Get Going – The Best 10 Tools to Stop Procrastinating Now

Dr. John Schinnerer

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This week a client asked me a profound question. His name is Bill and he had just completed my online anger management class. Bill had successfully turned down the volume on his anger. With his recently discovered awareness of the role of emotion in his life, he turned to the question of procrastination, a problem which had plagued him his entire life. He asked,   “what is the solution for procrastination?  I get that there will be a lot of work involved in defeating procrastination. However, if I am to reach my full potential, I need to beat this next issue.  There must be some connection between the emotional brain and the rational brain.  There has to be.  Given what I now know from your great anger management class, procrastination must be emotionally-driven self-sabotage.  Do you have any advice on this vexing topic?  I am confident that if I can learn to manage my anger, I can learn to procrastinate less.”

So here are the top scientifically-proven tips to assist you prevent procrastination and begin seizing life now.  These tips primarily  are from procrastination guru, Tim Pychyl, Ph.D. who authored, Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Positive Change. To begin with, we must define procrastination so we know what the problem is…

Procrastination Defined

Procrastination is the difference between your intentions and your actions. It is a voluntary, emotional hold up which occurs in spite of the anticipation of a potential negative outcome. Such outcomes might involve an adverse impact on your performance, happiness, physical health, relationships and often, procrastination leads to regret and internal self-punishment (e.g., yelling at yourself in your mind). It also can get in the way of enjoying your accomplishments. Importantly, procrastination is NOT about time management; it IS about poor self-regulation; that is, you give in to yourself to feel better in the moment. It is short-term mood repair at its worst. So Bill was 100% correct – procrastination IS emotionally driven. One of the biggest tip offs that you are on your way to procrastination-ville is when you hear the thought, “I don’t feel like it.”  This is a very common thought and a great way to stay stuck in life. And understand, there is no reason that you have to feel like it to begin a task. That is simply wrong thinking.

Alright, onto the gold nuggets – the top tools to stop procrastinating for the rest of your life (or at least for right now!)…

  1. Change a task’s characteristics so it is less nasty for you

Many things you must do are aversive and nasty and boring. That’s life. Many of these items must be done regardless of how you feel about them. There are six ways that a task can be nasty and brutish and thus, promote procrastination. It’s critical you are aware of each of them. Any one of them can hamstring your forward movement. Here are the six characteristics of tasks to look for to prevent procrastination:

  1. Boring – You have no interest in the task.
  2. Frustrating – The task is annoying and irritating.
  3. Difficult – You view the item as too hard.
  4. Meaningless – You don’t see the purpose of it.
  5. Ambiguous – You don’t know what is required or how to move forward.
  6. Unstructured – You cannot see the small steps you need to take to move ahead.

Tasks can have more than one of these characteristics at the same time. By becoming more aware of which characteristics of a task are encouraging you to look for more belly button lint, you can begin to reframe your feelings towards them.  And this way, you can make the task more appealing and get going faster.

For instance, imagine you have to write a 5 page philosophy paper on the difference between free will and determinism.  Many people will find this assignment tedious, difficult, and meaningless.  To change some of these characteristics, you can make a game out of it and ask yourself, “How much work can I accomplish in 30 minutes if I really buckle down?” then you focus on this new game to make the task less boring and more engaging.  In the same manner, by making jobs more engaging, breaking them down into the next smallest step, making them very specific in terms of when and what and how, you can reduce the amount of procrastinating you do.

2. Learn mindfulness

You might be saying, “wait, mindfulness is totally unrelated to procrastination!” Let me explain how they relate to one another.

As I stated before, procrastination is not about time management. Most people can accurately predict how long a task will take and how long they will spend on it. Procrastination is about a break down in emotional management.  When presented with a hard task, people feel bored or frustrated. So people give in to not completing the assignment to feel better.  And that strategy works…temporarily. But it bites you in the butt in the long run.  Procrastinators suffer more stress and regret over the long term and this compromises their health. What’s more, procrastinators show fewer health behaviors – less quality sleep, lousier diet, less exercise. At it’s core, procrastination is a way to avoid unpleasant feelings.  And we are often unaware of these silent and fleeting negative emotions. To say we aren’t often aware of how we feel is a monumental understatement. And you can’t change it if you are not aware of it.

