I’ll admit it. I have a problem. Procrastination, the old devil. I used to think that procrastination manifested itself in other people who played games instead of getting their work done, or who spent too much time on social media. Turns out, that procrastination actually affects people in a lot of different ways. The way I fall foul of procrastination is by putting off bigger tasks and disassociating myself from any future repercussions.
Most of us do this, without evening knowing we’re doing it. How many times have you said, well that’s a problem for future me to deal with? Future you isn’t a stranger, it’s still you, you aren’t going to suddenly become able to write an entire book in one day or revise for an exam in one hour but we somehow think we will. It affects people in different ways but procrastination isn’t always about spending time distracted, you could be smashing goals, working hard, and still missing deadlines. I wanted to know what exactly causes procrastination and how to get under the skin of it and stop it, using science.
What is procrastination?
At the heart of it, procrastination comes from a lack of self-control. People who procrastinate, apparently around 20% of all people, are more impulsive. The pre-frontal cortex, where all your thinking occurs, isn’t automatic, it can’t automatically help you tackle hard tasks and motivate yourself to get stuff done. It needs a little kick every now and then.
Studies have found that the difference between people who can commit fully to a task and those who procrastinate may be due to the link between different areas of the brain. There is an action-oriented mindset that helps people start and finish a task, and as long as you stay in this mindset, it should be easier to overcome.
Edit your tasks
Think about a time you procrastinated. It’s most likely for something really important. You procrastinated with your revision, an essay, a large project. It’s never the small and manageable tasks that you tick off. Researchers found that people who procrastinate are more likely to describe their tasks as boring, frustrating, difficult, ambiguous, or unstructured. These are the ones you put off. A long, never-ending project, revision you just don’t want to do, an essay you don’t know how to start.
You can control that. Edit your tasks if you want to succeed. Start by taking the thing you’ve been putting it off and making it small, specific, and manageable. Instead of huge and looming. Think about what you can do to make this task-specific, to help you get the knowledge you need to tackle it. For example, if you’re putting off an essay you have no idea where to start, can you make an appointment to discuss it? If you have a work project that bores you, can you spend ten minutes on it every day?
Do the worst thing first
They say eat the elephant first, but maybe it should be – eat the worm. Start with the thing that you’re most dreading, not necessarily the thing that’s the most difficult. That annoying little thing you keep putting off until later. That’s the thing you need to walk into the office and do straight away, and if you do that every day, you’ll be able to tick off that huge project that you’ve been putting off.
Start with your worst tasks and end the day on the high, because research shows once you’ve got it out of the way you’ll be able to fly through everything else and be feeling positive and productive.
Stop seeing yourself as a stranger
Science shows that there’s a huge disconnect between the present and the future, and that’s what leads to procrastination. We always think of our future selves as completely different, able to deal with it, and nothing to do with us. This is the classic mistake every procrastinator makes. They see their future selves as some other, better, more improved version of themselves, the kind of person who will absolutely be able to deal with the close deadline.
The truth is, your future self is only going to do what you’re doing now – keep putting it off. You need to realize you are one and the same, any big changes you need to make to yourself need to happen now. Right now.
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