is helpful, for example in a form of a table with columns, where you write down every neglected task as well as your accompanying thoughts and feelings. These thoughts often take on a form of excuses and lead to procrastination ‒ write them down. Awareness is the first step towards a change.3.

2. Prepare a balance sheet

Prepare a balance sheet of losses resulting from your procrastination and gains from completing tasks on time. It is good to go back to that list from time to time. Memory may not be so reliable and the reminder of gains and losses will motivate you to change your habits.

3. Use implementation intentions

Procrastination is a problem with self-control and self-discipline. You put off aversive tasks to avoid negative feelings, such as fear or helplessness, associated with completing these tasks4. You favor temporary relief over the long-term problems that will undoubtedly occur as the result of procrastination. To help yourself in this situation, apply simple implementation intentions. Implementation intentions are sentences in the following patterns: “If....then..” or “When...then...”, for example: “Even if I feel negative emotions during this task, I will finish”5. You can also name your emotions, for example: “Although I am anxious, I will do it”6 7. You can also try to practice mindfulness8. Meditation, just like naming of emotions, is conducive to acceptance, which in turn helps to begin tasks.9.

4. Just do it!

Although you might swear to yourself that tomorrow you will be better prepared, have more energy and be in a better mood, it might not be the case. Instead of surrendering to these thoughts, tell yourself: “Just do it!” Focusing on starting a task is another way of overcoming procrastination. Initially, you might need to begin the task several times during the day. However, after a few attempts you will notice that it has become easier for you to start a task10. In the process of learning to begin, you might find a timer and the following two techniques very useful: The 5-minute plan or the Pomodoro technique (working in 25-minute blocks of time)11 12.

5. Avoid working under pressure

Some people claim: “I work best under pressure”. In practice it means that they are able to overcome their tendency to procrastinate only when the deadline is deadly close. According to Professor Pychyl, when you are not motivated to tackle a task, you postpone it as long as the time pressure will not push you to complete the project. Unfortunately, the pressure, (including stress and fear) is counterproductive and negatively impacts the quality and efficacy.13 14.

6. Do not postpone tasks to the next day

Avoid putting things off until tomorrow. When you say: “I’ll do it tomorrow”, you feel an immediate relief, because you do not have to face the challenge right this minute. Positive feelings wash over you and you usually begin to fantasize about the future and begin making plans. You imagine that tomorrow you will begin the task without complaining and without much effort. But the next day, the situation repeats itself. It is a trap ‒ you mistake planning for doing and as the result, you do not do anything.15.

7. Do not exaggerate difficulties

Professor Pychyl emphasizes that to a large degree procrastination results from exaggerating difficulties. This proved to be true in case of his students who having a Friday deadline for an essay would postpone writing the paper until late Thursday evening or even until Friday morning. Later, many students regretted this decision, because the essay was not as difficult as they thought, and the subject turned out to be interesting. Perhaps they did not know, what the researchers of procrastination know: when you begin a task, you perceive it and yourself differently. A wave of positive feelings washes over you and the feeling of being in control increases. 16.

Moreover, the progress you make increases the level of your happiness and satisfaction, as shown by research conducted by Doctor Teresa Amabile of Stanford University. Positive feelings motivate you to keep going. Just begin the task.17.

8. Identify your most frequent excuses

Make a list of your excuses, monitor when they begin to appear in your mind and prepare appropriate intention implementations to rebut them, for example: “If I feel like doing something tomorrow then I will think X and will do Y” or “Although my brain is telling me: Tomorrow you will be more ready to tackle this task, I will begin today and do at least a little bit, despite my brain’s urging.”

9. Think about your goals in measurable terms

When you think about your tasks in an abstract way, you do not see them as urgent. The more measureable and defined your plans are, the easier it will be for you to begin. Divide big projects into smaller tasks. Make a list in the order of complition.