To combat this, the first step is to become more aware of what you are feeling in the present moment.  To do this, you have to spend more time in the present moment. One study demonstrated that adults spend roughly 47% of their day with their mind wandering aimlessly. Normally your mind takes you, without your consent, to the past or the future. And this wandering mind is associated with more misery, because, let’s face it, how often does your mind take you back to pleasant memories versus bad ones? So you are much better off to the extent you can train yourself to spend more time in the present. And the most powerful tool to do this is mindfulness which is, at heart, a technique which can be used to train your attention. Once you spend more time in the present, you can also notice what you are feeling. Then you can pay attention to how you act in response to how you feel. The more you can be aware of these emotions, the less likely you are to procrastinate.

3. Make a predecision

Set yourself up for success by making predecisions. How do you do this? Train yourself to be very specific, “On Sunday morning, right after I have my coffee, I’m going to start working on my research paper.”  This puts the trigger for action in the environment (e.g., finishing my coffee).  Or “I like to have a cold beer in the evening.” So I can set myself up for success such as, “When I finish my three mile run, I will have a cold beer.  And I’m going to put the beer in the fridge while I’m out running.” Again, the trigger for action, having a cold beer, is outside you and more observable and tangible.

4. Do not wait for your feelings to match your actions

One of the biggest excuses, which fuels procrastination is when you tell yourself  “I don’t feel like it.” Yet no one ever said you had to feel like it to get started. Instead, when you hear that all-too-frequent excuse, challenge it with “Heard it before. That’s B.S. I don’t need to feel like it to get started. Just get started.” It’s not quite the old Nike slogan (“Just do it”). It’s more of a gentle encouragement to simply begin the task. Often the internal response after you’ve started working is “Cool, this isn’t as bad as I thought.”  Dr. Pychyl wrote in his book, “When you find yourself thinking things like ‘I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow,’ ‘I work better under pressure,’ ‘There’s lots of time left,’ ‘I can do this in a few hours tonight,’ let that be a flag or signal or stimulus to indicate that you are about to needlessly delay the task, and let it also be the stimulus to just get started.” Your attitudes will follow your behavior. So just get started.

5. Be nicer to your future self

Dan Gilbert at Harvard has done a lot of work on affective forecasting that has to do with how people predict how they will feel in the future. And he has found that we are terrible at accurately predicting how we will feel in the future; we are not good at it.  We tend to rely on our present state to predict our future state. If we feel good right now, we believe we will feel good in the future.

What’s more, there is a difference between how we treat our present self and our future self. We look at our future self as a stranger. So why would we do something now that we can push off onto our future self, who is a stranger to us? We wouldn’t.  To get around this phenomenon, researchers have presented study participants with photos of themselves which have been digitally aged so they look like they are 70 years old. When presented with such a photo, participants were found to be much more likely to save more money in their IRA (to benefit their future self).

6. Be aware of how you respond to cognitive dissonance

The gap between your actions and your beliefs is called cognitive dissonance. When you become aware that you should be doing something but are not, you can respond in one of several ways in an attempt to feel better about yourself…

a. Distract yourself by doing or thinking about unrelated things

b. Forget what you have to do

c. Downplay the importance of what you have to do

d. Deny responsibility in order to distance yourself from what you have to do

e. Look for new information to reinforce your procrastination (e.g., “I need more information before I get started.” “I can’t do this by myself.”)

While these responses can improve your mood in the short-term, they also extend your procrastination and typically lead to more negative feelings (e.g., sadness, disappointment, guilt) down the road. To counter them, the first step is to recognize them. Once you become aware of your habitual responses, then write down the thoughts you normally have to justify these procrastinating responses. Next, use these thoughts as triggers to start taking action.  

