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Overcoming Procrastination

Many people have trouble with procrastination. They delay work that needs to be done, or that they actually want to do, sometimes to the bitter end. While some seem to be more inclined to procrastinate than others, everybody can probably benefit from some motivators and tricks to stay focused on a task and stop delaying.

Not all of them will work equally for everyone and it's by all means not necessary to use them all at once. If you are fighting ongoing procrastination in your life, test what works for you and adapt it to your work and personality.

Understanding the Causes of Procrastination

To effectively deal with your procrastination it's necessary to understand the underlying causes first. Your procrastination might be a simple case of laziness, or it might be part of a bigger problem with your life situation. Psychology has a lot to say about contributing mental issues1), you need to find out what your personal causes are. Ask yourself whether you are feeling guilt or shame in connection with your continuous delaying of necessary work. Do you procrastinate even if the end result might have severe negative effects for you or others? Do feel your procrastination is irrational, but still keep doing it?

Be honest with yourself in this first step and make a list of all the causes, emotions and effects that are connected to your procrastination. Looking over that list, identify what you can and want to change. A lot of this comes down to self-improvement and character development. When you see connected issues that you would like to avoid or remedy, go back to their causes and formulate what exactly you need to do for each. Make a plan to overcome what is holding you back and realize where you want to go with your effort.

Motivation

Think of the Consequences

This might sound obvious, but procrastination always involves a certain willful blindness to the consequences of failure. As the scheduled completion time comes closer this blindness mixes with increasing amounts of fear and even panic. Depending on the consequences of a failure to deliver the procrastinator will either struggle to complete the task just before time runs out or give up altogether and accept the fallout.

The former has some additional side effect: Because the task in question was completed in a much shorter time frame than originally planned the expected outcome in terms of quality shifts, at least for the procrastinator. If the final “product” doesn't meet the expectations, he can brush it off as the result of less time and work put into the project. This is an easy excuse for work that consistently just barely meets expectations. In his mind the procrastinator can always blame his poor time management while his actual work skills remain untarnished. On the other hand if the final work does meet expectations despite the relatively low amount of time put into it, the procrastinator can bathe in his ingenuity and will most likely procrastinate even more on the next project, because he is so good at it that he needs only a fraction of the time other people need. This is a classic case of “it works until it doesn't” and will eventually result in failure.

A good second step to overcome procrastination is thus to imagine the consequences of failing to complete the task. Will it have monetary consequences, is your job in danger or your college grades? Will it have interpersonal consequences, will your significant other hate your guts if you fail? Even if the fallout won't cause hardships, there will probably negative results of some kind, otherwise you would in all likelihood not face a deadline or even procrastinate in the first place. Maybe you are just learning a language, not for school or your job, just for yourself. You have already put some time and effort into that endeavor and failing to keep up with your learning schedule means your previous commitment quickly goes to waste and you will not be fluent in your favorite exotic language anytime soon.

Whatever the negative outcome will be if you fail to do the task, visualize it clearly. Imagine yourself at the point where you are supposed to be done with the work, but have nothing to show for the time you had. How will you feel about that and what will other people (superiors, colleagues, friends, family) think? Now imagine your successful completion of the project and how much better that feels in comparison to failure. Quite often there will be no big displays of appreciation if you do your work, because it's just something that is naturally expected of you, but failing to do those necessities will have undesirable consequences nonetheless. This is especially true for job related work and household chores. Do them and nobody will notice, fail and you are in trouble.

Realize How You Are Feeling While Failing

Make an effort to analyze your emotional state when you are really getting some work done and compare it to your feelings when you are procrastinating, even in the face of dire consequences. When you are wasting time while you should be working, can you even enjoy what you are doing or is the task that still needs to be done nagging you all the time and effectively dragging your supposedly fun time down? Chances are you are feeling much better while actually doing something to achieve your goals.

If you are aware of this contrast, you will ultimately be much more inclined to do your tasks. Let the positive feelings of achieving something empower your resolve to keep working. It doesn't matter whether your are solving the world's most urgent problems or just get the laundry done. Getting work done can invoke a positive attitude, even if only to prevent negative consequences. Make use of every glimpse of forward momentum while you are working by realizing that it materialized specifically because you are getting something done. If you keep pushing forward before exhaustion and yet another procrastination phase set in, you can build up more energy to complete larger parts of your task at a time.

Focus on the Goal

While you are working you might be focusing too much on the working routine itself, but there is most likely some end goal to your work. If you are working to create something specific, then that product will be the crowning of your work. Maybe your are simply working to make money or to go home after work. Those are good goals too. Focus on them and realize that the work you are doing in any given moment is just a part of the way to get there. The goal of a task is the truly important thing about it, the work that needs to be done to achieve it is just a means to an end.

