Defeating Procrastination

Three minute read

Many people think they’re lazy. Or that other people are lazy. And most often that their children are lazy. But I’m 61 now, and I’ve never met a lazy person. Sure, there are people whose behavior looks lazy, but if you dig deep enough you’ll find a perfectly reasonable explanation: fear of failure, anxiety, depression, fear of success, declaration of independence or perhaps just a dislike of what needs to be done. (See The Myth of Laziness for more information.)

If you, or a friend or loved one is struggling to get things done, here are some ideas that might help.

Bite Sized Chunks

Sometimes tasks seem overwhelming. Starting work is like climbing Mt. Everest — we know that we’re going to have to do this for a long time in order to get anywhere. And so we put off even starting, or allow ourselves to get distracted, relieving ourselves of the massive anxiety that hits every time we focus on the task.

Cutting that task up into smaller parts gives us many smaller, achievable goals rather than one big — seemingly very distant — goal. We all like to feel that we’re succeeding, and giving ourselves the opportunity for a number of small successes makes us feel better about the work — and about ourselves.

Limited Task Time

Who wants to spend a precious weekend cleaning the house, or doing taxes, or writing a term paper, or tackling a difficult work project? (OK, some people, but you guys are definitely the minority.) The day stretches out before us interminably, and to avoid that pain we quickly check out Instagram, Twitter or YouTube. We spend the day dreading the task, but not actually doing it.

Limiting how much time we allocate to the task paradoxically allows us to work more. When we know we’re going to sit down for just an hour, or 15 minutes or whatever amount of time we feel we can tolerate, it’s much easier for us to ignore the lure of social media and the overwhelming need for another cup of tea. When we tell ourselves that we will work on the task from 9am to 10am we can be far more efficient than when we put aside the entire day. As Parkinson’s Law states: Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

It’s important not to continue beyond the time allocated. Once we’re in the groove it can be tempting to keep going, but our minds quickly realize that “Limited Task Time” is just a trick to keep our nose to the grindstone. Better to come back later in the day, or another day entirely, for a second limited task time.

Public Announcements

Research, and common sense, tell us that it’s easier to disappoint ourselves than to lose face in front of others. That’s one reason why gym classes, personal trainers, weight loss groups and Alcoholics Anonymous are needed. There are no natural groups for many of the activities we procrastinate on. But that’s not a problem because we can just create our own groups. A WhatsApp to a group of friends or family members announcing that we are going to do our taxes by 9pm Sunday night, or a Facebook post letting others know that we’re struggling to clean the house but we’re going to do it tomorrow — that can be enough to get us over the edge. Of course people might think we’re silly, but we’re getting our tasks done while they’re stewing in their own procrastination.

Self-Defined Punishments

If it’s not enough to commit publicly to finishing a task, then it might be worthwhile implementing a punishment for failure. Again, the research shows that this works: People who commit to a penalty for failing to complete a task are more successful in completing that task. The penalty can be anything, as long as it’s feasible and quick. A favorite is donating money to a cause that we strongly disagree with. Ideally, the commitment to the punishment should be made public to at least one other person.

To-Do Lists

Everyone knows about to-do lists, but more as a reminder of what we have yet to do. That’s an important function: they makes things feel less overwhelming and more manageable. But lists have another function: a record of what we have accomplished. Crossing items off a list, or highlighting them in color reminds us that we are able to get things done. And the fact that we can get things done helps us feel better about ourselves, which generally helps us get even more things done, in a positive feedback loop.

Now, I’m not going to pretend that these are the magic key that will end procrastination forever. They’re life hacks — techniques that sometimes help. And when they don’t help, that tells us that something else is going on. Perhaps the anxiety or depression is so strong that no technique in the world is going to help. Or maybe there is conflict with another person that is at the root of the problem. Or there’s a belief that success is impossible so it isn’t worth trying. Or something else entirely.

And so, if these life hacks don’t work, and procrastination is making life difficult, it’s time to seek out a therapist to help understand — and help you fix — what is really going on.