7. Limit the amount of time you spend on an assignment

This idea is anti-intuitive in that most people think we need to spend more time on a task. However, one of the most powerful tactics to battle procrastination is to limit the amount of time you spend on a given item. When you tell yourself, “I’ve only got 20 minutes to work on this,” the response is normally “Okay, I only have 20 minutes. I’d better get to work and make the best use of this time.” And you get to work. Limiting the amount of time makes the task more challenging, more fun, more structured and less frustrating because the end is in sight. So break up your to-do’s into smaller chunks of time – 20 or 30 minutes.

8. Practice self-kindness 

Procrastinators tend to be very harsh with themselves. When you procrastinate, the punitive self-talk picks up. To the extent you do not forgive yourself for procrastinating, the task becomes MORE aversive and you are more likely to procrastinate more. Beating yourself up rarely helps you to be more productive and lends itself to more depression and irritability.  The more you ruminate about your procrastination and how badly you feel about it, the more likely you are to end up in an emotional funk.

What counters this? Self-compassion and mindfulness. Self-compassion has to do with how you speak to yourself when things go badly. Imagine speaking to yourself as you would speak to a 5 year old – kindly, warmly, encouragingly. The more you train yourself to speak kindly to yourself when things go wrong, the more resilient you become, and the ore quickly you bounce back from adversity.

9. Write down your costs of procrastinating

Writing down the costs of procrastination is a simple and effective solution to get you going. And the costs of procrastination can be massive. When we procrastinate, we are delaying living our lives, postponing the pursuit of our most closely held goals. This step helps you to activate the rational mind to identify the costs of procrastinating which battles the insidious emotional mind (which is encouraging you to not do!).  Simply list the tasks on which you are procrastinating. Next to each task, write down how your procrastination has negatively impacted key areas in your life such as your happiness, stress, health, finances, relationships, work life and so on. For greater effect, you can discuss the list with a close friend or coach and see what you may be missing.

 10. Turn off the web

Did you know that one of Pychyl’s studies showed that when online, people spend 47% of their time procrastinating!? This is likely a low estimate as the study was done prior to the popularity of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. While computers are one of our greatest tools for enhancing productivity, they are also one of the main contributors to wasted time. It is quite a paradox. To stay more connected to important goals and tasks, you must disconnect from social media. Shut down any web pages or apps having to do with social media when you are working. If you have a hard time with this and can’t seem to stay away from Twitter feeds when you should be reviewing legal contracts, Self-Control (for Macs) may be the app you need. You can set it for 4 hours, for example, and your browser will act as if it’s offline for that period of time. You can whitelist or blacklist specific sites and this allows you selectively choose which sites are allowed without completely shutting down the entire internet. PC users can try Freedom. There are numerous other apps for the job as well. If you are serious about getting your work done, you have to unplug from the web and its myriad of distractions.

There will always be nasty, brutish tasks which you must overcome. However, if you find yourself constantly procrastinating due to aversive work, it may be time to find work that is more personally meaningful to you.

You now possess the latest scientifically-proven tips to combat procrastination. Now go out and get started! If you have more tips to combat procrastination be sure to add them to the comments section below.

About the Author – Dr. John Schinnerer

Dr. John Schinnerer, an expert in positive psychology and anger management, is revolutionizing the way in which people make sense of the mind, behavior and emotion. Recently, he was one of three experts (along with Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner) to consult with Pixar on the Academy Award-winning movie, Inside Out. He was featured in a documentary on the impact of violence in the media entitled Skewed. He has developed a unique coaching methodology which combines the best aspects of entertainment, humor, sports psychology, positive psychology and emotional management techniques. His offices are in Danville, California. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology.  He has been a speaker and coach for over 16 years. Dr. John’s blog, Shrunken Mind, was recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web (drjohnblog.guidetoself.com). Dr. John hosts an online anger management class using positive psychology at WebAngerManagement.com. He teaches individuals paths to sustainable happiness via positive psychology and ongoing practice at HowICanBeHappy.com; he offers an online anxiety management course at How Can I Get Rid of Anxiety?

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