Procrastinating? Tips to be more productive

Procrastinating? Tips to be more productive

Postponing working on an important task? You are not alone. Several authors, including William James and Franz Kafka, had difficulty getting started with their writing. They experienced self-doubt about their work, and like many of us, hoped inspiration would come to provide ideas to complete the task1Currey, M. (2013) Daily rituals. How great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work. London: Picador.

What is procrastination?

We delay getting our work done when we perceive the task is too difficult and we feel unsure about our ability to complete it to a high standard. Often, we make plans to get started only to delay getting to work because we do not know where to start.

When working on something difficult, we have a hard time coping with the uncomfortable feelings we experience. Our expectation is to do it well and not disappoint anyone, including ourselves.2Steel, P. (2011) The procrastination equation. How to stop putting things off and start getting things done.  Harlow: Prentice Hall Life
(Pearson)

Researchers describe procrastination as a mood management strategy. It is difficult to tolerate discomfort as we feel challenged by the task3Ellenhorn, R. (2020) How we change (and ten reasons why we don’t). Great Britain: Piatkus. We may have distracting thoughts such as “What if we cannot do it well?” What if we fail?

Common reasons for procrastination

We make plans to get work done, but when the time comes to do them we get distracted by other things to ease the discomfort we feel when the task is difficult.

Despite our best intentions and plans, we tend to be affected by our need to manage our feelings by reducing discomfort.  It is part of our human nature to avoid uncomfortable feelings, so when faced with a difficult task we may be tempted to check our phones or do something different to ease the tension.

Perfectionism can prevent us from extending beyond our comfort zone, for fear of failing to do work to a high standard without mistakes. This in turn, increases pressure and self-doubt. It can affect our confidence in our abilities, and more so if we expect not to make mistakes.4Curran, T. (2023) The perfection trap. The power of good enough in a world that always wants more. London: Cornerstone Press

Sometimes, it is hard to stay optimistic about our goals. One of the reasons it is difficult to stay hopeful is because we are afraid of feeling disappointed if we do not achieve what we set out to do.5It seems to be a way of managing our expectations and reduce disappointment if things do not work out as we hope (Ellenhorn, 2020)

In addition, our motivation can decrease when we experience setbacks. As a result, it becomes more difficult for us to continue our work and get back on track. Furthermore, setbacks can affect our belief in our abilities. We can be frustrated at the loss of time, and worry about whether we can meet the deadline with a good piece of work.

Any valuable task will challenge us, requiring effort and perseverance. When we view it as something we are trying to learn, we are more likely to acknowledge our mistakes and learn to adapt to setbacks. Adopting a more flexible attitude will increase our ability to persevere and achieve our goals6Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.

Impact on productivity and wellbeing

Sometimes, we feel we are not ready to face the task, or we do not trust ourselves to do it well. As a result, we produce less work and at a lower standard. And this in turn, affects our motivation and confidence.

As we see time passing by, and progress is slow, it increases tension and frustration which can result in stress symptoms.It can affect sleep, cause tiredness, low concentration and low motivation, reducing our wellbeing and impacting our health.7In addition to affecting our wellbeing, it prevents us from fulfilling our potential because we limit ourselves to what is familiar and we know we can do it well (Curran, 2023)

Recognising when we are procrastinating

The first step is to acknowledge that change is difficult. Often, what stops us from persevering is that we notice the gap between where we want to be and where we are now.

To overcome procrastination, we first need to understand what happens when we delay getting started. Is it because we do not know what to do, or are we afraid of making mistakes? Do we doubt our abilities?

Understanding why we find certain tasks challenging can help us identify obstacles so we can prepare for them8Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.. By practising self-compassion, being understanding of ourselves as we are of our best friends, we can manage our thoughts and feelings to focus on what we can do to move forward.

What conditions reduce procrastination

When we take time to understand our behaviour, we reduce tension and gain perspective. For example, we may have a preconception about the task. Our perception of the task as too complicated and our fear of mistakes may lead us to believe we are not capable. We forget that mistakes are part of learning9Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget. Quit. Undone. Surprising lessons from the science of motivation. New York: Little, Brown Spark.

It is useful to reflect on how we are working so we can identify these thoughts and feelings. When we get distracted, we can ask ourselves: “Am I doing this (what we are doing instead of working) to avoid feeling uncomfortable?” Is it because I want something easier to do?”

Once we acknowledge we are distracted, and identify what we are thinking, we can redirect our attention to the task we are working on without self-criticism.

