Many successful leaders have said, “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” Easier said than done sometimes. Procrastination, or postponing a inevitable task, is easy to do. Mark Twain put a different twist on it when he stated, “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.” But what if an important deadline for school or work IS tomorrow?
Are you a procrastinator? Do you tell others (and yourself) that you “work better under pressure”…Do you ACTUALLY work better under pressure or might you simply be a habitual procrastinator? And if so, you are not alone. According to the McGraw-Hill Center for Teaching and Learning, many [even successful] individuals procrastinate, and the causes of procrastination are rooted in psychology (i.e., your own fears and anxiety) rather than laziness or poor time management skills. They state what we have “fear and anxiety—about doing poorly, of not having control of our outcomes, of looking stupid, of having one’s sense of self or self-concept challenged. We avoid doing work to avoid our abilities being judged. And, if we happen to succeed, we feel that much ‘smarter.’” At the same time, you will feel less smart when you realize that what you turned in had so many mistakes because you did not allow yourself time to proof-read.
I can certainly relate to this as I am the queen of procrastination. Don’t get me wrong…I accomplish a lot, but that is because I have found ways to overcome procrastination, and you can too. Sometimes beginning or finishing certain tasks, especially those that are larger or require a lot of critical thinking, seem daunting. In the past, I have found myself doing everything under the sun EXCEPT that looming and, often, important task. For example, when trying to finish up my dissertation (the last requirement before getting my PhD), I would have thought that getting the degree would have been some serious motivation for me…but instead, I finished all other work-related tasks I could think of, did a lot of cleaning and small jobs around my house, took up guitar lessons, emailed or called everyone I could think of, became obsessed with Facebook…you get the picture. Yet, I DID eventually finish, and here are a few things that worked for me:
Recognize it! You can’t do anything about it if you do not realize that you are procrastinating. But if you find yourself completing tasks at the very last minute or missing deadlines because you waited and then did not have enough time to finish it, chances are, you are probably procrastinating.
Break larger tasks into smaller pieces. When I was working through my dissertation procrastination issues, I a professor in my Department told me that it was natural a recommended that I accomplish tasks that required little thought (e.g., doing my reference, acknowledgements, or table of contents pages). Genius! That small but very wise piece of advice got me over the hump so many times! If you have a larger task that requires a lot of thought, breaking it into smaller tasks will provide you with the opportunity to accomplish pieces of it and before you know it, you’ll have the larger task, which at one point seemed daunting, DONE.
Change your work environment. As crazy as it sounds, I literally wrote ¾ of my dissertation in my car. There were too many distractions at work and at home (most of which I created myself), and this was one place where I could not create the distractions and thus, I was forced to just sit and write. If you have roommates or office mates, perhaps you should try a public or campus library, coffee shop, or sitting area where there are not a lot of people.
Give yourself realistic deadlines. Setting deadlines for yourself will help you. You can write them on a to-do list or a calendar. Yet, make sure the deadlines you set are realistic. Although you may think that unrealistic deadlines will motivate you (e.g., get 5 page paper that is due in 2 weeks done tomorrow), chances are unrealistic goals will just put more pressure on you; your mind will start playing tricks on you, and you will be more likely to continue to avoid the task at hand.
Tell others your goals or ask them to set deadlines for you. This is especially important if it’s a personal goal or a task that has not been assigned by a boss or professor. Using my dissertation as an example again, I told my advisor my personal timeline/deadlines I had set for myself, and I asked him to tell me he was going to be furious with me if I did not complete them on time (again a psychology thing, but it helped). The dissertation process is something that you have to complete on your own, and there are no real deadlines. Yet, if you do not finish it, you remain “all but dissertation” status for life and never receive your PhD. You would think that would have been enough motivation for me, but it helped to say my goals/timeline out loud to my advisor and other colleagues.
Limit or disconnect yourself from technology. Email, texts, Facebook, etc….so much fun, and a great way to connect with others or stay informed, BUT they are also very good procrastination tools. I have had a few highly motivated students tell me that during their busy times of the semester (i.e., finals week), they temporarily deactivate their accounts to avoid distractions. Sometimes you may not realize how much time you are spending with technology; to assess whether you need to temporarily disconnect yourself from it, keep track of your tech time that is not spent on work/school projects. If disconnecting altogether seems too dramatic, perhaps you could limit your hours by checking your email, reading your newsfeed or notifications, and responding to social texts once/day (first thing in the morning or later at night).
Surround yourself with others who are working on something similar, have deadlines, or who have high standards for getting work done. Sometimes we do not realize how much the people around us influence our behaviors and habits. By surrounding yourself with people who are accomplishing things, you will likely want to do the same. If you find that you need to get more work done while most of your friends are out socializing or playing video games, you may have greater tendencies to feel like you are missing out on something. If others around you are completing tasks or have similar deadlines as you, you may be more likely to see it as a competition or feel like you need to keep up with them so you do not fall behind.
Sources and additional information on procrastinating:
Also, you may find this video from Mind Tools helpful: