by Steve Pavlina, founder of Dexterity Software. Reproduced with permission.
Procrastination, the habit of putting tasks off to the last possible minute, can be a major problem in both your career and your personal life. Missed opportunities, frenzied work hours, stress, overwhelm, resentment, and guilt are just some of the symptoms. This article will explore the root causes of procrastination and give you several practical tools to overcome it.
First, thinking that you absolutely have to do something is a major reason for procrastination. When you tell yourself that you have to do something, you’re implying that you’re being forced to do it, so you’ll automatically feel a sense of resentment and rebellion. Procrastination kicks in as a defense mechanism to keep you away from this pain. If the task you are putting off has a real deadline, then when the deadline gets very close, the sense of pain associated with the task becomes overridden by the much greater sense of pain if you don’t get started immediately.
The solution to this first mental block is to realize and accept that you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. Even though there may be serious consequences, you are always free to choose. No one is forcing you to run your business the way you do. All the decisions you’ve made along the way have brought you to where you are today. If you don’t like where you’ve ended up, you’re free to start making different decisions, and new results will follow. Also be aware that you don’t procrastinate in every area of your life. Even the worst procrastinators have areas where they never procrastinate. Perhaps you never miss your favorite TV show, or you always manage to check your favorite online forums each day. In each situation the freedom of choice is yours. So if you’re putting off starting that new project you feel you "have to" do this year, realize that you’re choosing to do it of your own free will. Procrastination becomes less likely on tasks that you openly and freely choose to undertake.
Secondly, thinking of a task as one big whole that you have to complete will virtually ensure that you put it off. When you focus on the idea of finishing a task where you can’t even clearly envision all the steps that will lead to completion, you create a feeling of overwhelm. You then associate this painful feeling to the task and delay as long as possible. If you say to yourself, "I’ve got to do my taxes today," or "I must complete this report," you’re very likely to feel overwhelmed and put the task off.
The solution is to think of starting one small piece of the task instead of mentally feeling that you must finish the whole thing. Replace, "How am I going to finish this?" with "What small step can I start on right now?" If you simply start a task enough times, you will eventually finish it. If one of the projects you want to complete is to clean out your garage, thinking that you have to finish this big project in one fell swoop can make you feel overwhelmed, and you’ll put it off. Ask yourself how you can get started on just one small part of the project. For example, go to your garage with a notepad, and simply write down a few ideas for quick 10-minute tasks you could do to make a dent in the piles of junk. Maybe move one or two obvious pieces of junk to the trash can while you’re there. Don’t worry about finishing anything significant. Just focus on what you can do right now. If you do this enough times, you’ll eventually be starting on the final piece of the task, and that will lead to finishing.
A third type of erroneous thinking that leads to procrastination is perfectionism. Thinking that you must do the job perfectly the first try will likely prevent you from ever getting started. Believing that you must do something perfectly is a recipe for stress, and you’ll associate that stress with the task and thus condition yourself to avoid it. You then end up putting the task off to the last possible minute, so that you finally have a way out of this trap. Now there isn’t enough time to do the job perfectly, so you’re off the hook because you can tell yourself that you could have been perfect if you only had more time. But if you have no specific deadline for a task, perfectionism can cause you to delay indefinitely. If you’ve never even started that project you always wanted to do really well, could perfectionism be holding you back?
The solution to perfectionism is to give yourself permission to be human. Have you ever used a piece of software that you consider to be perfect in every way? I doubt it. Realize that an imperfect job completed today is always superior to the perfect job delayed indefinitely. Perfectionism is also closely connected to thinking of the task as one big whole. Replace that one big perfectly completed task in your mind with one small imperfect first step. Your first draft can be very, very rough. You are always free to revise it again and again. For example, if you want to write a 5000-word article, feel free to let your first draft be only 100 words if it helps you get started. That’s less than the length of this paragraph.
A fourth mental block is associating deprivation with a task. This means you believe that undertaking a project will offset much of the pleasure in your life. In order to complete this project, will you have to put the rest of your life on hold? Do you tell yourself that you will have to go into seclusion, work long hours, never see your family, and have no time for fun? That’s not likely to be very motivating, yet this is what many people do when trying to push themselves into action. Picturing an extended period of working long hours in solitude with no time for fun is a great way to guarantee procrastination.