When you shift your attention to the outcome of your labor, it will be much easier to keep going and to stop procrastinating. Realize that every bit of work brings you one step closer to the end.

Just Five Minutes

Actually starting to work on a task is arguably the hardest part. Once you are in full swing it's much easier to keep doing what you have begun. The beginning has in a sense a much higher friction than the later parts of working. You can trick yourself into overcoming that hurdle by starting a task with the set intention of working on it for merely five minutes. Even your most hated task can be worked on for five minutes at a time, right? Don't keep your eyes fixed to the clock when you are doing this, just realize after a short while that just starting was really the hardest part and by breaking that barrier you have gained a certain momentum to keep working past the five minute counter if you choose to do so.

When you do eventually look at the clock and see that you have worked on your task for five minutes or longer, ask yourself if you would rather continue right now, instead of facing the entrance hurdle yet again later on. You know you have to tackle that task eventually anyway and right in that moment, after just a few minutes of work, the hurdle to work on it is probably much lower than it has been during all the time you kept delaying the inevitable work. If you see that, then it makes sense to keep working on it. Use the momentum you have build up and get as much done as you can before it wears out. Not only do you get some work done this way, the next time just starting to work on a task will already feel much easier, because you will remember how much better you felt about continuing rather than starting.

This technique can eventually become self-reinforcing when you practice it regularly. In time you will feel more and more inclined to just work on a task for a couple of minutes, and even if you don't continue to work past that point every time, it will help you to get into the good habit of starting to work instead of perpetually procrastinating.

Accountability

If you are working on something just for yourself, e.g. learning a language or writing a book, tell a friend about it and also tell them when you intend to be done with it or how you expect to progress. This puts some outside pressure on your work ethic and makes you accountable as if it were a job where you have to report to a superior. That might not sound all that attractive, but it will give you a motivation boost to get to work, because sooner or later your friend will ask you about your project and how it is going. On the other hand if you are working in secret nobody will ever know if you failed, this fact alone can be quite demotivating.

Turn it Into a Game

The gamification of work can go a long way towards injecting some fun into unwanted duties. If you are a gamer you know the basic formulas: complete tasks, gain points, achieve highscores, reap the rewards. This schematic can easily be applied to just about any work, you can go the basic route or turn it into an elaborate game with lots of bells and whistles. Just don't put too much time into the gamification process itself or you might end up using it as an excuse to procrastinate before doing the actual work.

Here are some ideas for a quick gamification, adapt and change at your leisure and as fits your task:

Take a piece of paper and write down a couple of levels together with amounts of points (XP) you need to achieve to get that level. Feel free to name the levels in a heroic fashion for additional fun, e.g. Novice Task Juggler 10 XP, Apprentice Task Controller 20 XP, Master Task Slayer 50 XP. Maybe add a little reward for reaching a level, see section Reward Yourself for further inspiration. Now decide how you can distribute XP for doing small parts of your bigger task. If the work requires a series of smaller steps you could apply 1 XP for each and 5 XP for reaching a minor milestone and so on. Alternatively, if the work doesn't lend itself well to compartmentalizing, you could grant 1 XP for every 10 minutes of uninterrupted work and add 5 bonus XP for 30 minutes of continuously slaving away. Adapt the points and the level requirements as necessary and start working heroically! During you adventurous journey through your work make note of your achieved XP from time to time and celebrate the milestones adequately.

Don't worry if you feel a little goofy the first time around, if it helps you to keep working with more motivation, it's worth some goofiness. If you are working with other people and aren't yet ready to openly show your inner goof, you can still do the gamification mentally or with an unassuming check list.

Reward Yourself

Working on something that isn't really joyful in itself can be a long road devoid of enthusiasm. To make up for that, reward yourself for successfully completing a task or defined subtasks.

The reward should be in proportion relative to the amount of work that needs to be done (and of course within the limits of your possibilities). It could be a small treat as simple as a cup of your favorite tea or as elaborate as that exotic vacation you have been dreaming about. If you are giving yourself rewards for parts of a larger task, make sure that they are leading up to a bigger final treat. Rewards that would needlessly delay the completion of your work should naturally be at the final finishing line. For example you could reward yourself with small snacks for each completed step of your task, but hold off watching that new movie until you are done with the whole project.

Other possible rewards could be playing a short game after a predefined amount of work or maybe reading some pages of a good book. Things that completely take your mind off the work that needs to be done can have a pronounced refreshing effect. Just be careful to strictly limit the time of these breaks or they will contribute to your procrastination when they were meant to stimulate more work. To remind yourself to go back to work, you can set an alarm and promise yourself to stop your break when it goes off. See also “Pomodoro Technique” below.