10. Do not mistake distractors for rewards

When you begin a task in a good mood (“I will do it!”), you are trying to motivate yourself. However, could your optimism be unfounded and in consequence impede your work? Exaggerated optimism triggers the following thought process: “O, there is not much work left and I will be able to complete it quickly!” Sometimes your good mood makes you feel that you have the right to reward yourself, with watching an episode of a TV series or checking your Facebook, just for starting the long-postponed task. In reality, this type of reward is a distractor.

You can change this bad habit by setting time intervals, i.e. the above-mentioned 20-30-minute blocks of time devoted to uninterrupted working and by practicing the process of starting a task. Thanks to this method you will avoid the trap of exaggerating difficulties (see point 7 above) and you will be working systematically, little by little. Over time, the temptation to reward yourself just for beginning the task will disappear.

11. Limit distractors

Think of distractors present in your environment and try to eliminate them. Turn off your phone, close your e-mail, log out of Facebook and even disconnect from the net for a while. Remember also about internal distractors, such as your thoughts and feelings. You might encounter some difficulties while you are working, which may result in decreased enthusiasm. You should not give in to these feelings and alternatively you could use the method of implementation intentions, for example: “If I get stuck and will start worrying about next steps, I will not give up and I will make a rational plan for moving forward. Or I will look for help. I will not give in to the feeling of helplessness.”

If family and friends distract you too often, use intention implementation, such as: “If someone calls me to invite me out on the weekend, I will immediately say: Thank you, but I have a deadline and I must complete my work.” Implementation intentions help you to avoid many traps.

12. Practice your willpower

Your willpower or self-control is a limited resource. The more willpower you use on one task, the less will remain for the next one, unless you are strongly motivated and very interested in the project. How can you strengthen your willpower?

Remember that your willpower is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. It means that by completing tasks diligently, you increase your willpower resources. Other ways to renew the reserves of willpower are sleep and rest. Problems with self-control usually occur at the end of the day, when you are tired. Therefore, a good strategy is to complete the most difficult tasks in the morning. Positive emotions also help to increase willpower. Perseverance may depend on the level of glucose in the blood. Sometimes a sweet drink or a serving of fruit may increase the ability to use your willpower. And when you have a moment of doubt, try to remember what you want to achieve.18 19.

13. Don’t give in to impulses

If you tend to make impulse decisions, use implementation intentions. This will give you time to think and will help you to avoid potential temptations, for example: “If I am tempted to go out to the pub, I will tell my friends that I will make a decision within ten minutes”.20.

14. Divide big projects into smaller tasks

If you feel disorganized by the amount of work, structure your projects and divide them into smaller tasks. A simple task of tidying up your workspace helps you to organize everything. Just watch that you don’t spend too much time on tidying up, because it is another incarnation of procrastination.21.

For example, students begin to nervously clean their rooms, when exams are approaching, explaining that it is impossible to study in a messy place. Instead of conquering the mess, it is much better to just begin your main task.

15. Don’t be afraid of failure

A tendency to worry and fret about a failure is another trap. If this occurs, it helps to find the cause of your anxiety, analyze it and challenge it, if it is unfounded. If you have the need, you can consult a psychologist, a therapist or read a book on cognitive-behavioral therapy.

16. Manage your stress

Stress is another factor that might influence your work. Relaxation techniques and meditation may help you to overcome it. You should also accept that stress is an inherent element of life. It is better to do something, even under pressure, than to force yourself to relax, as psychologist Kelly McGonigal states in her book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It.22.

17. Overcome cyber-procrastination

Nowadays, cyber-procrastination is one of the most common forms of procrastination. Research conducted by Professor Pychyl indicates that 47 percent of time spent online constitutes procrastination. Surfing the net usually is an unproductive activity that contributes nothing to your work.23.

18. Be careful when using the word “just”

“I’ll just take a moment to check Facebook”, “I’ll just check my e-mail”, “I’ll just make myself a cup of coffee” - sounds familiar? The coffee break may stretch in time. So can Facebook scrolling. You assess that it will take only a moment to do these things, while in reality you spent much more time on them.

