This article was written by freelancer Rachel Michaella Finn
Procrastination is something that pretty much everyone has had experience with. No matter how organised or motivated you are, you’ve probably spent time on ‘less important’ things when you should really be getting on with something more useful, like work, studying or just simply tidying up.
But if you’ve ever found yourself mindlessly scrolling through the internet against your better judgement while the clock is ticking on a pretty important deadline, know you’re not alone. In fact, pretty much everyone procrastinates, with one study by the University of Calgary finding that between 80-95% of uni students procrastinated occasionally when working, particularly when it came to doing coursework.
For some of us though, procrastination can end up becoming more of a lifestyle than an occasional bad habit. According to Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago and the organizer of the Procrastination Research Conference, one in five of us is a ‘chronic procrastinator’, meaning they procrastinate in all areas of their life to the extreme, in a way that leads to them “wreaking havoc, undermining goals and producing perpetual shame”. Ouch.
So, if you feel like your procrastination is getting out of hand, try these five science-backed ways to beat procrastination and get through your to-do list quickly, so you can get back to doing more interesting stuff.
Ask yourself why you don’t want to do it
It can be easy to think of procrastination as a self-control or laziness issue and to beat ourselves up for not just having the willpower to power through any and every annoying or difficult task. But for anyone who has ever, say, procrastinated by cleaning their entire house and re-stacking all their books in alphabetical order instead of writing their dissertation (disclosure: I have done this) will know, being ‘lazy’ doesn’t seem to quite cover it.
Many researchers who study procrastination view it as more of an emotional problem than a simple lack of self-control or laziness issue. As 2013 research by psychologists Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Pychyl explains, “procrastination has a great deal to do with short-term mood repair and emotion regulation”. This basically means that there is usually an emotional reason as to why we procrastinate. We know we have to do something, but the fact that we may feel overwhelmed, bored or confused by the task means we put it off in order to prioritise our current emotions, despite the fact we know we’re making it more difficult for ourselves in the long-run.
Instead of being annoyed at yourself, take a moment to identify exactly what the negative feeling you’re trying to avoid by doing the task is. Is it a self-confidence issue or do you generally just find filling in spreadsheets, or whatever it is, boring? Taking a moment to identify the issue can give you a head start in solving it.
Start small and start anywhere
As anyone who’s ever sat down to do an annoying piece of work and thought ‘oh, this actually isn’t as annoying as I thought it would be’ will know, the actual thought of doing something can be way worse than actually doing it.
Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik began researching something similar in the early 20th century when she observed waiters in a busy restaurant, who only appeared to be able to remember orders that were currently being served and had trouble recalling them once they’d been completed. She later found in a study that when people were asked to do a series of simple tasks, like solving puzzles and stringing beads, and were then interrupted, they were more likely to remember the details of a task they were in the middle of, rather than one they’d already finished.
This is called the Zeigarnik Effect, which suggests that not having finished a task creates mental tension and keeps it at the front of our mind. The only way to get rid of the tension is to get closure by finishing the task. In terms of procrastination, this basically means that the only way to really get over the stress you feel about a task is to, quite simply, start small and start anywhere. It’s much easier to finish once you’ve gotten over the mental hurdle of trying to start the task in the first place.
Set specific tasks
You might think that visualising the end goal of a task (going on holiday after finishing a difficult exam or project for example) would be pretty good motivation to beat procrastination and get through it, but it turns out just doing that, might actually make procrastination harder to beat in the long run.
One study from UCLA studied two groups of students in the run up to taking an exam: one group had to visualise the process they would have to go through in order to do well on the exam and the other had to visualise just the desired outcome of getting a good grade. They found that the students who actually focused on the process of taking the exam – for example, committing to studying regularly for it – did better on the exam than those who just thought about the end result.
What does this mean for procrastination? Basically, rather than just focusing on how great it will feel to finish an annoying task, it’s actually better to focus on the steps it’ll take to get there. Split your task into smaller and more specific tasks and your journey to the end result will feel so much easier – and you’ll probably do better as well.
Be kind to yourself
If you’re spending your time on the internet reading articles about how to stop procrastinating, often as a form of procrastination, it can be tempting to find yourself looking for a quick-fix way to beat your bad procrastination habit for good. But rather than expect yourself to never procrastinate ever again, which is unrealistic, it can actually work in your favour to forgive yourself in the moments you do procrastinate.
One 2010 study by psychologists at Carleton University in Canada found that students who were able to forgive themselves for procrastinating for a first exam actually ended up procrastinating less when studying for their next one. The study concluded that self-forgiveness actually helped productivity by allowing someone “to move past their maladaptive behavior and focus on the upcoming examination without the burden of past acts.”
So next time you’re feeling mad at yourself for procrastinating, take a breath and move on – it might actually make you perform better in the long run.