Procrastination – why do we do it, and how can you overcome it?

It’s one of the most puzzling aspects of human psychology – why do we delay doing the things we know we have to do, especially when we’re well aware that doing so is going to make the task more stressful? Whether it’s studying for a big exam or simply doing the dishes, the longer we wait to get started, the harder the job becomes. The rational thing, of course, is to dig in, get the task done, and then feel relieved that it’s over and we’re free to enjoy some down time.

Most people have at least a few things they tend to procrastinate over, but for some it can become a truly debilitating problem, getting in the way of their long-term goals and development. Whatever end of the spectrum you’re on, there are some signs and excuses to watch out for, and techniques you can experiment with to help you overcome this all-too-common phenomenon.

Realize when an excuse is just that – an excuse

“I’m not in the right headspace right now – I work much better at night.”

“I’m the kind of person who needs that extra time pressure to perform at my best.”

“This isn’t the right time to tackle this task.”

“I have to do X first.”

“I’m waiting for feedback from my boss before I can get stuck in.”

It’s amazing the list of excuses we can come up with to rationalize irrational behavior. By learning to identify excuses for what they are and be honest with ourselves, we can learn when we need to call ourselves out on our own… nonsense.  

 “Awfulizing” the task at hand

When you’re tempted to put something off, you’re likely to blow how difficult it actually is way out of proportion. Watch out for thoughts like “I just can’t deal with this right now”, “I can’t stand this”, “This is unbearably boring”, “I hate doing this” – whatever your internal dialogue happens to sound like.

Is the task actually anywhere near as awful, distressing, or painful as you’re making it out to be? Almost certainly not. Try to actively replace those kinds of thoughts with more realistic ones – “I might not be overjoyed at the prospect of finishing up this report for my manager, but I can deal with it.” “Okay, so this might be a little tedious, but it’s definitely not going to kill me, and I’ll feel so much better once it’s finished.”

Set an appointment in your calendar

Some people find it helpful to set themselves a deadline, especially if they’ve been putting off a task that no-one’s ever going to force them to get round to – like doing that spring clean of the garage or calling someone in to handle those fridge and freezer repairs once and for all. Set a specific date and time. When your reminder comes up or you reach the applicable page in your diary (however you like to organize your life) don’t stop to think or hesitate – just do it. Once you’ve got it behind you, you’ll probably wonder why you were making such a fuss in the first place. 

Start somewhere

When you’re faced with a complex task, breaking it down into manageable chunks and setting them out in a logical order can be extremely helpful. Some people find it helpful to dig in with the most challenging part of the task first and get that out of the way, while others may find it easier to start small with an easier aspect. Play around and find which works best for you – the key is simply to get started somewhere. Once you’ve actually started work on something and the status shifts from “to do” to “in progress” in your mind, the battle’s likely half won.

Bribe yourself

Another strategy some people find helpful is offering themselves a reward for making progress on a task. By dangling a carrot, you can rustle up that extra little bit of motivation to get stuck in. You can’t get the reward until you’ve done the work, though!

Gamify the chores you dislike

Like all animals, humans gravitate towards the things they enjoy and avoid the things they don’t – whether that’s food, other people, or activities. By adding a level of challenge, enjoyment or excitement to an otherwise dull activity, you can turn what feels like work into something that feels more like play. Setting yourself a time limit, trying to outdo your previous day’s performance, or tackle the task from a completely different angle can make the job more like a game than a chore.