What should you do if you really have to leave your desk before you start working? Or if you really must check your e-mail? You should set the amount of time that you allow yourself for having coffee or for checking your mail. At the same time, you should set the timer on your phone that will remind you about going back to work, so that your break will not be prolonged “by accident”.

19. Do not believe in multitasking

Many people believe that they are able to divide their attention and multitask. However, research shows that only about 2.5 percent of the population can effectively multitask. Don’t kid yourself that you will be able to clean your apartment, write an article and answer important e-mails, at the same time.24 25.

Many people believe that they are able to divide their attention and multitask. However, research shows that only about 2.5 percent of the population can effectively multitask. 

 

20. Change your perception of time

Research conducted by Yanping Tu and Dilip Soman in 2014, indicates that people begin their tasks earlier, if they believe that the tasks are elements of the present. The first group of participants was assigned a task on April 24th, which gave them five days to complete it. The second group was also given five days to complete a task, but the task was given on April 28th, so the due date fell in May. People from the first group felt that the task is an element of their present, while the people from the second group felt that the May due date is in the future.

It is good to plan your work in such a way that you perceive it as an element of the present, for example set the deadline for the same month or for the same year, if it is a bigger project ‒ (December 2018 is a better deadline than March 2019), because research conducted by Y. Tu and D. Soman indicates that people tend to categorize time by years.26.

There is another trick that made participants of another study begin work up to four times sooner. Research conducted by Neil Lewis and Daphna Oyserman in 2015, proves that thinking about the time set to achieve your goals in terms of days rather than months or years is conducive to starting the necessary work. Counting months rather than years also helps to begin. People may think that they have 30 years, or 10,950 days, to save for their retirement, but the latter method is a significantly stronger motivator to start putting money away.27.

21. Forgive yourself

Remember, there is no easy and fast solution. Procrastination is a habit that requires work, consistency and perseverance to overcome. To change the habit, get your toolkit ready. Create a list of the tasks that you keep postponing and select two that you want to tackle first. Accept that changing your procrastination habit may involve taking two steps forward and one step back. Be kind to yourself, be patient and give yourself the right to make mistakes. Research conducted by Professor Pychyl indicates that if you forgive yourself your past tendency to procrastinate, you will procrastinate less in the future. Forgive yourself your past mistakes and begin anew. Thanks to this process, you learn the virtue of hard work, you overcome procrastination and you become more persistent.28.

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Piotr Modzelewski has written three books in Polish: Pokonaj odwlekanie – rozwiń wytrwałość (Overcome procrastination ‒ develop persevirance) (2016), which received numerous awards in book competitions in the self-help category, Wstań. Stres, lęk i depresja a styl życia (Rise. Stress, fear, depression and lifestyle) (2017), Prokrastynacja (Procrastination) (2018).

About the Author

258 piotr modzelewski

Piotr Modzelewski – psychologist, educator, graduate of SWPS University. Teaches at the Pomeranian University in Słupsk and provides psychotherapy at the Pomorskie Centrum Terapeutyczno-Prawne „Interios” (“Interios”: Pomeranian Center for Psychotherapy and Legal Counsel). Author of over 20 publications and three books: Pokonaj odwlekanie – rozwiń wytrwałość (Overcome procrastination ‒ develop persevirance), Wstań. Stres, lęk i depresja a styl życia (Rise. Stress, fear, depression and lifestyle), Prokrastynacja (Procrastination). In 2016, Overcome procrastination received the “Best psychological book” award in the self-help book category, in a competition organized by Granice.pl, a portal devoted to literature. Mr. Modzelewski was also named “Persona of the year 2017” of the Pomerania region, in the Culture category, for his book Rise.

Footnotes

1 In: Steel, P. The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133, pp. 65-94, (2007).

2 Sirois, F. M. Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13 (2), pp. 128-145, (2014).

3 21 tips were inspired by: Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination puzzle: A concise guide to strategies for change. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA), (2013).

