Procrastination creeps up on all of us from time to time. Delaying work on a task isn't always a bad thing--especially if you need time to brainstorm or need to wait and see how a series of events unfolds--but when it starts to interfere with your productivity, it needs to be stopped.
Procrastination often starts in childhood as we try to avoid working on a school project, or a chore we see as tiresome. In our adulthood, our procrastination evolves to a more sophisticated form. We avoid significant responsibilities and high-priority work projects out of fear or exhaustion rather than laziness, and we convince ourselves it's okay with predictable excuses and constructed rationale.
Defeating procrastination is a challenge for most of us, but if you can identify the root cause for your temptation, you can overcome the urge to avoid your problem, and start working through it directly.
1. I can do that tomorrow. This excuse often makes its first appearance during childhood, but I'm consistently amazed at how many adults use it on a regular basis. The old adage goes "Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today," but that's nothing compared to temptation of instant gratification. Instead of fighting against instant gratification, use it in your own favor. Promise yourself a reward--such as a new item of clothing, or a dinner from your favorite restaurant--as long as you complete the task today. That should motivate you to get the task done in time, and overcome the tendency to put things off until tomorrow. Never underestimate the power of rewards, even if you're only rewarding yourself.
2. I simply don't have enough time to work on it. The busy professional often relies on this excuse, and it never feels like an excuse because he/she is always busy. If you find yourself constantly on the move, tearing through tasks and never hitting the end of your to-do list, coming in early and staying late every night, it's natural to think you simply don't have time for that task looming in the background.
However, this represents a flaw in thinking. There's always time to work on something--if you make the room for it. Set aside ten minutes of time each morning to work on it. That's all you need. Either you'll start making gradual progress without interfering with the rest of your day, or you'll have tangible evidence that it truly exceeds your workload.
3. It's too difficult to tackle in one go. Large projects often fall victim to this excuse. When you look at a gigantic pile of work from far away, all you see is one entity, which will undoubtedly haunt you for days. When you think of such a massive workload, it's natural to want to avoid it for as long as possible.
Instead of visualizing your workload in one monstrous unit, try to break the project down into smaller chunks. Split each project into phases, split each phase into sections, and split each section into tasks. Give yourself tunnel vision, and only focus on the next tasks in front of you. It's a lot harder to procrastinate a simple task than it is a full-scale project.
4. Once I finish this project, I'll start working on it. When you have two competing projects or two competing tasks, one inevitably takes a backseat to the other. Certainly, it's important to have priorities, but segregating your efforts entirely may not be the best way to divide your attention between the two of them. For example, let's say you have two projects that need to be completed by the end of the week. At the end of day one, you've made a significant impact in project one, but you don't want to start project two because you don't want to shift gears.
To overcome this temptation, keep your focus on project one, but start doing preliminary tasks for project two in the background. You can take five-minute breaks to start pondering a problem from project two, or take twenty minutes at the end of the day to complete a task for it. That way, when project one is over, you'll be able to hit the ground running on project two without losing any momentum.
5. It's too important; I need to give it my full attention. The nervous professional often falls to this excuse. Let's say there's a massive project sitting on your back burner, but there are dozens of daily tasks that need to be completed as well. If you believe the project is the most important thing, you might save it for when you aren't distracted by all those micro-tasks. On one hand, it makes sense; you can do your best work when you aren't distracted. But there will always be distractions, there will always be interference, and you'll never have a "perfect" time to start working. If you wait for a perfect time, you may find yourself in an infinite loop of procrastination.
Rather than saying "it's not a good time to start work on this," tell yourself "it's not a perfect time to start work on this, but it's good enough for now."
6. It's not important enough. This excuse can take several forms. First, it could be that you believe this task should not be your responsibility. For example, your boss could have given you an assignment that falls outside of your usual work abilities. In this case, you're procrastinating because you're resentful that you have to do it. If you can negotiate the task, go for it, but if not, you're stuck doing it no matter what, and you might as well get started on it sooner rather than later.
Second, it could be that the task is a preventative or routine measure. These types of tasks always take the backseat to more urgent tasks, but they can also be swept under the rug if they're seen as insignificant. If you find yourself in this situation, remind yourself of the importance of dental checkups; routine cleanings are far less invasive, less expensive, and less costly than a full-on root canal. The little work adds up.
7. I'm too tired (or angry, or sad, or stressed). This is one of the most common and most tempting excuses on the list. If you find yourself in a negative mood, all you want to do is stop working and start doing something else (whether that's relaxing at home, going out for a drink, etc.). As a result, it's easy to rationalize that your work will be done faster and more productively if you try and tackle it once you're in a better mood.
There are two fallacies here. First, you have no real way of telling what kind of mood you'll be in tomorrow. For all you know, you could fall into the same mood, and the same trap, in an indefinite loop. Second, it may surprise you, but working through a tough task can actually be a mood enhancer. The feeling of completing a significant or unpleasant task can actually lift you out of your bad mood--especially if you reward yourself for the efforts afterward.
Chances are, you've repeated at least one of these excuses to yourself before, in the face of an overwhelming task or project. If you find yourself facing the same temptation at some point in the future, and you undoubtedly will, try these strategies to work past the impulse.