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Emma Sue Prince



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Personal development: stop procrastinating and start doing


We are all prone to procrastination in various forms but I believe that the way we live and work now has only made this tendency stronger and easier.

What is procrastinating anyway? It’s actually a kind of weird self-regulating failure and although most of us are aware that we procrastinate, we can’t seem to stop ourselves doing it anyway.

We all know that scenario where you need to write a report, work on a presentation or some other project but end up wasting time on the internet or some other distraction, even though you know you should be working.

If we know that it’s bad for us why do we do it? People often assume that managing procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, but actually it’s a lot more complex than that.

Complex factors

Overall, we procrastinate most when our self-control and motivation are simply outweighed by negative factors like anxiety or task aversion.

When this happens, we are much worse at self-regulating our behaviour so we’ll postpone things unnecessarily, even when we know we should be doing them.

There is a gap between how we intend to act and how we act in reality. It’s like that to-do list you create the night before but the next day it seems easy to put some of that off, especially if there is no sense of urgency about the task.

Fear of failing at what we do, or anxiety about it will make us want to put it off.

There is plenty of research that shows that you can overcome your procrastination by learning things such as how to manage your time effectively and how to regulate your emotions better.

The unpleasantness of the task (or perceived unpleasantness), and even how we talk about it affects how we feel about it, i.e. ‘I’ve got a report I must write’, ‘I need to do’, ‘I have to do’ – all of which is quite reactive language.

Distractions are a massive issue when it comes to procrastination and our inability to handle them, so this is about creating an environment where there are far less distractions.  

Willpower does come into it in that it becomes depleted over the course of a day – it’s easier to watch Netflix etc. – so self-control and motivation are key too.

Procrastination also happens a lot when the reward is further away. The classic is when your deadline is quite far away and you wait until the very last minute to work.

Lack of energy plays a key role here too. If you are tired, have been working all day or are suffering from lack of sleep, any of those things decrease motivation and ability to maintain focus and stay on task.

We can also experience feeling overwhelmed if we have a lot of tasks that pile up.

It’s easier to take no action at all or to even feel paralysed at the thought of the sheer amount of things we have to get done.

Anti-procrastination techniques

There is plenty of research that shows that you can overcome your procrastination by learning things such as how to manage your time effectively and how to regulate your emotions better.

There are some fairly intuitive ways that we can approach procrastination, which is what makes these tips so effective  

We can learn to stop procrastinating but only by doing small things each day.

As we say in our workshops, small changes lead to big outcomes. Some examples are:

  • List your goals: make sure that they’re clearly defined, possible to accomplish, and significant enough to allow you to achieve meaningful progress.
  • Figure out when, how, and why you procrastinate: examine situations where your tendency to postpone things is preventing you from achieving your goals.
  • Create a plan of action based on relevant anti-procrastination techniques: take into account both your goals as well as the nature of your procrastination.
  • Implement your plan and monitor your progress: make sure to refine your approach by figuring out which techniques work for you and how you can implement them most effectively.

There’s no time like the present to make a start, so here are some methods you can use to break the procrastination cycle:

  • Break large tasks into small, actionable pieces.
  • Identify your productivity cycles and schedule tasks accordingly.
  • Set concrete deadlines for yourself.
  • Eliminate distractions from your environment.
  • Count to 10 before indulging your impulse to procrastinate.
  • Get yourself started by committing to work for only five minutes.
  • Switch between tasks strategically to avoid getting stuck.
  • Create streaks of days on which you complete all your tasks.
  • Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
  • Visualise your future self to become motivated.

The Pomodoro technique

Time management works because it regulates your behaviour, but you have to choose a method that works for you and this may take a little time to work out.

For example, you can use the Pomodoro technique, which is a time-management technique where you use a timer in order to organise your workflow.

The Pomodoro technique entails working on your tasks for a set amount of time (e.g. 25 minutes), and then taking a short break (e.g. five minutes), before starting to work again.

Deadlines can be good, especially if you impose them yourself by breaking a task up and working out when and how you’ll complete each component.

Additionally, as part of the Pomodoro, once you complete a certain number of work cycles (e.g. four cycles), you can take a longer break (e.g. 30 minutes), before getting back to work.

You can modify this technique and similar ones to fit your personal preferences.

For example, instead of using a set amount of time as a marker for each work cycle when using the Pomodoro technique, you could choose to use a different type of marker, such as the number of words that you’ve written or the number of pages that you’ve read.

Find your sweet spot

There is no single method that works perfectly for everyone, so you should try out different techniques until you find the one that works for you.

If you’re not sure which one to start with, simply go with the Pomodoro technique, and modify it to suit your needs as you go along.

Deadlines can be good, especially if you impose them yourself by breaking a task up and working out when and how you’ll complete each component.

Ultimately, the key to beating procrastination is to first recognise when you’re doing it and then work through the solutions. Only by taking these first positive steps can you begin to tackle the problem.

Interested in this topic? Read Learning at work: can procrastination ever be a good thing?

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Emma Sue Prince


Read more from Emma Sue Prince

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