Procrastination: Conquering the Inner Demon

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Do you find yourself waiting until the last minute to finish a critical document? Are meetings often scheduled and announced just in the nick of time? Is the production of your work calendar a quarterly nightmare? If you recognize any of these scenarios, procrastination may be sneaking into your life, stealing valuable time, and eroding your productivity.

Procrastination is the habitual delay in starting a task or seeing it through to conclusion. But is this always a bad thing to do? The word "habitual" is the key. Most of us procrastinate to varying degrees. Occasional delay is no problem on less important tasks when the delay has no harmful effects to you or to others. However, once delay becomes a habit and creeps into all areas of your life, it undermines your ability to function effectively.

The seductiveness of delay

Procrastination is seductive because there are short-term rewards that come from putting things off. When you have too much to do, deciding not to do any of them can reduce the immediate tension and stress you were feeling. There is a natural tendency to avoid unpleasant things. Putting them off (even though you will have to do them later) means, at the very least, that you do not have to face them right now. Plus, if you are lucky, they will go away or someone else will do them.

Procrastinating can also be exciting. It causes crises and the adrenaline rushes that go along with them. Waiting until the last possible minute is similar to pitting yourself against the odds. You are gambling that not only will you win out over stress, fear, hunger, and fatigue, but that the mail will arrive on time, the copier will not break, the other person is not out sick, and that the tire will not go flat as you race to your 8 a.m. meeting. When you make it, you probably feel high and slightly euphoric. These are intense feelings, much more interesting than the quiet, calm satisfaction produced when the project is completed early.

Waiting until the last minute to start a difficult task can also be used as a defense for poor performance. You can always claim that it would have been better had there been more time. It can shield you from the consequences that you expect to occur after the project is completed. For example, not accepting a high visibility special assignment will shield you from the consequences of being in the limelight and possibly failing, or doing well and being offered more challenge than you can handle.

Breaking the cycle

In trying to overcome procrastination, don't decide all at once that you will never do it again. That is like deciding to climb Mount Everest next week without ever having been climbing. Be reasonable and be fair to yourself. Start slowly. Give yourself time to break a habit that has become ingrained and automatic.

For large, complicated or time-consuming projects such as formulating a budget, writing a new procedural manual, organizing a fund-raiser, or learning Chinese, break it into small, manageable parts. Smaller tasks are attractive because they are short, easy, and produce immediate gratification. Keep in mind that all projects, no matter how massive, are only a series of small items reassembled.

Another effective technique is to make a voluntary commitment to someone else. Allowing others to become involved in your efforts by reviewing your progress, helping you set deadlines, or evaluating your results can be very helpful. Often, we are too close to the situation to be objective. Your concerns, fears, and anxieties become secondary to fulfilling the expectations of the people you respect and trust.

Remember to reward yourself for good behavior. Punishing yourself for goofing off is not nearly as effective. Reward yourself at milestones in the process, not just at the completion. Rewards can be anything you like. They can be simple and inexpensive, but they should be things that are important to you. Reading for pleasure, relaxing, playing a game, visiting friends, traveling, going to dinner, and exercising can all be used as rewards. At work, doing the portion of your job that you find enjoyable can be a reward. If you regularly work overtime, go home on time, or take a lunch break instead of eating in a rush at your desk.

When you find yourself blocked and unable to start a task, and you have tried everything else, "think smart" by asking yourself: "Is there anything, no matter how small, that I am willing to do?" When you find that small thing, you are no longer procrastinating.

References

Knaus, Bill, EdD, "Beat the Wheeler and Stop Procrastinating," Psychology Today, March 2, 2011

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