 4 Pychyl, T.A. Procrastination: Feeling Overwhelmed, Helpless and Ready to Run Away, (2010). Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/201003/procrastination-feeling-overwhelmed-helpless-and-ready-run-away (date accessed: 26.07.2018).

5 Gollwitzer, P.M., Sheeran, P. Implementation intentions and goal achievement: a meta‐analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Volume 38, pp. 69-119, (2006).

6 Aldao, A. Why Labeling Emotions Matters. An at-home experiment on emotion labeling, (2014).. Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sweet-emotion/201408/why-labeling-emotions-matters (date accessed: 26.07.2018).

7 Hayes, S.C, Strohsal, K, Wilson, K.G. Acceptance and commitment therapy. An experimental approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford Press, (1999)

8 8 Segal, Z.V., Teasdale, J.D., Kabat-Zinn, J. i Williams, J.M.. Świadomą droga przez depresje: Wolność od chronicznego cierpienia (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Depression: A New Approach to Preventing Relapse), Warszawa: Czarna Owca, (2009)

9 Pychyl, T.A. Procrastination: Why Mindfulness Is Crucial. Mindful awareness & nonjudgmental acceptance – the path to emotional regulation, (2014). Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/dont-delay/201403/procrastination-why-mindfulness-is-crucial (date accessed: 26.07.2018).

10 Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination, op. cit., (2013).

11 Tucker-Ladd, C.E. Psychological self-help, (2018). Source: https://www.psychologicalselfhelp.org (date accessed: 26.07.2018).

12 Nowell, D. D. Manage Procrastination With the Pomodoro Technique, (2013), Source: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/intrinsic-motivation-and-magical-unicorns/201307/manage-procrastination-the-pomodoro-technique (date accessed: 26.07.2018).

13 Ibid.

14 Halvorson, H.G. Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. New York: Plume, (2012).

15 Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination, op. cit., (2013).

16 Ibid.

17 17 Amabile, T., Kramer, S. Zasada postępu: Małe zwycięstwa kluczem do radości, zaangażowania i kreatywności w pracy. (The Power of Small Wins) Gliwice: Wydawnictwo Helion, (2013).

18 Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F. The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11(4), s. 303-327, (2007).

19 19 Baumeister, R. F., i Tierney, J. M. Siła woli: odkryjmy na nowo to, co w człowieku najpotężniejsze. (Willpower. Rediscover the Greatest Human Strength) Poznań: Media Rodzina, (2013).

20 Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination, op. cit., (2013).

21 Ibid.

22 22 McGonigal, K. Siła stresu: jak stresować się mądrze i z pożytkiem dla siebie. (The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It) Gliwice: Wydawnictwo Helion, (2016).

23 Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination, op. cit., (2013).

24 Watson, J.M. i Strayer, D. L. Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multi-tasking ability. Psychonomics Bulletin & Review 17, s. 479-485, (2010).

25 25 Hammond, C. 70 minut na godzinę: fenomen czasu. (70 minutes per hour: the phenomenon of time) Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, (2013).

26 Tu, Y. i Soman, D. The Categorization of Time and Its Impact on Task Initiation. Journal of Consumer Research, 41 (3), s. 810-822, (2014)

27 Lewis, N. A. i Oyserman, D. When Does the Future Begin? Time Metrics Matters, Connecting Present and Future Selves, Psychological Science, 26(6), s. 816-825, (2015).

28 Pychyl, T. A. Solving the procrastination, op.cit., (2013).

Recommended reading

  • Hammond, C., 70 minutes per hour: the phenomenon of time.
  • McGonigal, K., The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It

Books in Polish

  • Modzelewski, P., Pokonaj odwlekanie – Rozwiń wytrwałość (Overcome Procrastination: Develop Perseverance), Będzin: Wyd. E-bookowo.
  • Modzelewski, P., Prokrastynacja. Odłóż odkładanie na zawsze (Procrastination: Leave procrastinating behind), Będzin: Wyd. E-bookowo

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