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Ah, social media—what a wonderful procrastination tool you are. I rarely post updates yet I can while away hours checking on people I haven’t spoken to for years. I learn what they ate for lunch, what their kids wore to school, and how perfect their husbands or wives are—all while I should be working on things that are worthwhile… like this article on procrastination.
It’s not just social media that helps feed my procrastination habit. You’ll never see my house cleaner than it is when I’m facing an imposing deadline. I can’t quite get started if things aren’t in place…. And man, are my dinners complex and delicious when I have five articles on the go! How can I start writing when it’s so close to the dinner hour?
Do you find yourself procrastinating? If so, you’re not alone. One out of five Americans, according to the Association for Psychological Science, struggles with chronic procrastination. (See also our post Why Do People Procrastinate? 7 Reasons Why We Waste Time.)
Staying on task can be tough for anyone. Luckily, you can increase concentration, meet deadlines, and become more efficient. How? Consider the 15 strategies here.
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What Is Procrastination?
Procrastination is defined by Polish researchers as “an irrational delay of intended actions despite expecting to be worse off.” We’ve all been guilty of falling prey to procrastination (as if you haven’t watched baby animal videos on YouTube!). But procrastinating too often, and in important areas of our lives (around our family, friends, and colleagues), can cause havoc. Putting off an essential but uncomfortable discussion, delaying a job change, or postponing a college course, for instance, can lead to serious complications.
Luckily, we can put an end to procrastination with a little effort. The key for those of us who wish to stop procrastinating is to find out why we’re doing so in the first place.
“Usually it requires determining the cause of the procrastination and working on the specifics of the problem,” says Leslie Connor, Ph.D, LLC, a licensed psychologist in Wilmington, Del. “For example, someone who over-commits often procrastinates because they simply cannot get to everything. Someone who can’t do things perfectly enough may be procrastinating because of their perfectionism. You get the idea—you need to know the cause or causes in order to have a path for resolving the problem.”
With that procrastination definition in mind, here are a few strategies to help you stay focused and reign in that impulsivity:
1. Make a list and set goals.
Create a to-do list to help organize your first steps, and always build in time for mistakes—we all make them. While you’re at it, write down your goals for today, tomorrow, next week, next month and beyond. Look at them daily to remind you of what’s important. Seeing these goals daily will help keep you on track to accomplish what you’ve set out for yourself.
2. Ask for help.
It can be tough to get started on a new task, no matter how important it may be. Instead, we may turn to other, less important items—reorganizing our closet, cleaning the kitchen, or calling a friend as an avoidance tactic. Problem is, procrastination makes it harder to begin. When you’re feeling overloaded, stressed, or confused, accept that you’re struggling and reach out to a friend or colleague for a brainstorming session.
3. Focus on the bigger picture.
Many of us get stuck in the moment, making it hard to focus on completing a project that’s due in a month when our phone is blowing up with texts. While it may be easier to focus on the “now” problem and cave into procrastination, don’t lose sight of your future goals. Have you been wanting to go back to school, change careers, or take up a new hobby? Stop putting it on the back burner and focus on the long-term goal of making these changes now.
4. Start small.
If the task seems ginormous, break it into smaller, more manageable parts. Avoid procrastination by creating a to-do list to help guide your progress.
5. Give up on perfection.
Those who strive for perfection may find it difficult to live up to their own standards. The result: an inability to start new projects for fear of failing. Instead of falling prey to procrastination, accept that you’re likely to make a mistake and focus on the important parts of your life—like family, friends, and your passions.
6. Try ACT therapy.
A Canadian study of 36 university students found those who participated in an online psychotherapy program known as ACT intervention (a.k.a. acceptance and commitment therapy) experienced a noticeable reduction in procrastination as well as a “significant improvement in committed actions.”
7. Set a schedule that sets you up for success.
Determine your peak performance time—the period during which you do your best work—and schedule important tasks for that time. When you find yourself procrastinating later, you won’t feel as guilty because you accomplished something during your peak time.
8. Enroll in a text-messaging support program.
A study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that those who participated in “an unguided, two-week Internet-based training program to overcome procrastination called ON.TOP,” and received daily SMS (short message service—i.e., text messaging) support experienced a significant decrease in their procrastination versus those who did not receive the support.
9. Start with the hardest task (or the easiest!).
Overwhelmed by a massive project? Be selective about where you start. For some, tackling the most challenging, boring, or least pleasurable parts can help to keep things moving. What’s left will seem less daunting and possibly more enjoyable. Others take the opposite approach, choosing a first task from those that are the easiest—the “lowest-hanging fruit” approach. Still others break the procrastination rut by starting with the most enjoyable or fun task. This can help certain people to ride the momentum they create as they deal with the tough stuff ahead.
10. Step away from distractions.
If you know you’re prone to clicking on celeb gossip stories online, close your internet browser. Silence your phone to ignore incoming calls and texts while you’re in the zone. If you work in a loud or distracting environment, try working from home one day, or set up in a café for a change of scenery.
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11. Reward yourself.
Once you complete a task, reward yourself—with a check mark on a to-do list, a walk, or a snack, for instance.
12. Set a reminder.
Some of us are likely to forget the tasks we don’t want to do (like buy milk or book your kid’s karate class). If you remember something, do it right then so you won’t forget. Also, leave reminder notes in places you can’t miss (e.g., on your computer screen, mirror, or fridge). The reminder function on your phone is another helpful tool.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when there’s a lot on your plate—whether you’re facing a big project or a bunch of smaller tasks. The best way to start (and avoid procrastination) is to prioritize. We’re back to the idea of a to-do list again. Write down your tasks and goals. Then rank them according to what’s most important.
14. Stop making excuses.
The best procrastinators are masters of excuses. “It’s too hard,” “I’m too tired,” or “There’s not enough time” are a few examples of procrastination tricks they use. Instead of focusing on the negative, try putting a positive spin on things. Say things like, “I may not be able to do it all today, but I can make a start.”
15. Use a smartphone.
German researchers studied 31 procrastinators. Some were given a smartphone-based intervention which included “14 days of training with the Mindtastic procrastination app” and two group counseling sessions. The other participants were put on a “wait-list condition.” Those who used the app noticed a much more significant reduction in their procrastination than those who lacked the intervention.
4 COMMON FORMS OF PROCRASTINATION
1. Active: A strategic type of procrastination preferred by those who work better under pressure. They’re the people who can whip off a stellar college essay in one night whereas it took you a month.
2. Passive: The easily distracted are plagued by this form of procrastination. Ever lost hours to social media only to find you’re short on time for an important work presentation?
3. Dysfunctional: This kind of procrastination can cause major stress, anxiety, and suffering in individuals who lack self-control.
4. Functional: Those who have mastered self-control may resort to procrastination to give themselves controlled and calculated mini breaks from their task. Talking to a colleague, getting a cup of tea, or texting a friend are all examples of functional procrastination—if they don’t encroach on overall productivity.