So you’ve come up with the most exhaustive to-do list of all time, neatly colour-coded, prioritised, and written on bright paper, so it’s impossible to ignore. You’ve set multiple reminders for multiple deadlines and organised your calendar right down to the T. You’ve even come up with a timetable to schedule every minute of your day. All of this, to fight off the scourge of procrastination.
But it’s just. Not. Working. What gives?
The problem with these solutions is that they’re generally surface cures that fail to get at the deeper motivations behind procrastination. We procrastinate because we think we have time, get easily distracted, dread the nature of the task itself, and—most importantly—don’t wanting to think of ourselves as incompetent. For any solutions to procrastination to be effective, they have to target these underlying causes specifically. Here’s how you can systematically and progressively kick the habit.
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The problem with equating your self-worth with your performance is that it cripples you from the outset. Even if you generally perform well, the slightest dip in performance can put a rift in your self-perception that grows over time. As it worsens, you fall deeper into the trap of procrastination so you can run away from negative self-appraisal.
To end the cycle, you need to stop linking your worth as a person with how well you’re doing at work and in life. It might be especially hard to do, because it often is rooted in specific childhood experiences. All the same, you need to keep reminding yourself that your performance is not an indication of your worth. It’s merely a reflection of factors you can change, like the strategy you choose for success, your mindset, your experience, or your knowledge. None of these have any bearing of your worth as a person.
Since we tend to think we have more time than we do, the best way to fight it is to set better deadlines for ourselves. Look at your to-do list and ensure that you’ve set a viable deadline for each task.
You won’t always realise when you’re procrastinating. Serial procrastinators are often so good at it that they’re highly adept at convincing themselves that they’ve justified in their present inaction. Just as the first vital step to addressing addiction is acceptance, you have to be honest with yourself and practice self-awareness.
Do you really need to reply that email, or are you just putting off working on that massive report due in a few days? Can you trust yourself when you say you’ll take a 5-minute social break to check social media in the middle of working on something important, or are you just going to end up in a black hole of irrelevant online content that does nothing for you or your growth?
Crucially, you also need to confront your desire to escape negative emotions and situations that may precipitate uncomfortable feelings. If you’ve been putting off speaking to a close colleague about how her work habits are jeopardising the team’s performance, face the fact that there’s no way to find a practical solution without making things momentarily uncomfortable.
If you know that you frequently end up procrastinating without even intending to because you get easily distracted, minimise your susceptibility to it. Learn to wean yourself off the instant gratification that comes with letting yourself be distracted.
Since procrastination is primarily a psychological avoidance strategy, you need to change the way you think about your tasks. Avoidance strategies generally operate through an excessive focus on what you stand to lose. You don’t want to be seen as incompetent, so you procrastinate so that you can blame your underperformance on procrastination instead of your actual ability.
Instead, look at how you stand to gain from cutting off procrastination. The easiest way to do this is to revisit your personal goals and purpose in life. Resetting your intentions this way and reminding yourself what it’s all about can help to frame your tasks against the larger picture of personal growth. Instead of seeing each unpleasant task myopically and as an isolated event, reconnect them to what motivates you personally. It can prove to be highly effective in staving off procrastination.
Another way to change the way you think about your tasks is to change their nature. If you currently perceive specific tasks as being incomparably dreadful for whatever reason, think of a different way to get it done. Taking on a creative approach to getting it done, or finding a way to approach it from a different, more engaging angle, can make a huge difference.
The more you look forward to working on something, the less you’ll want to procrastinate on it, simply because it’s too exciting to leave for later.