We need energy to boost our motivation – it is what motivates us to take action. So, when our energy is low, it limits our capacity to persevere.  By focusing on our belief that our efforts can overcome challenges, we strengthen our sense of agency.10Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When a task is challenging, and will take a considerable amount of time to complete, it is best to break it down into small specific steps. Once it is clear what we need to do, we can take action. And to support our efforts, we can create an environment with fewer distractions and keep track of our progress.11It is difficult to start working on a task when it is too big and we are not clear what we need to do. When we break it down, we can see what to do helps us to take the first step (Steel, 2011)

We can encourage ourselves to get on with the task by reframing the task as something we choose to do to increase our knowledge and develop our skills. Reflecting on how we perceive the task, and then considering other options, enables us to gain perspective.

Making changes is a challenge, so we need strategies that suit us12Milkman, K. (2022) How to change. The science of getting to where you want to be. London: Vermillion. By having an open mind and focusing on learning, we increase our sense of self-efficacy- the belief that we can do the task well enough.13Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.

Rather than focusing on eradicating procrastination, it is more realistic to first understand the emotions and feelings that underlie our behaviour. Once we become aware of our habits, and learn to manage our emotions, we can make changes.                                       

Strategies to get work done:

Develop the habit of starting: Instead of viewing the task as something we must do, we can reframe it as something we choose to do because we want to increase our knowledge and develop our skills.

It is difficult to start when the task is too big and unclear. Breaking it down into small specific steps, and focusing on the immediate benefits of getting started. Although the task may seem impossible at first, acknowledgement that each step will get us closer to completing it will help.

Then, as soon as we think about the task on our to-do list, by starting immediately we take advantage to create momentum. When we start with a small step, we can gradually increase the time we spend on the task.

Reframe how we view the task: We can change our perspective by viewing the effort and work required to complete the task as necessary to master it. We can work hard on challenging tasks when we know they are meaningful and have a clear purpose.14Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.

The key is to focus on the progress we are making rather than the outcome.15Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle.Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Avoid comparing ourselves to others: We are all unique individuals with different backgrounds, knowledge, experience and skills.

It is easier to get started when we want to do things for personal interest. We can use our curiosity to learn more about the subject. This way, we engage in learning and increase our motivation.

Develop cues: When we identify cues, these serve as reminders of our decision to do something important to us. For example, if we want to start walking regularly to keep active, we can leave our trainers by the front door. We can also leave a note in a visible place reminding us of a project we want to finish.

The key to creating a new habit is to take action consistently.

Prepare for setbacks: Whenever we develop a new habit, we will make progress in a few steps, and we will also make mistakes setting us back a step or two. Keeping in mind that it takes time to get into a routine will help us tolerate frustration when things do not work out as we hoped.

What matters is to be consistent in our behaviour, to create the habit of getting started with challenging tasks16Fogg, B.J. (2018) Tiny habits. The small changes that change everything. London: Virgin Books..

It is helpful to keep in mind that we can always start again. We will eventually get into a routine. Being understanding of ourselves, like we are of our best friends, will allow us to pick up where we left off. This will enable us to continue our work.  

 

                                                                         “There’s no beginning too small.” (Thoreaux)

Footnotes
  • 1
    Currey, M. (2013) Daily rituals. How great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work. London: Picador.
  • 2
    Steel, P. (2011) The procrastination equation. How to stop putting things off and start getting things done.  Harlow: Prentice Hall Life
(Pearson)
  • 3
    Ellenhorn, R. (2020) How we change (and ten reasons why we don’t). Great Britain: Piatkus
  • 4
    Curran, T. (2023) The perfection trap. The power of good enough in a world that always wants more. London: Cornerstone Press
  • 5
    It seems to be a way of managing our expectations and reduce disappointment if things do not work out as we hope (Ellenhorn, 2020)
  • 6
    Gollewitzer, P.M. & Oettingen, G. (2015) Psychology of Motivation and Actions. In Wright, J.D.(Ed) International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd Ed,, Vol.15. Oxford. pp.887-893.
  • 7
    In addition to affecting our wellbeing, it prevents us from fulfilling our potential because we limit ourselves to what is familiar and we know we can do it well (Curran, 2023)
  • 8
    Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.
  • 9
    Fishbach, A. (2022) Forget. Quit. Undone. Surprising lessons from the science of motivation. New York: Little, Brown Spark
  • 10
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • 11
    It is difficult to start working on a task when it is too big and we are not clear what we need to do. When we break it down, we can see what to do helps us to take the first step (Steel, 2011)
  • 12
    Milkman, K. (2022) How to change. The science of getting to where you want to be. London: Vermillion.
  • 13
    Bandura, A. (1997) Self-Efficacy. The exercise of control. New York: W.H. Freeman and Company.
  • 14
    Duckworth, A. (2016) Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance. London: Vermillion.
  • 15
    Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle.Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.
  • 16
    Fogg, B.J. (2018) Tiny habits. The small changes that change everything. London: Virgin Books.

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