Procrastination torpedoes productivity, harms your self-esteem, and is the source of massive amounts of stress. So why do we do it and why, oh why, is it so hard to overcome?
Social scientist, professor and author of the marvelous book The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel, PhD, explains that procrastination occurs when our logical planning brain, the prefrontal cortex, has made an intention to do something in the future but that plan gets overridden by our more powerful, impulsive and emotional brain, the limbic system, because it has a competing desire.
Dr. Steel has actually developed a calculation that predicts our likelihood to procrastinate, which involves your expectations about whether or not you can actually complete the task, the importance you place on the task, and how long you have to complete the task. But probably the most important driver of your likelihood to procrastinate is your overall level of impulsiveness. Those who struggle to keep from acting on impulse or keep their feelings under control are more likely to procrastinate than others.
If you happen to be part of the 50% of the population that is on the wrong side of the impulsiveness bell curve, even if only slightly, it’s worth having a few tricks up your sleeve to hold your impulses at bay. In that spirit, we’ve pulled together twelve effective strategies for avoiding procrastination.
1. Place a physical “impulse interrupter” on procrastination devices, like TVs and game consoles.
Do you have a go-to procrastination activity like watching TV or playing video games? If so, you might benefit from placing a physical reminder of more productive tasks actually on your procrastination device of choice. For example, place a book you have to read for class on top of your game console or tape a note to your TV remote control that says, “Can you really afford to turn this on? These kinds of physical reminders have the potential to interrupt the impulsive pattern looping in your limbic system and give your prefrontal cortex a fighting chance to get the upper hand and focus you on doing the tasks you need to get done.
2. Set your egg timer.
In many instances our brains overestimate the amount of time it will take to complete a task. Set your egg timer or the timer on your smart phone for a specific amount of time, and see if you can “beat the clock.” The timer increases the urgency you feel to get the work done.
3. Eliminate alerts.
Social scientists and psychologists in the early 1900s developed terms for stimulus-response behavior: operant and reflexive conditioning. Vibrating phones, email dings, social media peeps are effectively conditioning you to procrastinate and/or interrupt more productive work. Do yourself a favor, turn off all alerts on your computers and cell phones. You want to be in control of them, not vice versa.
4. Pay for some blocking software:
In this day and age of uber-connectivity, those who work on their computers have virtual workspaces that are quite literally surrounded by enticing distracters, like Facebok pages, other social media sites, and millions and millions of websites and blogs. Mercifully there are software programs available for purchase, like Concentrate for Macs and Freedom for Macs and PCs. Take it from us, as we use both programs frequently, they are worth their weight in gold.
5. Stand up and do breathing exercises for 2-5 minutes.
Shallow breathing and/or holding your breath, both of which people are likely to do when watching TV or while hunched over a computer, triggers your body’s fight or flight reflex and effectively shuts down your prefrontal cortex. To put your long-term planning brain back in business, take a few minutes and do some breathing exercises like 4-in, 7-out, 8-in.
6. Keep impulse-drivers out of your environment.
Messy desks and rooms offer a compelling distraction. Set up a routine, a set time and day once a week, to give your environment a clean-sweep. The less mess you have around you, the greater the chances you will be able to concentrate.
7. Reward the completion of small goals.
We have a good friend who is also a writer and who, more importantly, loves chocolate. Every time she completes a paragraph or a page she helps herself to a small bite of whatever she has on hand. Rewarding little goals can be the key to accomplishing big ones.
8. Designate an anti-procrastinating buddy & call them when you need help.
Sometimes you simply need someone you can call when you are having a weak moment. Ask a conscientious friend or family member if you can call them when you feel yourself heading down procrastination highway or before you start to work on a big, important task. The act of reaching out itself actually puts a stop to your procrastination doom-loop and the ensuing quick pep talk is likely to increase your motivation levels – both of which increase your chances of being productive.
9. Develop & repeat an if-then statement.
Research is emerging showing that simple if-then statements are very effective at helping you follow through on your good intentions. For example, if you have to get a writing project done, create a statement that says, “If I find myself procrastinating by ___(pick your most frequent poison), then I will stand up, do a series of deep breathing exercises and turn my attention to ___ (the task I was putting off). Repeat it to yourself out loud on a regular basis.
10. Identify your peak hour.
11. Break down problems.
In the song Little Acorns Jack White, frontman of the acclaimed rock bang “The White Stripes” tells the story of a young woman who is inspired by a squirrel’s ability to break all of his problems into smaller pieces (a large bundle of acorns into individual ones) and then complete his task. Doing one activity at a time can increase your chance of successfully overcoming your procrastination.