How Do I Stop Procrastinating?

Are you always beating yourself up about procrastinating over tasks? - In this article I will invite you to take a new approach to the idea of procrastination and ask you to consider embracing and working with the positive aspects of procrastination to allow you to understand better and then overcome the blocks you are experiencing.

What is Procrastination?

Procrastination technically describes a chronic pattern of avoiding some task or project that presents itself as needing to be done urgently. However, before beating yourself up about procrastinating, ask yourself, “have I acknowledged the advantage to me of putting of this task?”

When we put off doing a task it normally falls into one of the following reasons:

l         Low value return on the investment in time – maybe its a boring or unrewarding task or maybe it is taking time away from other tasks with higher value or return. 

l         The outcome of the completed task will probably lead to disappointment or not deliver the hoped for results and outcomes.

l         Fear of failure – it’s a task that is important but we are not sure we know how to complete it successfully and put it off for fear of failure or getting it wrong.

l         Poor time management techniques – in our busy lives today it is not realistic to complete every task on our to-do list. We have to learn to prioritise tasks and be willing to dump the least useful – putting unimportant tasks ahead of important ones can be costly – learning how to work out which to do is a key skill.

How do I overcome my fear of failure?

Certainly fear of failure can be a big counter-motivation to doing or engaging in something - and yet failure is an important part of success as we learn from the mistakes. I find many people have learned to fear failure or internalise it as making them lesser as human beings: this is an unhelpful thinking pattern since failure is a natural and important part of learning to be successful at anything.

Sometimes our goals or aspirations are unrealistic and either consciously or unconsciously we know it: the person who puts off going on another diet or joining another gym in their heart of hearts knows that it is not really the answer to their unhappiness. The person who puts off opening their mail - especially bills and bank statements knows in their heart of hearts that the information is likely to be disappointing or distressing - putting it off seems like a natural thing to do albeit not necessarily helpful. In each of these examples, and indeed many other cases a short course of CBT will help people explore and understand that more helpful thinking patters would lead to more appropriate actions and behaviours.

How can I learn to prioritise tasks that need to be done?

Some people find it difficult to prioritise tasks - therefore they can feel overwhelmed and not know which to start first. In the space of confusion and ultimately fear of failure the fight-flight-freeze response leads to freeze: this is not useful. The solution to this can be found with two simple tools. The first is a simple matrix originally designed by Steven Covey : All tasks can be defined in terms of importance and or urgency. A tax return is important but just now not urgent - we can put it off for a bit if more important and urgent stuff needs our attention. In late January however, it becomes important and urgent and the penalty for failure to complete is going to hurt more than losing an afternoon and filling out the form. Thus - rate any task according to its importance and or urgency.

Second tool: the 4D’s "do it - delay it - delegate it - dump it": If you can possibly dump it definitely try that first, if you can delegate it then that’s second best, if it’s you that has to do it then either delay it because other stuff today is higher on the important/urgent matrix or you’ll just have to do it. The less that makes it to the top D the better!

Surely procrastination is just a sign of a lack of will-power?

This is an unhelpful and destructive belief I often hear from clients. Procrastination is a sign of counter-motivation in most cases-understanding and rebalancing the motivation/counter-movitvation equation will normally lead to successful resolution. However,  for adults with ADHD (and bear in mind most adults will not have a diagnosis) and some types of dyslexia, this difficulty in finding focus or getting projects started, processed and actually finished is a significant aspect of the underlying disorder. For these adults recognising the way the disability works and then finding strategies around it is the key. For example, timing certain low-stimulus jobs at particular times of day when the brain may focus better; breaking tasks down to manageable chunks and building in personal rewards for successful completion; learning what to outsource, can all be useful. Adult ADHD is a particular interest of mine and there are many strategies and techniques a coach or CBT counsellor with specialism in ADHD can help with.  For people who do not have the condition, understanding just how difficult a seemingly simple task is can be beyond their comprehension: Perhaps best explained is the analogy of a race car engine - fine when thrashing round the track - but put a race car in a busy town centre and make it sit in heavy traffic and the gasket will blow - the ADHD brain does not cope at all well with boring! This can of course cause significant conflict between a couple for example when one partner seems completely incapable of remembering or getting round to even the simplest task!

Listen to your inner voice

Mostly, I find in my work, that the procrastination makes perfect sense when we understand the mechanism underlying it. There is usually a good reason to put off these tasks or some form of negative pay-off that needs to be overcome. When we recognise the two voices in our head - the one that says "you should do that task" versus the "but I don’t want to" and draw out the argument into a reasoned debate then a more informed choice can be made. When the two voices act as if a bossy parent is telling a truculent teenager to go do a particular task - then clearly nothing will get done. When the voices can be drawn out into a more rational discussion about the positives and negatives of doing the task we can choose when and how to schedule it.  Understanding the counter-movtivation is key here. What are the good reasons for putting the task off? Maybe putting it off actually makes sense - procrastination can mitigate impulsiveness: maybe it needs more thought first.

What tools work best for procrastination?

In the first instance we need to know what the avoidance is about. Is the lack of motivation to do a particular task related to a perceived negative pay-off for example? Are other tasks more appealing and are other things acting as counter-motivations? I’d say that time management strategies as described above are useful here in assessing the importance of any particular task and in looking at how it might be scheduled. Another element can be the integration of what Daniel Goleman terms ’emotional intelligence’. I find this is particularly poignant and know that managing my own task list also depends on me listening to my emotions as well as my intellect.   And you know, sometimes a gut instinct will say to put off a task for good reason - I have learned the value of occasionally delaying a task or job because it doesn’t feel right even though the logical thought is that it should get done. Developing that level of self-awareness is of course something that longer term therapy can be really useful for.

For most folk though, just taking the time to listen to their inner voice patiently will reveal the true rationale behind the postponement of a task. Procrastination is not always a bad thing.

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