7 Ways to Stop Procrastinating on Important TasksNone By Homaira Kabir
Say you set out for work in the morning. Your intention, hopefully, is to get there on time. However, an expected traffic jam slows you down, as do traffic lights that turn red every time you get to them. You arrive at work flustered, but do you tell your colleagues you’re late because you procrastinated?
Likely not. This is because procrastination is not involuntary delay. Instead, it’s a voluntary intention-action gap where we postpone for the future what we should be tackling in the present. In other words, it’s a misalignment between our present and future selves.
This misalignment isn’t uncommon, but it matters. Our future self has goals, dreams, and aspirations. Our present self simply wants to avoid pain and approach pleasure. Its motivational driver is not hope, but fear. And unfortunately, it’s this present self that is in charge of the journey to our future self.
Psychologist Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, calls procrastination an emotional regulation problem, not a time-management one. When the present self is disconnected from the future self, it falls prey to the natural action tendency of avoidance when faced with painful or fearful tasks. No wonder distractions and anxieties derail us, despite the best planning and scheduling.
So how do we realign our two selves so that present actions honor future goals—rather than the other way around?
Anti-Procrastination Tip #1: Nurture Thy Future Self
Studies show that those of us who spend time thinking about who we want to become given our values, strengths and abilities, actually go on to fulfill our dreams. Hazel Markus, professor of social psychology at Stanford University, has done extensive work on what she calls “possible selves”, and has found that having an ideal self and working towards it brings a sense of achievement, self-worth and wellbeing. The opposite is also true—when we live enslaved to our moment-to-moment instincts, we end up in downward spirals of low self-worth, self-criticism and eventually, regret.
Anti-Procrastination Tip #2: Stop “Feeling Like It”
The present self is emotional. It’s really good at evaluation—"which option should I choose?" But it decides on feeling—and because it’ll rarely feel like doing something that’s difficult, painful or fearful, it resorts to the easy way out. Scrolling social media feeds is way more fun than tackling your overdue report. Watching reruns of a sitcom is much easier than toiling on the exercise bike. Finishing up the chocolate cake is far more pleasurable than chopping vegetables for dinner. Take feeling out of the present moment and focus instead on the feeling you'll get once you’ve done what needs to get done!
Anti-Procrastination Tip #3: Dial in to Discipline
We carry notions that creativity and discipline are mutually exclusive. The creative amongst us shun discipline for fear it’ll dull down our inspired genius. However, studies show that creativity is the result of regular disciplined action. Writers know that inspiration strikes after days or weeks of daily toil. Artists get into a state of “flow” after hours upon hours of struggle. And famous creatives of our times such as John Lennon and Sting are known to have set aside time every single day, and even on tour, to nurture their genius.
Anti-Procrastination Tip #4: Turn Hot to Cold
The emotional brain is quick and loud. Whatever it wants, it wants it now. Taking a few deep breaths before deciding to act gives our slower and calmer rational brain just the time it needs to reconsider its demands and take action that is aligned with our long-term goals. We can even stand guard with what social psychologist Heidi Halvorson calls “if-then” plans: “If my emotional brain insists on sleeping in on the weekend, then I will put on my favorite zumba music and dance my way out of bed!” This is a way of training the subconscious brain instead of arguing with a loud and insistent emotional brain.
Anti-Procrastination Tip #5: Cue the Environment
The rational brain relies on willpower, which psychologist Roy Baumeister calls a depleting resource. Struggling all day to not eat the stack of cookies on the kitchen table will likely end up with us turning into Cookie Monster at night and derailing from our goal of healthy eating. We stand a much better chance by building cues into our environment. What’s your number one goal? What keeps you from it? How can you use the environment to stay with your goals? Keep chopped up veggies and a healthy dip in the fridge? Have an workout buddy waiting for you every day at the gym? Drag your exercise bike in front of the TV so you literally have to step over it to get to the couch?
Anti-Procrastination Tip #6: Build in Concrete Steps
Breaking down abstract goals into concrete doable steps is the best way to move forward. Abstract goals don’t bring a sense of urgency. “I would like to be a healthy person” is great as an aspiration, but easily forgotten in times of temptation. Instead, setting small, specific and manageable steps to get there will urge action and help you get started. The first step is always the hardest—so making it easier to achieve will create momentum to move you steadily in the direction of your cherished goals.
Anti-Procrastination Tip #7: Forgive Thy Present Self
It's important to bear in mind that we will falter and we will go off track sometimes. After all, that is perhaps what’s most human about us. Self-compassion researcher Kristen Neff says that failing reminds us of our common humanity, something that the future self sometimes forgets, being the hard task master it is. It helps to think of the present self as the little 6 year-old within us—excitable, impulsive, yet disconnected from the larger perspective. We need to acknowledge it with compassion, forgive its faults and failings, and then take back control. As writer and speaker Parker Palmer says in Let Your Life Speak: “I can have fear, but I need not be fear”. Who, then, would you rather be?
The only resource we have in life is time itself. When we procrastinate, we honor neither this resource, nor the gifts we have within us. Using our time well to give these gifts back to the world is the way to live a full life of no regrets.
Homaira Kabir is a Women’s Leadership Coach, a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and a Positive Psychology Practitioner, whose work expands the breadth of the human experience. She empowers women to become leaders of their own selves in order to become leaders in relationships, at work and in life. You can read more about her work at homairakabir.com or connect with her on Facebook and Twitter (@homairakabir).
You May Also Like: