“Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” – Mark Twain.
I’m a dreadful procrastinator, so on the first day of the New Year I have decided to sit down and write about procrastination in a vain attempt to cure myself of this damaging affliction (to be honest, I’ve been intending to write this post for a while).
It turns out that procrastination is a highly complex human behaviour with a number of possible causes, including:
- Fear of failure
- Low levels of self-control
- The inability to break things down into smaller parts (more on this later)
- A tendency towards boredom
- The feeling that life is just too short to worried about that kind of stuff
Whatever the cause, procrastination affects people in different ways and for me it’s a constant source of anxiety – this might sound odd, but as I said earlier, procrastination is highly complex human behaviour.
Just 5 minutes.
What I have found is that once I start a task I’m more likely to finish it whereas putting off the start either means it can take months or (more often) never gets done at all. According to the Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, the prospect of starting any activity can cause a certain amount of anxiety (perhaps related to some of the causes mentioned previously) but once the activity is completed we experience a sense of closure and our mind, once again, begins to relax. It’s most likely the case that procrastination is the result of viewing the activity as something we are unable to cope with and the first step to overcoming this feeling is to simply start the activity.
Once we begin an activity there is a sense that it needs to be completed; that we need to experience that closure and because of this need, our desire to complete increases. You might only intend to spend five minutes on the activity, but once you start the chances are that you will complete it.
The way we categorise time.
There is a tendency for us to categorise time as either ‘present’ or ‘future’ and this can have a very interesting impact on how we deal with goals and objectives.
If a deadline is in the present (e.g. this needs to be done by 3pm today) we tend to start the task immediately. However, if the deadline is further away we think of it in terms of the future and mentally place it into the ‘someday’ box.
Research has found that the way we categorise time is both inaccurate and illogical. For example, if a deadline crosses a calendar year we tend to place the activity in the ‘future’ category and put it off until later. However, when the deadline is within the same calendar year we place it into the ‘present’ category – even if the time given to complete the activity is the same, so if you have a three month deadline that ends in January you are less likely to complete the activity than if the three month deadline ended in November.
In a similar way, setting a deadline that exceeds seven days places the time for completion into the future (following week) category while keeping it within a seven day period places the activity into the present.
Change the way you categorise time.
- Chunk your tasks: Often we view tasks as just too big so we place them into the ‘future’ category. Breaking goals down into more manageable chunks ensures that they stay ‘present’ with a higher likelihood that they will get done.
- Create target deadlines: Set time limits within the present, even if the ultimate goal lies in the future.
- Immediate behavioural change: Create positive habits such as ‘I will write for thirty minutes every day’ and set yourself a specific time if you can (e.g. ‘I will go for a run every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday at 5pm’). It’s amazing how quickly you feel compelled to complete the task once you’ve set a day and a time.
I’m going to try out these strategies and see if I can be more productive in 2016. This isn’t a New Year’s resolution because I don’t do those and is more about necessity that desire.
I WILL keep you posted on how it all goes…
In the meantime, the following books might prove useful: