It’s tempting to put off the unpleasant things you don’t want to do. We’re naturally predisposed to do things that make us happy, so if a task is causing discomfort, we’ll find ways to procrastinate and put it off.
Procrastination may be a natural instinct, but it’s also a huge workplace productivity killer. You’re not being efficient if you’re pulling all-nighters or doing busy work to avoid the big stuff. This blog post covers why we’re so prone to doing it anyway, and how to stop procrastinating.
Why do we procrastinate?
We know procrastinating is bad. After every all-nighter and last-minute assignment, we think to ourselves, “I’m never doing that again,” and yet we do.
It all comes down to biology and human nature. In more scientific terms, your urge to procrastinate is a battle between the prefrontal cortex and the lymbic system.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that deals with long-term planning, decision-making, and willpower. It’s also linked with personality and said to be the main differentiator between human beings and animals.
The lymbic system is a set of brain structures that supports functions like emotions and memories. The amygdala is one of these structures, and it is related to emotional processes.
It takes effort to think with the prefrontal cortex. When you’re presented with a difficult task, you need to actively make yourself do it. Otherwise the lymbic system takes over and you’ll want to do what’s more fun in the short-term.
So, the prefrontal cortex is what you use to make complex decisions and plan ahead, and the lymbic system pushes you to do things that are fun in the present. Hence, procrastination.
How to stop procrastinating
Fighting the urge to procrastinate takes some serious willpower. These are some strategies you can try to tackle your to-do list head-on and not put it off until later.
1. Envision your future self. How will you feel if you put this assignment off? Think of the stress and how awful it feels. Alternatively, imagine your future self is already done the assignment and how relaxed you’ll be if you start working right away.
Understand that if you procrastinate to have fun in the present, you’ll still have to deal with stress later on. And accept that you might have to do some unpleasant work now, but you’ll be happier in the future.
2. Bribe yourself. Make yourself a promise that you’ll do something fun when you finish your assignment. Fun is a good motivator, and giving yourself a positive outcome will make you more inclined to get things done.
Example: Got a big powerpoint presentation to work through? Keep a bag of candy around (or any food you’re partial to). For every slide you finish writing, enjoy a treat.
3. Eat a frog. In last week’s post, we wrote about Brian Tracy’s eating a frog theory, which also applies here. Don’t spend your day worrying or thinking about what you’re supposed to be doing. Start working on your biggest task first thing in the morning.
Before you leave work for the day, identify the one task you’re most likely to procrastinate on. Write it down, gather everything you might need to work on it, and commit to getting it out of the way first thing the next morning.
4. Better time management. Maybe the problem is that you’re just not aware of how much time you’re spending on unproductive tasks. This is where software like DeskTime comes in handy, as you can keep track of how much time you’re spending unproductively.
Improve your time management skills by telling yourself you’ll limit your time on social media to just 20 minutes, and be aware of when time is up. Use a time tracker and other tools to help stay focused.
5. Be accountable. Tell someone about your plans. Accountability is a huge motivator – you don’t want to let people down when you’ve already told them you’ll do something. Most of the time, it’s easier to break a promise silently made to yourself than to break a promise to a friend.
Identify one colleague or friend to be your partner in accountability. Tell them what you hope to accomplish, and ask them to check in with your progress. This is also a great tactic for non-work related things too. Want to make a habit going to the gym? Tell a friend which classes you’re going to and make sure they check in to see if you kept your word.
6. Be realistic. Understand your limits and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Making it a goal to finish a 1,000 word research paper in a day isn’t realistic and you’ll set yourself up for disappointment if you don’t finish.
Start with writing shorter to-do lists. Don’t write an endless list of stuff you need to do, and don’t bother writing down the tasks you know you’ll do anyway. Only write down the stuff that’s priority. You’re more likely to stick to a list with one item than attempt to squeeze in 15.
Instant gratification vs. long-term success
Procrastinating may make us happy in the short-term, but it’s more stressful in the long-term. Putting off that report to browse social media is more fun in the moment, but you’ll regret that decision when it’s down to the wire and you’re struggling to get everything done.
Practice working out your prefrontal cortex and pay attention to long-term benefits that outweigh short-term pleasures.