How should procrastination, a phenomenon affecting many people in an epidemic-like manner, be defined? According to various online resources and my own opinion, it’s the postponement of an important task in favour of something enjoyable or lesser in urgency. It’s scrolling through twitter when an essay is due in a matter of hours. It’s watching ‘just one more episode’ and settling for an all-nighter to prepare for next morning’s presentation. A more subtle form? Answering emails, writing needless lists, updating social media. These things feel like work, but when done in excessive amounts, reduce the time available to invest in mentally demanding tasks. You oscillate between short-term gratification and valuing your long-term goals, which is why procrastination is accompanied by anxiety which increases at an exponential rate as you approach your deadlines.
Some proponents of ‘hustle until you drop’ deem anything unrelated to your long term objectives a waste of time. You decided to watch a film to end your Friday? You must be a lazy procrastinator. I’ve seen someone call skincare a highly covert form of procrastination. I, however, have to disagree. We are not emotionless machines. Self-care and entertainment exist for a reason – as humans, we need leisure and emotional fulfilment. Cultural involvement is a crucial aspect of self-development, and spending time with our loved ones – an intrinsic component of the human experience. For sure, we have different staminas and rhythms: some people thrive off 14 hour days, others seek a calmer lifestyle. However, going past your individual limits proves counterproductive. Becoming sluggish, you are vulnerable to procrastination and poor time management.
Whether something is ‘procrastination’ as opposed to leisure time is a matter of intentions and priorities. Let’s address intentions first: have you created an extensive skincare routine to take better care of your skin (in which case the latter category applies), or to put off a daunting task? Postponing something which has to be done sooner or later makes your schedule more overwhelming than it needs to be.
An inability to prioritise also results in wasted time and avertable stress. Watch films and spend time with loved ones in a balanced and sensible manner, not with the sole intention of postponing homework and subjecting yourself to tighter deadlines.
Procrastination has never been a major problem for me is because I’ve taught myself the value long-term payoff, and dread the chance of missing a deadline as an outcome of my own choices. Frankly, procrastination gives me anxiety. I cannot calmly scroll through social media when there is a half-finished blog post lurking in my drafts. I force myself to do my hardest tasks first in light of how my productivity declines towards the evening. During study leave before our IB exam, some of my friends would spend the whole day doing anything except for actual revision, and complained about stress. Sure, exam-related stress is natural, but can be reduced with sufficient preparation. Rounding off my to-do-list and then treating myself to a relaxing book felt much more rewarding. Moreover, I like to be intentional with my choice of leisure activities and the value they deliver beyond postponing necessary evils.
Of course, I am far from perfect. No one is a flawless productivity guru. All of us at some point in our lives will find ourselves in the tenacious fingers of procrastination. There are, however, certain steps you can take to ensure this highly paradoxical and counterproductive phenomenon remains marginal in your life.
1. Just do it
This may not work for everyone, but oftentimes the dreaded event associated with not getting something done is enough to force action. Do you find yourself substituting difficult, but pressing pieces of work with random tasks that create the illusion of productivity (i.e., responding to emails when there is a report that needs to be written)? In that case, quite literally force yourself to sit down and do the former. Think about how good finishing the task will feel, and use that to motivate yourself. After a while, ‘just doing it’ will become a habit. Harness your fear to propel you towards your goals.
2. Understand why you procrastinate
The causes of procrastination are varied and complex, going beyond simple ‘laziness’. Listing them all is outside the scope of this blog post, but finding the underlying, deeper issue is key to overcoming any problem. Do you simply not enjoy what you must nonetheless complete: for example, homework in your nemesis subject, or a tough cardio session? Or is there a deeper reason? In my experience, two things are responsible: a) overwhelm (not quite knowing where to start) and b) perfectionism. Be honest with yourself, and optimise your solution based around the identified cause.
3. Break tasks into manageable fragments
If you feel overwhelmed by the scale of a task, do what is needed to make yourself start. Starting is the hardest part. Afterwards, you will gain momentum and tie together the pieces. Set smaller goals and complete them either in sequence or separated by other tasks (I opt for the former to keep my flow intact). A common problem is facing a word count of several thousand words, all of which have to be coherent and intellectually sound. If you find yourself paralysed by 2000+, give yourself a goal of 200. Once you get there, give yourself a small reward and keep going for 200 more. This method achieves much more than pottering around and not starting at all.
4. Practice good prioritisation and time-management skils
Everyone loves to-do lists, and for a good reason. They can be a lifesaver in stressful times. Find a strategy that works for you. Evenings are an ideal time to plan to lessen the chance of waking up in a state of disarray, without a clear goal of what needs to be a accomplished, a state in which you naturally fall towards easier tasks at the expense of those demanding urgency. Prioritise tasks according to difficulty and deadlines, keeping in mind the sense of relief associated with finishing something ahead of time. Afterwards, schedule in trivialities and leisure time for a wholesome daily routine.
Word of warning: make sure writing to-do lists does not become an act of procrastination in itself!
5. Change your mindset
This is a critical step if you want to rid yourself of the procrastination habit in the long run. In particular, changing how you think is key if you think perfectionism may be your underlying cause. Switch ‘if I don’t revise for a certain amount of hours, I will fail my exam’ to ‘having gone over the syllabus, the paper shouldn’t feel too difficult’. Instead of thinking: ‘everything about this piece of work has to be perfect’, opt for: ‘all I must do it try my best and complete the first draft because I can go back and fine tune it later’. Positive thinking can help eliminate the dread surrounding a task, making you less likely to engage in avoidance.
6. Reward yourself
This isn’t something I personally do because the long-term result of getting things done in a timely manner, and even the initial satisfaction, count as a reward. However, many people say that treating themselves to a piece of chocolate after every 500 words of an essay or an item of clothing to celebrate a deadline is enough to push them through low motivation.
7. Physically rid yourself of distractions
Identify your ‘preferred’ methods of procrastination, and make them inaccessible. While working, I like to place my phone downstairs: this way, the effort of retrieving it for five minutes of twitter isn’t worth it. Switch off your internet or block websites you may be tempted to browse. After all, procrastination is pretty hard when all you have access to is work-related materials.
8. Evaluate the value of each task
Sometimes, we start procrastinating without notice and write it off as something other than procrastination. Before doing something, question must thus question intentions. Does the activity tie into your long-term goals? Does it make you happy, or enhance your wellbeing? Is there something you should be doing instead? Come to a well-reasoned conclusion and adjust what you are doing at a given moment if you deem it an unproductive use of your time.
9. Don’t overdo it!
This is a no brainer. If you’re heading to burnout, if your brain is constantly functioning on overdrive, your stamina and ability to work efficiently will suffer, prompting you to reach for those feel-good activities which in turn soak up further time and energy. Set aside some time for yourself and the things you enjoy on a regular basis because writing fifty things on your to-do list is not a sign of productivity, especially if you’re going beyond your means to avoid the hardest ones. Productivity is all about quality and sustainability, after all, not quantity.
To summarise: procrastination has a multitude of causes. Catching yourself in the act and fixing it is difficult, but with plentiful determination and an understanding of why you’re prone to wasting time, you can achieve greater efficiency in your life. Adopt a strategy which tackles your root cause, while searching for balance in your life and a creating habits that fill all you do with intention and energy.
Let me know in the comments: do you struggle with procrastination? If so, how do you go about tackling it?
Much love, Maria ♡