You should be steadfast with yourself and only grant you the reward if and when you really have done the required work. If you are cheating, you are only betraying yourself and the whole idea of stimulating work will crumble before you have even begun.

Improve Your Work Environment

Ban the Distractors

Social media and the internet at large: They are best friends with your adversary procrastination and thus your worst enemies. The web and social platforms specifically are a virtually endless stream of cheap news stimuli for the mind. It's easy to get lost in it and spend hours clicking from one item to the next to get a brief giggle out of one and share another to see if you can solicit some likes or comments. That's an empty activity though, it doesn't end and you will never really reach a point of saturation, because there is no goal in this kind of information sharing other than self-indulgence. If you realize you are spending a lot of time with this, when you should actually be productive, it's a wise measure to cut them out for a while.

There are basically two ways to do this: You can rely on your resolve to stay away from the endless media streams. If you are determined enough and not too deep into the social media addiction this can work. Just staying away is especially hard though if you need to work on a computer by necessity of the task and the fresh news stream is always just one click away. The other method is to unplug yourself. Go to a place where you have no access to the internet or disconnect your computer while you need to work with it. When the social media stream is suddenly cut off, you will often find that you really have nothing else to do other than working on your task. Once you have realized that, get to work right away and use the momentum of that insight.

It can also be advantageous to turn your phone off for a while. Even if it doesn't actually ring and you are not expecting a call, there can be an awareness feeling that it might ring any moment. If you belong to the group of people who are very particular about keeping their phone nearby at all times, this might be a good training for you.

Do it with Music

Listening to music while you are working serves a twofold purpose: it lifts your mood and blocks ambient distractions. Listening with headphones is especially effective, because you can't hear much else and are completely surrounded by the music. So next time you find yourself easily distracted by your environment, put on a playlist with some tunes you can work with and let the music drown out the world around you.

It's highly subjective which kind of music works best for concentrated working, just try different musical styles until you find something that helps you focus on your task without pushing itself into the center of your attention. If you find music with vocals too distracting, try some instrumental music, for example classical music or ambient lounge. If that death metal symphony works for you though, don't hesitate to put it on rotation.

An alternative to using music is listening to white noise with headphones. This blocks ambient noise very effectively too, without introducing distracting qualities of its own. It can fatigue the hearing after a while though, better don't practice this for longer stretches without breaks.

Get Comfortable

If your work requires you to sit, make sure you are sitting very comfortably and in an ergonomic position. When something is irking you all the time, even if it's just a minor bump on your seat, you will get more easily distracted and the seduction of procrastination will kick in more easily. If you need to walk around or stand for long periods, at least make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes to take some load off your feet.

Organization

Keep Track of Your Work

Even the if the task you are doing (or not doing) is not overly complex, it can be beneficial to keep a record of the things you have already done and the items that still need to be done. This works even better if you can somehow quantify each performed part with clear numbers. That gives the performance record a much more satisfying quality and you can add up all the numbers in the end to have a memorable figure of the work you did, which will further incentivize actually working on the task or even coax you into doing a little more to get a higher total number (this ties into Turn it into a Game and “The Kanban Method”).

For example if you a need to write a larger piece, record how many words you have written in every continuous sitting. Then try to get a higher count after the break and so on. Beating your own highscores can be really motivating and might give you that little extra to overcome your procrastination tendencies.

For the record keeping you can either go the pen and paper route or use a spreadsheet program like Calc or Excel. The spreadsheet way has the big advantage that it allows for easy presentation of further statistics. Want to know how much you are doing on average and how much faster you need to work to still complete the task before a given date? No problem with the right table layout and some simple formulas. Wrapping the stats in some nice graphs can also motivate to keep going, just don't procrastinate the real task by fiddling too much with the spreadsheet, it's just the tool.

Subdivide

“Divide et impera.” -Latin phrase used (not only) by Julius Caesar.

When you have a bigger task to accomplish, it's not unlikely that you will find it daunting and will look at the whole project with a certain dread. The end might be far away and the work to get there staggering. In its entirety a task can be a truly overwhelming thing.

For those reasons it is often beneficial to subdivide larger tasks into smaller ones. Since each subtask is then a goal in itself, the next finishing line doesn't seem as far away as it does with a large singular project. Some tasks naturally lend themselves quite well to division, while others might need some creative thinking or, if all else fails, you can always artificially break them into smaller units, even if they don't make much sense per se.

For example if you want to thoroughly clean your house/apartment an obvious solution is to make each room an individual task. Depending on the size of the rooms and their state of cleanliness you can also create tasks for certain areas in each room. Maybe your hobby has created quite the mess in a corner of your living room, then it can have its own subtask, while the rest of the room is another.

