How to identify (and cope with) procrastination
With more people studying online, procrastination is a greater problem than ever before.
At the click of a button, work can be replaced by a funny video, tweet or urgent email (well, we tell ourselves it’s urgent).
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is making the choice to avoid doing something, even though we know it will cost us long term. It’s different from intentionally delaying doing something.
Some say it’s not an issue of poor time management, but a failure to control our emotions. When we procrastinate, we are trying to improve our mood by avoiding doing something that feels unpleasant. It’s a coping strategy to feel better by distracting ourselves with short-term pleasure, like watching one more episode of a TV series before we start something, and forgetting about a problem.
Why do we procrastinate?
There are 15 key reasons why people procrastinate:
- Not knowing what needs to be done
- Not knowing how to do something
- Not wanting to do something
- Not caring if it gets done or not
- Not caring when something gets done
- Not feeling in the mood to do it
- Being in the habit of waiting until the last minute
- Believing that you work better under pressure
- Thinking that you can finish it at the last minute
- Lacking the initiative to get started
- Blaming sickness or poor health
- Waiting for the right moment
- Needing time to think about the task
- Delaying one task in favour of working on another
It seems to be more common among people who are impulsive, prone to perfectionism, burdened by other people's expectations of them or scared of failure.
Fear is one factor that contributes to procrastination. This can involve a fear of failure, a fear of making mistakes, or even a fear of success.
Are there ways to cope with procrastination?
Try techniques of mindfulness and meditation
This will help you gain control over negative thoughts. It doesn’t necessarily involve sitting in a dark room with candles and incense.
Simply recognise that we don’t feel like doing something without making a judgement on this feeling. You must remind yourself why the task is important and commit to making a start. When we make progress on a task, we feel better about ourselves and this makes it much easier to carry on.
The words you use with yourself are also important: “could” is much better than “should”. “Should” always implies and carries with it an element of guilt or compulsion. Think of a parent saying to a child, “You should do this or that.” “Could” implies that you freely choose to do something. ‘Should’ shackles, while “could” is creative.
Break down a task into clear and manageable steps
One reason for procrastination is that the targets we set are often too big and vague, which makes them seem more intimidating and unpleasant. So you scale down your ambitions from "win a marathon" or "write a novel" to "put on your running gear" or "find a name for your main character".
Start by creating a to-do list with things that you would like to accomplish. If necessary, put a date next to each item if there is a deadline that you need to meet.
Estimate how long each task will take to complete, then double that number so you don't fall into the cognitive trap of underestimating.
I personally am a great believer in lists. Some prefer mind-mapping. Having some kind of roadmap in front of you seems to make it more real and shows your progress, i.e. “look how far I’ve come” vs. “look how far I have to go”. As someone said to me recently, “A 40% chance of rain means a 60% chance of no rain.”
Don't punish yourself for procrastinating
Research shows that people who forgive themselves for procrastinating are less likely to delay in the same way on their next assignment. So the more guilt and anger you feel about depriving the world of your groundbreaking novel this year, the less chance you have of writing it next year.
Recognize the onset of procrastination
As you start to tackle items on your list, pay attention to when thoughts of procrastination start to creep into your mind. If you find yourself thinking "I don't feel like doing this now" or "I'll have time to work on this later”, then you need to recognize you’re about to procrastinate.
Instead of giving into the urge, force yourself to spend at least a few minutes working on the task. In many cases, you might find that it is easier to complete once you get started.
It's hard to get any real work done when you keep turning your attention to what's on television or you keep checking your friends’ Facebook status updates.
Assign yourself a period of time when you can turn off all distractions – such as music, television and social networks – and use that time to focus all of your attention on the task at hand.
Build on the good habits you already have
I like fresh bread; we have a supermarket not far away, which has a bakery. I often walk over to get some bread and some exercise. My wife comes with me and we have gradually extended the time/distance of our walks to get more exercise.
Work out why you care about the task – look to the future
Much advice still focuses on time management skills, rather than tackling the root causes.
Procrastination can often reflect a deeper existential problem of lacking an identity or a direction in life. We procrastinate on tasks that we see as boring or less meaningful. So remind yourself why you are doing something and how it fits in with your ambitions.
By thinking this way, the long-term benefit of doing your work can overpower the short-term pleasure of distractions.
Once you’ve completed a task (or even a small portion of a larger task), it’s important to reward yourself for your efforts. Give yourself the opportunity to indulge in something that you find fun and enjoyable, whether it's attending a sporting event, playing a video game, watching your favourite TV show, or looking at pictures on social media.
So why write this piece? If you're thinking of starting on a programme of online learning, you owe it to yourself to be clear about what you want to do, why you want to do it and what might get in the way.
GoodCert is here to help! Tell us about your biggest procrastination challenge in the comments.