A Quick Guide to Understanding and Reducing Procrastination
Have you recently found yourself in a situation where you missed a deadline or rushed into completing an assignment or project because you put it off until the very last minute? Many of us have been victims of procrastination and poor time management and feelings of guilt and disappointment that immediately follow. There’s also usually some resolve to “never do it again” because of how stressful the experience was, and yet, I find myself in a similar situation a week later. So, is there anything that we can really do about it?
Many experts suggest that we put off tasks for days and sometimes, years for several reasons. While some people think that they are choosing to procrastinate, because it helps them perform better under pressure, researchers suggest that there are often other deep-rooted reasons for procrastinating. For example, two big causes of procrastination are a lack of confidence and fear of failure.
One way to avoid procrastinating, according to researcher Timothy Pychyl, is to just get started. Waiting for inspiration to strike can be counterproductive. We think that there will be a time point in the future when we will feel like performing the task but this is often not the case. We are not very good at predicting how we will feel in the future. In fact, it is a better idea to just get started because any anxiety you might feel before starting the task often dissipates when you are actually performing the task.
The ways in which we set up our goals also make a difference in how we feel about completing them. One strategy that is useful to some people is to set up implementation intentions—introduced by Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor. Implementation intentions involve specifying the contexts surrounding your goal, such as when and where the action will take place. For instance, if you need to grade an assignment, you’d need to say “when I leave the lecture, I will go to the lab and grade the assignment.” Similarly, focusing on the next action, any action, is useful. It could be as small as opening your laptop or opening that document. Once you start with these simple actions, completing the task gets much easier. Other strategies involve making more concrete, specific action plans, and importantly, forgiving yourself can help reduce how emotionally laden completing tasks are, and therefore reduce the chances that you will procrastinate in the future.
- Apps: Check apps using the Pomodoro technique. I use a free app called Flora that sets up a timer, with consequences for losing focus (e.g., having an animated tree die if you stop the timer or leave the app and use your phone for anything else).
- Video: Tim Urban: Inside the mind of a master procrastinator
- Book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman