The habit of procrastination

You’ve unpacked the dishwasher, reloaded the dishwasher, descaled the kettle, updated your Facebook status to say how shocked you are at the amount of limescale in the kettle, made a frothy coffee, posted a photo of the coffee on Instagram and liked every article in your LinkedIn feed. You tell yourself it’s because cleanliness is next to godliness, you need the caffeine and you should engage with your connections. But the real reason is you don’t want to reformat the tables in the 300-page prospectus. Sound familiar?

Here’s another scenario: I took three days to write this article because I had to allow the ideas to develop in my mind before I put pen to paper. Was I delaying or was I procrastinating?

True procrastinators know that they will feel better once the task that they have been dreading is completed, but despite this they still don’t make a start. By this definition, I was delaying because writing these types of articles is something I enjoy, not dread, and the delay is just part of my process. For procrastinators, there’s a disconnect and struggle between what they do and what they know they should be doing. It’s often a way of protecting oneself from experiencing unpleasant emotions, choosing instant gratification instead: Twitter versus the tediousness that is filing; Instagram versus the frustration of calling the insurance company; cyberstalking your high school crush instead of asking out the guy next door for fear of being rejected.

But there is hope for the procrastinator who is willing to change. Procrastination is not who you are; it’s what you (don’t) do. It’s a bad habit, and bad habits can be broken.

People in the habit of procrastinating generally do so in three major areas of life:

  • self-development (realising goals, e.g. career progression or finding a life partner);
  • personal maintenance (tasks that will make life easier, e.g. paying bills on time or medical check-ups); and
  • honouring commitments to others (keeping promises, sticking to deadlines).

Breaking a habit takes practice and willpower. I would suggest starting with the easier areas like personal maintenance and honouring commitments and then moving on to tackling life goals. When you can say no to Facebook and yes to doing your taxes, a journey of self-development will be a natural next step.

Here are six things you can do to break the procrastination habit:

1.     Make a list

Make a list and put tasks that will take less than 5 minutes at the top. Ticking off these quick wins builds momentum and gives a sense of accomplishment. It will also release the feel-good hormone dopamine, which is exactly what you need to keep going until you have completed even the most boring of tasks. A word of warning though – if you easily fall into the YouTube vortex, don’t put “research next holiday destination” as the first item on your list (even if you tell yourself it will only take 5 minutes). Better choices for the quick wins would be “reply to Ann”, “call IT about printer” or “make dentist appointment”.

2.     Don’t call it a to-do list

If you’re going to write out a list every day, you might as well include a positive affirmation. Instead of writing “To Do Today” at the top of the notepad, write “I Will Do These Things Today” or “I Am Going to Do These Things Today” in red, and then you highlight, underline and draw a circle around it so that it is the first thing you see when you look at the list. Positive and uplifting statements starting with “I will” or “I am” are incredibly powerful.

3.     Break it down

Anxiety is a common cause of procrastination. If we perceive there to be a threat to our self-esteem as soon as we engage in the task, we will much rather put off taking action. Take not going on a diet as an example. You could be avoiding the diet because you fear you will fail to lose the weight or keep the weight off, or you think the people close to you will treat you differently when you are thinner, all of which lead to anxiety. A way to lessen the anxiety is to break a task down into smaller chunks. “Lose weight” becomes 1) calculate how many calories I need to consume daily; 2) find out the number of calories in a doughnut; 3) work out a sensible meal plan for a week; and 4) find a way to include one doughnut once a week into the meal plan.

You could even turn each of these steps into SMART goals, meaning they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. This works particularly well for big projects and life goals.

4.     Pay attention to the nagging

Ever noticed how the pile of filing seems to loom bigger and bigger the longer you wait to get started, and continues to be at the front of mind until you have dealt with it completely? This is called the Zeigarnik effect. It postulates that unfinished or interrupted tasks create a task-specific tension, and the unfinished task will continue to occupy the mind until it is completed. Therefore, as long as you can force yourself to make a start, the brain’s desire to finish will take over.

5.     Just do it

It’s not just the Nike slogan; it’s science. Psychologists from the University of Konstanz in Germany found that when we think abstractly about a task, we are likely to procrastinate. By contrast, when we focus on the how, when and where of what we have to do, we are more likely to start right away[1]. In other words, don’t overthink and try to discern the deeper meaning of taking your car for an MOT. Pick a garage, pick a date and take the car for an MOT.

6.     Keep going

Don’t get distracted. Try the StayFocusd extension for Google Chrome that limits how much time you can spend on time-wasting (social media) websites. Once your allotted time is up, the sites are blocked for the rest of the day. When you feel yourself slipping into low energy and your mind wandering, essential oils of rosemary and orange in a diffuser work especially well to re-focus and re-energise. A change of scenery also helps; sit at a different desk or in a conference room with that pile of witness statements and leave your mobile with someone else. True story – I worked with a lawyer who did this when he couldn’t trust himself not to go onto Facebook. I know this because I had to keep his mobile.

Remember, you are not a procrastinator – you have a habit of procrastinating, and bad habits can be broken. Follow any, or all, of these six tips, and you can train yourself to be a machine of efficiency at work, at home and in life.

[1] Source: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090112110106.htm

This article was written for and appeared in, the October 2020 edition of The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs monthly newsletter.