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Procrastination is a habit and, like all habits, it is hard to break. Unlike what intuition might suggest, research shows it is more a matter of feelings-control than of self-control. Here are some tips to understand procrastination and start overcoming it.

Sometimes we feel like we are not ready to take on a task and just let it slip into the cracks of our schedule. If you are working from home, maybe you walk the dog, wash the dishes, re-fold your clothing, check Instagram for the thousandth time, and then feel guilty for not being productive enough. If you are back in the office, maybe you are caught watching kitten videos on YouTube and getting up for coffee every ten minutes. Either way, the outcome is not good. 

As Dr. Hal Hershfield, a psychologist and professor of marketing at the U.C.L.A. Anderson School of Management said to the New York Times, procrastination is a case of present bias, this tendency we have to prioritize the short-term needs instead of the long-term. This is a treat evolution developed in us thousands of years ago: if you are in the wild, making sure you have a bite now is more important than –let’s say– organizing tree leaves for tomorrow’s bed because, in that context, there is no guarantee you are going to make it to the next day. By creating a reward for short-term actions, Mother Nature taught us to do whatever we could to ensure our survival in the present moment. The problem is that Mother Nature was not expecting us to develop the kind of jobs or social structures we have nowadays. 

The origin of procrastination is feeling-control because, for whatever reason, you feel something is wrong with what you were going to do and then decide to change it for another action that will give you a short-term reward. Understanding the feeling that is intervening will help you find the best strategy for changing your procrastination pattern. 

Here are some of the most frequent, according to the website

  • Feelings of overwhelm.
  • Anxiety.
  • Perfectionism.
  • Fear of evaluation or negative feedback.
  • Fear of failure.
  • Self-handicapping.
  • A perceived lack of control.
  • Lack of motivation.
  • Lack of energy.

So, let’s imagine your boss asked you to make a lengthy report you don’t see the point of and requires you to consult dozens of people before you can start writing. In that context, you are likely to lack motivation, feel overwhelmed by the task, and decide to look for a snack instead of start working because food is a more tangible and immediate reward than “the feeling of a job well done.” The same applies when you are afraid of not being able to make things up to standards or of getting negative feedback, even if it is the first time you are doing a particular task. 

Identifying the root cause of your procrastination is crucial because otherwise you won’t be able to force yourself back to work. Every time we procrastinate, our brains feel a reward; we push away that thing that makes us feel anxious or bored and instead give the brain something nice (searching for a new song, for example). Consequently, we feel that something good just happened, even if it is self-harmful in the long term. 

Chronic procrastination is a serious problem as it can lead to issues ranging from depression to higher stress levels and job loss. What can you do to get rid of the boogeyman? 

1. Understand the origin of your procrastination

Observe yourself to know if it is boredom or fear of failure what keeps you back from working. Once you identify the feeling, you will be able to find the best way around it. If the problem is that you find the task too boring, maybe doing it first thing in the morning and rewarding yourself with a short walk afterward might help. If the underlying problem is fear of failure, you might want to look for help from a co-worker or ask your boss to give you further details on the task you were given. 

2. Identify the circumstances under which you procrastinate

Consider why, when, and how you procrastinate. If you tend to procrastinate because you are afraid of failing a task, when you are working from home, and you procrastinate by gardening all day, then you need to ask for help to achieve the job and find an office or co-working space. It would require a different approach if the cause of your procrastination were lack of energy, in which case you probably should eat your greens, go to bed earlier, and exercise in the morning.

3. Try various techniques and see which one works best for you

Anti-procrastination techniques can be divided into two general categories: behavioral techniques or cognitive techniques. That is either changing your actions or your way of thinking about something. To help yourself finish that report you don’t see the point of, you could clean up your desk to avoid distractions, or you could think that the report will help you understand the company better, even if you don’t know what your boss is going to do with it.  

Try some of the following options and see which one you prefer:

Use a to-do list and prioritize tasks

The most famous of all tricks will give you a better idea of what is ahead of you and what you should tackle first.  

Remove all the obstacles you can

Work your way to the avoided tasks. Try doing actions that will drive your attention to the assignments you have been avoiding. Clean your desk and turn off your cell phone’s notifications. Turn off the Wi-Fi if you can avoid using the internet. Focus on the end goal, the avoided task being done.

Break large tasks into smaller ones

This way, you won’t feel so overwhelmed by the task ahead and will be able to think and plan the action you need to take immediately after.

Whatever you can do in less than 15 minutes, do it immediately

Even if it is not your main task, get done whatever you can avoid postponing. That way, you will start getting back on the work rhythm you need. 

Identify your productivity cycles

Exhaustion is a major cause of procrastination. If you identify that after two hours of continuous work, you can’t concentrate anymore, organize your schedule so you can take a short break every two hours and go back to work reloaded. Additionally, everybody has moments of the day where you can work better. Observe if that moment is in the morning or the afternoon so that you can devote those hours to your most demanding tasks. 

Procrastination is a bad habit and, like any other, is challenging to overcome, but it is not impossible. What are your tactics for being more productive? 

By: Ana Maria Enciso, June 2021
Edited by: Isabela Rosa

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