Is tomorrow Your Busiest Day? 4 Tips for Procrastinators

I am writing this perilously close to my deadline. I’m Feeling focused but twitchy. I’m worried I won’t be able to do it. Too little time. If I do manage to do it, will it be good enough? I haven’t left myself enough time.

All week, I have been obstinately committed to relieving momentary discomfort: to procrastinating. Now I am starting. I have had to give up the desire to do something more immediately gratifying and wrestle with the disquieting feeling that this may not be up to scratch. These are the two bedfellows of procrastination: a challenging task snuggled up to uncertainty about outcome.

Lets take a closer look…

Procrastination requires that we substitute a high-priority task with a low-priority one: the result is the immediate alleviation of discomfort.

Lets look first at the discomfort of the challenging task. It may be that it will require extended focus. It may stretch us out of our comfort zone. It may be boring, frustrating, anxiety provoking. But with one swift (and often impulsive) decision, I’ve gone to make a sandwich and these unpalatable feelings have dissolved.

Now, lets look at uncertainty of outcome.

Uncertainty brings us into direct contact with anxiety. And in this state we dwell on our what might go wrong. ‘I might not do it well enough’ is a big one here. It links to our inner perfectionist.

Perfectionist tendencies and compromised confidence conspire to keep us in a state of delay. But so does the anxiety of success. What if you do it really well and you are asked to do it again? Will you be able to do it so well next time? One quick switch to Facebook and the anxiety is gone.

The paradox is that, although we think that by delaying a certain task we alleviate inconvenience and displeasure (and in the moment it does), what we are really doing is signing up to the low-level persistent muttering of a guilty conscience. Comfort is repeatedly disrupted. Putting things off is a peculiar form of sabotage.

This is the core of procrastination: we all know it’s only a delay and a delay with costs. But are there any benefits?

It’s important to distinguish between active and passive procrastination. Maybe the adrenalin rush of putting your task off until the last minute increases your productivity and justifies the delay? Maybe the time of waiting is a creative gestation period that enhances your output? Maybe tasks such as clipping your toenails or sharpening your pencils would not get done without the dreaded prospect of your tax return.

But beware: these benefits can all be used to justify passive procrastination. You know the one. Where putting off the task is just putting of the task because you want it… or the troublesome feelings… to go away.

A word on expectation management here: don’t try and get rid of this bewitching irrationality. As the saying goes, what you resist only persists. However, where you see it as being problematic, try to address it by acting other than you would ordinarily.  Give yourself the chance to feel the satisfaction of completion and banish, for the time being, that shameful whisper in your ear which goes ‘I haven’t done it yet’.

Here are my four tips for tackling those persistent and problematic procrastinations:

1. Tell someone you’re going to do it. Procrastination is often a private pursuit. Make it public. And honour your word.

2. Break the task down either into small time capsules or into small steps. Five minutes on the undesirable enterprise followed by five hours of blissful delay. 

3. Be mindful of the costs. If you recognize that you will spend the next five days persecuting yourself for not taking action, do it now for the promise of five days of peace. 

4. Reward yourself. Pair the execution of the undesired activity with a desired reward. And in time the probability of repeating that behaviour will increase.

If you want to know more about your own particular procrastination style have a look at this