I’ve barely managed to turn off Netflix and write this to you. I’ve been afflicted for the longest time: the ailment – Procrastination.
We all get it. Put off what you can do today because you can do it tomorrow.
“I should go to the gym but it’s getting late so I may as well watch TV?”
“I should tidy the house but it’ll just get messy again tomorrow?”
Then there’s the more dire end…
“I should go get that checkup and get that cough looked at but I’m sure it’s nothing major.”
It’s something that affects a lot of us a lot of the time but what exactly is procrastination? What makes it happen and most importantly, how can you beat it?
There is a lot of talk about procrastination in this day and age; the era of self help and clickbait… everyone has a Buzzfeed list of 10 ways to do this or that. Yet as a society, we are really not that different to years gone by. Procrastination is still rife.
Let me dispel two things: Procrastinators don’t suck. You can be super high functioning, have an amazing job, an amazing life, a great partner and be getting great marks at University. I guarantee you there’s still something in your life you’re constantly putting off. Secondly, it’s not about being a perfectionist. A lot of previous thinking excused procrastination, suggesting that people were putting things off because they were a perfectionist and unless they could do it to 110%, they wouldn’t do it at all. That’s an excuse – plain and simple.
Recently reading some work by Dr. Piers Steel, I understand it to mean that procrastination is putting things off despite knowing you’ll be worse off because of it.
Generally it’s people avoiding something and then retrospectively finding ways to justify that decision. So to be clear, if you think you should do it now and you don’t – that’s procrastination.
It’s not scheduling related – if you’re too busy to fit something in, you’re busy not procrastinating. BUT if you don’t find the time to fit that important thing in, you’re using your schedule to procrastinate.
So we’ve all got things in our life that we should be doing and I’m 1,000% guilty of this.
TheatreArtLife is a case-in-point. I set out with the objective of writing weekly and have a reminder in my calendar to tell me just that… every Friday at 11am, my calendar dings and tells me to write.
I’ve managed to move, delete, shift or delay this for the past 8 weeks! There’s a multitude of things we delay for an array of reasons. Sometimes they’re at low personal cost (taking down those Christmas lights in May?) Sometimes they might be high cost (getting a checkup on that lump you’re not sure about or renegotiating a home loan). Either way – there’s a lot more we could be doing.
So what makes us procrastinate?
Research would suggest there’s three key factors:
1. Do you believe you can do this thing?
Are you comfortable doing it? If you’re nervous about attempting the task, nervous of the results, don’t have the belief you can do it or that you’re the right person to be doing it – you’re automatically going to put it off.
2. How interesting is it?
Is it fun? If you don’t particularly care about the task or it’s boring or unpleasant, you’re greatly increasing the possibility it’s going to be delayed and delayed.
3. Are you impulsive? Spontaneous?
Typically people who are more on the impulsive side are perhaps less likely to focus on the future or consequences. These people are motivated to leave things to the last possible moment. Ask any final year high school student and 95% land in this category; only motivated because the need is immediate. Known as temporal discounting, it’s our preference for immediate results or only looking at immediate wants despite the fact the payoff is higher if we wait. You might know the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment in the 1960’s where Walter Mischel placed a marshmallow in front of two children. If they avoided eating it for 15 minutes they could have two!
So now that we’ve explored what it is and why it occurs, let’s look at how you can get stuff done. You may have a multitude of your own ways which I’d love to hear, some of these are science backed, some are personal strategies and some are just urban legend. Nevertheless, hopefully they’re helpful to you.
1. Control your environment and avoid distraction
This is the number one killer of productivity. It’s simple and insidious; if you’re trying to get things done, you need to avoid distraction. Don’t try and study while watching Netflix. Turn on social media blockers for a predetermined amount of time and maybe the biggest distraction in the workplace, turn off your email notification.
That Microsoft Ding is a Pavlovian tool that actually triggers dopamine in your brain. How does getting a work email trigger pleasure in the brain you ask? Just picture those 2-3 seconds of anticipation when you see you have a new email, consider all the possibilities and exciting opportunities that it could be. That wonderment and possibility triggered by that ding are actually (Scientifically proven) to be addictive.
2. Make things more available
If you’re trying to go to the gym more, an old adage is to lay out your gym clothes the night before. If you’re trying to drink more water, don’t keep soda in the refrigerator. Simply put – make the things you want to have and do be really easy! Make the things you don’t want or want to avoid be really difficult.
3. Creating proper goals
SMART goals and all that sorta thing.. this might be the most talked about idea of recent times but if you want to achieve things you need to write them down. They need to be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based. Define deadlines and cut a project into more chunks (10-15mins is always bearable if you’re daunted at the idea of something bigger).
Also, avoidance goals don’t work – the goal shouldn’t be “don’t watch TV”, it should be “read a chapter of a book each night before going to sleep, trying to read a new book every fortnight”.
4. Get your life on track
Of course to introduce new things or to do more mundane things, you need a structure of stability. Don’t try and tackle everything at once (I’m very guilty of this!) But to set up the right life, you need to be well slept, eat well, healthy, happy and financially tolerable.
If your goals are any of these, set SMART goals for them and build them into a routine. I found when I lived in Macau that I was healthier than I’d ever been (despite the post show drinks 6 nights a week) because I had a morning routine. Every day I meditated, hit the gym, I read, I saved some $$. I didn’t really procrastinate it because I didn’t even think about it. It was just what I did every morning. It was routine.
5. Prioritize and Outsource
Let’s say you’re reading this and you’ve got a long to do list of things. Before trying to dive into that list – take a bit of time to make that list as big as possible. Put everything remotely niggling at you on that list. From ‘clean house’ to ‘finish masters degree’, ‘clean car’ to ‘write TheatreArtLife article’, write them all down.
Now carefully go through and discount everything that you don’t actually want. You may have wanted to learn how to juggle 5 years ago but you don’t now and it’s still on the list? Get rid of it.
Now go through your list and look at all the mundane things or things others could do. There’s a wealth of assistants and services out there to handle all sorts of tasks from cleaning your house to researching and planning. A stage manager friend of mine turned me on years ago to the idea of Virtual Assistants (like Fancy Hands for example) who can handle all manner of things – so send them your list of tasks “book barber appointment, find me 3 quotes for house painting, plan my holiday to Oman, find me florists I can order online from in Turin” and watch those things get ticked off. That lastly means you’re left with only stuff you actually want/need to do and only things that you personally must do.
6. Face the Consequences
Lastly, one of the best approaches is to actually commit publicly to things. If you’re trying to go to the gym every day – tell your friends, have them call you and remind you, they’ll ask how progress is, “it takes a village” so use the village to help keep you on track. A recent invention is also to commit money against a goal. To make this more consequential, make it so that you’ll have to pledge $10 (for example) to a cause you hate if you procrastinate. I guarantee there’s nothing more gym-inspiring than a Republican funding the Democratic party or an environmentalist having to fund oil drilling to get you going.
These are just a few ideas but hopefully you’ll find the right one for you – as for me, I’ve got a lot of writing to do to catch up on… right after I delete the Netflix app on my phone.