Dividing a task into smaller units works best if the subtasks can be performed independently from each other. In that case you can start wherever you want and do them in any order or even work on each a little before going to the next. Projects where some or all steps are interlinked in a way that requires one task to be completed before another can be tackled are most likely better handled in a rather linear fashion. Linear tasks might have parts that are more burdensome than other, if that is the case try to power through the hard stretches before you fall back into delaying the work. The work will be much easier to pick up again when the next task to be done is one of the easier parts.

Juggle Tasks

Often you will have more than one task that needs to be done at a time. Switch between them when you get tired or choose to work on the one that you dread slightly less when you are still deep in the procrastination phase.

The switching gives you a kind of break, even if you are actually still working. The key is to avoid getting tired from a single task and to prevent sliding into prolonged procrastination because you are fatigued from working too long on the same project. When you move to work on another task, that needs to be done anyway too, you can avoid getting burned out without losing time.

The other task you are switching to might be somewhat less important, so even if it needs to be done there isn't that much pressure to complete it as with your primary task. This gives you the opportunity to work with more ease on something and take a mental break from your high pressure task while you are still working on your overall schedule. For example you might need to write an important report that is due soon, but you also need to clean your home, because you are expecting visitors tomorrow. The report might be much more urgent, but switching to the cleaning task from time to time might help you relax your mind since cleaning is mostly a mechanical ordeal that doesn't require much thinking. This way your higher brain functions can lean back for a while and you still get work done.

Even if you need to work on two relatively similar tasks, switching between them occasionally might help to keep going, because you can explore a slightly different direction in the other or maybe you can work on one with a different technique. It's all about getting some variety into the monotony, since doing one and the same thing for prolonged amounts of time leads to fatigue and procrastination all too easily.

When you have not yet begun working or are already in a procrastination state of mind, try to start working with the intention to switch to another task after a fixed amount of time. This can take your mind off the idea that the task at hand is seemingly endless.

The Kanban Method

Kanban is a time management system that was originally invented by the Japanese automotive industry to optimize the logistics flow during production. In a simplified form this system can be very useful for organizations and individuals to manage their work when multiple tasks need to be worked on.

A basic and yet effective way to implement Kanban is to use a board with three columns: to-do, in progress, done. Now write your tasks individually on sticky notes and put them in the right column on the board. The to-do column lets you see all the tasks that are still ahead of you, while the progress columns helps you to focus on the tasks that you have already started. Under most circumstances it's a good idea to keep the currently active tasks below a certain figure, otherwise you are spreading you time and capacity too thin. The done column gives you bragging rights for all the things you have already accomplished. Don't underestimate this last column, it's important to see what you have done to get a better idea about you overall progress.

If you want to prioritize your tasks, you can just move the sticky notes up and down in each column. Notes in different colors can be used to categorize your tasks, e.g. you could use one color for job related tasks and another for personal projects.

The Kanban system can of course also be implemented the digital way. Have a look at My Personal Kanban, it's a free and simple solution that resides completely within an HTML page, all data is stored locally within your browser, but it also offers cloud synchronization.

Pomodoro Technique

The Pomodoro Technique is a simple timeboxing method that helps to focus on a task and staying away from distractions. The idea is to use a kitchen timer, shaped like a tomato if you want to stay true to the original method, to meter a 25 minute period, called a pomodoro. During those 25 minutes you work on your task with full force and don't allow any distractions. When the timer rings, you take a 5 minute break and then start the next period. After four successful pomodoros you take a longer break of about 20 minutes. Power through each working period with full force, be sure not to lose steam towards the end, this is a race against your inner procrastinator.

Likewise, don't skip the breaks, they are needed to recharge your energy for the next pomodoro. You can for example do some light exercises during the break, get a fresh cup of coffee, or read some news snippets if you like. The important part is that you take a moment off your work, but don't forget to keep it short. If you get easily distracted, set a timer for the break duration too.

Also essential to this method is that you keep track of your tasks and the number of pomodoros you have already completed. Before you start write on a piece of paper what you intent to do and note how many 25 minute slices you expect to need to get it done. Make a mark after every completed pomodoro and compare your schedule with the projection. It's suggested to keep this technique decidedly low-tech with pen, paper and a classic kitchen timer that makes ticking sounds. The ticking in particular helps to focus on the task, it's like a metronome that reminds you every moment to work and to ignore distractions. Since a period of 25 minutes is not overly long, it's easy to stay fully focused during a pomodoro. You know there is an end in sight, where you get a little break from your work. If you plan to work for hours on end there is seemingly no end to it and it's much easier to despair and lose focus.

While a real kitchen timer it the preferred tool for the Pomodoro Technique, there are lots of desktop and mobile apps available. Alternatively you can try this website: tomato.es, it even has an optional ticking sound and shows the timer in the tab title.

How To


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