The solution to the deprivation mindset is to do the exact opposite. Guarantee the fun parts of your life first, and then schedule your work around them. This may sound counterproductive, but this reverse psychology works extremely well. Decide in advance what times you will allocate each week to family time, entertainment, exercise, social activities, and personal hobbies. Guarantee an abundance of all your favorite leisure activities. Then limit the amount of working hours each week to whatever is left. The peak performers in any field tend to take more vacation time and work shorter hours than the workaholics. By treating your working time as a scarce resource rather than an uncontrollable monster that can gobble up every other area of your life, you’ll begin to feel much more balanced, and you’ll be far more focused and effective in using your working time. It’s been shown that the optimal work week for most people is 40-45 hours. Working longer hours than this actually has such an adverse effect on productivity and motivation that less real work is done in the long run. What would happen if you only allowed yourself a certain number of hours a week to work? What if I came to you and said, "You are only allowed to work 10 hours this week?" Your feeling of deprivation would be reversed, wouldn’t it? Instead of feeling that work was depriving you of leisure time, you’d feel you were being deprived of work. You’d replace, "I want to play" with "I want to work," your motivation for work would skyrocket, and all traces of procrastination would vanish.
I also strongly recommend that you take at least one full day off each week with no work whatsoever. This will really recharge you and make you eager to start the coming week. Having a guaranteed work-free day will increase your motivation for work and make you less likely to procrastinate. If you know that the next day is your day off, you’ll be less likely to put off tasks, since you won’t allow yourself the luxury of allowing them to spill over into your day off. When you think that every day is a work day, however, work seems never-ending, and you always tell yourself, "I should be working." Thus, your brain will use procrastination as a way to guarantee that you get some form of pleasure in your life.
For tasks you’ve been putting off for a while, I recommend using the timeboxing method to get started. Here’s how it works: First, select a small piece of the task you can work on for just 30 minutes. Then choose a reward you will give yourself immediately afterwards. The reward is guaranteed if you simply put in the time; it doesn’t depend on any meaningful accomplishment. Examples include watching your favorite TV show, seeing a movie, enjoying a meal or snack, going out with friends, going for a walk, or doing anything you find pleasurable. Because the amount of time you’ll be working on the task is so short, your focus will shift to the impending pleasure of the reward instead of the difficulty of the task. No matter how unpleasant the task, there’s virtually nothing you can’t endure for just 30 minutes if you have a big enough reward waiting for you.
When you timebox your tasks, you may discover that something very interesting happens. You will probably find that you continue working much longer than 30 minutes. You will often get so involved in a task, even a difficult one, that you actually want to keep working on it. Before you know it, you’ve put in an hour or even several hours. The certainty of your reward is still there, so you know you can enjoy it whenever you’re ready to stop. Once you begin taking action, your focus shifts away from worrying about the difficulty of the task and towards finishing the current piece of the task which now has your full attention.
When you do decide to stop working, claim your reward, and enjoy it. Then schedule another 30-minute period to work on the task with another reward. This will help you associate more and more pleasure to the task, knowing that you will always be immediately rewarded for your efforts. Working towards distant and uncertain long-term rewards is not nearly as motivating as immediate short-term rewards. By rewarding yourself for simply putting in the time, instead of for any specific achievements, you’ll be eager to return to work on your task again and again, and you’ll ultimately finish it. You may also want to read my blog entry on timeboxing.
The writing of this article serves as a good example of applying the above techniques. I could have said to myself, "I have to finish this 2000-word article, and it has to be perfect." So first I remember that I don’t have to write anything; I freely choose to write articles. Then I realize that I have plenty of time to do a good job, and that I don’t need to be perfect because if I start early enough, I have plenty of time to make revisions. I also tell myself that if I just keep starting, I will eventually be done. Before I started this article, I didn’t have a topic selected, so I used the timeboxing method to get that done. Having dinner was my reward. I knew that at the end of 30 minutes of working on the task, I could eat, and I was hungry at the time, so that was good motivation for me. It took me a few minutes to pick the topic of overcoming procrastination, and I spent the rest of the time writing down some ideas and making a very rough outline. When the time was up, I stopped working and had dinner, and it really felt like I’d earned that meal.
The next morning I used the same 30-minute timeboxing method, making breakfast my reward. However, I got so involved in the task that I’m still writing 90 minutes later. I know I’m free to stop at any time and that my reward is waiting for me, but having overcome the inertia of getting started, the natural tendency is to continue working. In essence I’ve reversed the problem of procrastination by staying with the task and delaying gratification. The net result is that I finish my article early and have a rewarding breakfast.
I hope this article has helped you gain a greater insight into the causes of procrastination and how you can overcome it. Realize that procrastination is caused by associating some form of pain or unpleasantness to the task you are contemplating. The way to overcome procrastination is simply to reduce the pain and increase the pleasure you associate with beginning a task, thus allowing you to overcome inertia and build positive forward momentum. And if you begin any task again and again, you will ultimately finish it.