Why do we procrastinate, and how can we stop? Procrastination is perhaps best explained by Newton’s First Law of Motion: “an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force.” Sound familiar?
Procrastination may be a law of physics, but it’s still a bad habit. We know when we’re procrastinating — “I should be working,” “I shouldn’t wait until the last minute” — but instead we watch YouTube videos of Snoop Dogg and Martha Stewart baking desserts.
Snoop Dogg aside, procrastination can be a matter of life or death. The habits we build at work (like procrastinating on projects until the frantic last minute) transfer to other parts of our lives (like ignoring a troubling medical symptom or relationship conflicts, or stalling on applying to an MBA program). Procrastinating on small matters leads to procrastinating on big, life-changing matters. Instead, identify which of the following causes triggers your procrastination, and apply the solutions immediately.
Cause #1: “It’s Not Urgent”
Urgent tasks make it difficult to prioritize items that are important but not urgent. Saving for retirement feels like it can wait until later — but “later” comes sooner than expected.
Solution: Think Big
Take a broad view of an important but not urgent task. Imagine how refinishing your basement could change your life. Will it increase your home’s value? Can you add an at-home gym or a movie room? Use this broad view to motivate yourself.
Cause #2: “I Don’t Know Where to Begin”
Big decisions can feel overwhelming and confusing, triggering procrastination. Maybe you vaguely decide on a task, but the first step of where to start is intimidating. Cause #2 becomes more about avoiding negative feelings (in this case, overwhelm and confusion) than avoiding the task itself; rather than starting your MBA application, you vacuum the guest bedroom, explaining that you accomplished something today.
Solution: Account for Being a Beginner
Overwhelm is always part of new beginnings. Add “panic for 10 minutes” or “ask Uncle Joe for advice” to the top of your to-do list — you’ll get the panic out of your system, and asking for advice is always good. Accept that it’s normal to mess up, change plans and redo certain tasks.
Cause #3: “What If I Fail?”
Many successful entrepreneurs and entertainers call themselves perfectionists. Unfortunately, high standards may intimidate you into ignoring deadlines for fear you’ll fall short.
Solution: Build Confidence
Perfectionists usually attach self-worth to performance. Tasks and high standards won’t depress you, but connecting tasks to your confidence will. Remember, you are worth more than your accomplishments. Chances are your family, friends, life experiences and character all exist beyond the task of preparing your taxes.
Cause #4: “I Work Better Under Pressure”
This cause usually develops in school with all-nighters before morning exams. At work, this means procrastinating on a major project until the last second, causing you unnecessary stress and, if you’re working with a team, workplace conflict.
Solution: Understand Yourself
There are two kinds of procrastination: passive procrastination, which is delaying tasks so that your performance is impaired, and active procrastination, which is delaying tasks for an adrenalin rush. Studies show that when students passively procrastinate, their grades decline, but actively procrastinating didn’t hurt students’ GPAs. Honestly examine your procrastination habits and your results, and make changes accordingly.
Cause #5: “I Just Don’t Want To”
Working hard on a Friday afternoon feels like torture. Anything sounds better than adjusting your budget. Going to the gym feels impossible when your favorite TV show is on. There are some things that nobody wants to do.
Solution: Plan Ahead
Accept that you procrastinate and outmaneuver it by making time for, well, wasting time. The actively procrastinating students in Solution #4 made a plan to study earlier than their fellow students, and in the end these active procrastinators studied more than other students.
Ultimately, overcoming procrastination is about understanding yourself. If you procrastinate, take note of the ways you fall into the habit. Create solutions of your own, and share them with fellow procrastinators. Whatever you do, don’t put it off until tomorrow.
Amanda Pennington is a copy editor and writer at Innovative Publishing. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org