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Once our English teacher gave us an assignment in February and told to present it to her later in April. Teams were formed and we opened a messenger group to communicate. February went, March went and finally April came. However, we didn’t even open the group chat after forming it back then. At last, the night before the presentation came. All of us put an all-nighter to finish off the work. Needless to say, the next day was a disaster.
If you relate to such events be it for class presentations or work deadlines (which I often do while writing blogs) or even doing a simple house chore, you are not alone. This avoidance of work till the eleventh hour or “Procrastination” is an inborn human trait. According to researcher and speaker Piers Steel, 95 percent of human beings procrastinate to some degree. We might be able to get away once or twice but often, a moment comes when we say, “Wish I did it earlier.”
However, we can easily put a stop to procrastination. In this article, get to know about procrastination, why we humans procrastinate and how to avoid procrastinating in 9 simple ways.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing an action. Simply put, you are acting to delay another action. Since times immemorial, humans have been procrastinating for various reasons. Be it for small petty reasons like sorting out files or washing the dishes or for important reasons like updating our CV, completing the school assignment, we are all fallible to procrastination. So common and natural is procrastination, there are tons of quotes and memes on it!
Even Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle had a term in their days known as “Akrasia”. Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgment. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Akrasia was the then equivalent of modern “procrastination.”
Why do people procrastinate?
Suppose, you have an assignment next week. It isn’t that hard but you know you should start working on it. Here’s what happens:
- Unhappy feeling: “The assignment’s next week. I guess I should start today. But should I start? No one has started it yet. Plus, what if I am wrong? It’s too risky. The assignment has a lot of marks for this semester but the semester has just started. Why fret now?”
- Thought of a happy alternative: Then you see it’s the time for the match of your favorite team to begin on TV. “Look! The match has started. It is a very important game. My team’s playing against this very good opponent. I must watch it. Screw the assignment. I can do it later. This match’s a one in a million event.”
- Reward: “Glad that I have watched the match. My team has won! Must write a post on my Facebook account.”
The main reason we delay doing something is that we tend to seek immediate rewards and try to avoid immediate costs. Who doesn’t want to watch a football game of his/her favorite team that is happening now rather than working on an assignment that he/she have plenty of time to submit? Known as “Immediate Gratification”, such bias forces humans to make decisions with instant rewards.
Another reason we procrastinate is that we prefer avoiding risks. It’s not our fault in its entirety. Risk avoidance was a survival mechanism for early humans in order to survive. Their trait has flown down to us along our genes and thus we try to avoid risks. Here, fear also works as fear of failure in a task can lead to one losing his money, his prestige or either his life. The fear for missing out an important match can thus make you skip your assignment for the football match.
Effects of procrastination
Procrastinating comes with its toll on human lives. There’s an exam due next month. There’s enough time to study. So why not chill for the moment? But as we avoid studying, we pile up enough lessons that must be covered. Four weeks, three weeks, two weeks, one week, five days, two days and finally one day before the exam! We finally open the book. “Wait, there’s like twenty chapters! How do I finish this?” We start reading but our minds are also filled with anxiety whether you can finish the book or not.
In addition to anxiety, procrastination comes with more harms like sleep deprivation, career underperformance, fatigue and work overload. Some people may develop chronic procrastination which can undermine one’s daily activities.
How to stop procrastinating?
Here are 9 simple ways following which you can stop postponing works and get on your feet.
Set a to-do list
“The Maths teacher has given an assignment for next week which requires a good amount of time. The English teacher has also given a homework for tomorrow. There’s also this History teacher who might give a surprise quiz this week for which I must study. I also promised Mother to help her in her bake sale happening this weekend.”- You might be overwhelmed thinking about this huge load of tasks. You don’t know what to do first and what to do later. Such confusion will lead you to not doing any work at all!
The last two sentences are important. When you write down what you need to do the next day right before you go to sleep, your brain will work on how to achieve the task. You will wake up the next day with an “Eureka!” like solution to your task. Moreover, writing it down on something will lessen the load on your brain and it can concentrate on how to solve the task rather than finding out what the task was. In addition, after completing the task when you cross out the task, there is a sense of accomplishment associated.
Cut holes in your project
You have finally made a to-do list. You decide to work on the Math Assignment tomorrow. The next day, you start. You open the book and find on the assignment there’s Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry and Calculus. To make it worse, there’s like three chapters in each of them. At this stage, you might get dizzy seeing the great amount of work you need to finish.
Therefore, it is important for you to cut holes in your project. Divide your work into small, specific and achievable tasks. This will make it easier for you to work on your tasks. Set a specific time for each task. Make sure it is realistic- you will be able to finish it within the given time.
For example, you might assign morning for algebra, afternoon for geometry and evening for calculus. You might then assign trigonometry for the next day.
Don’t know how much you can endure? Experiment. See how long it takes to complete a task. Do you finish it early or late? After initial experiment, you can specify appropriate times for each task.
Eat your frogs first
No! It’s nothing literal. But it has something to do to beat procrastination. Mark Twain suggested that if the first thing you do in the morning is to eat a frog (meaning to perform the most challenging task) then, any other tasks that follow for the day will seem less distressing.
Accomplishing a hard task will give a sense of reward that you can do anything. If you start on an easy task, you might be initially satisfied at first. But when you come to the hard task, you will feel bad about yourself thinking you cannot do anything. Also, you start with the most energy at first, so why not invest most of your energy in the task that you find the most painstaking?
Just do it!
It’s no Nike commercial but when you know you should be doing something, start doing that thing. That is because when you think of doing that thing, the urge to do that thing is the greatest. So you have the greatest motivation then. But as time goes on, the urge to do that thing fades away. As a result you procrastinate. Kevin Systrom, CEO of Instagram rightly said, “If you don’t want to do something, make a deal with yourself to do at least five minutes of it. After five minutes, you’ll end up doing the whole thing.”
In this regard, you can follow the five-second rule. This has been developed by motivational coach Mel Robbins. According to her, when there is a urge to do something, count upto five and start doing the work. If you delay, your urge to work will subside.
The five-second rule can also help you manage anger when you are embroiled in a heated argument. Check out my post on arguments and you can see how you can control your emotions in an argument.
Concentrate on the process, not the product
You aim to learn French. You work on the process of how you are going to learn French. You then imagine speaking French and impressing everyone with it. This is your future-self talking. But then you go upto the task of learning French, your present-self would hold you back. It’s a long and hard process. There’s like masculine and feminine form for every word. Then there are conjugations. You feel overwhelmed and call it quit. The cycle continues. One day you imagine you are proficient in French, the next day you quit. And at the end of the day, you regret your choices.
In such cases, the best thing to do is not to concentrate on the result but on the process. Think about the work you are doing. Do not think about the result. Because, when you indulge yourself in thinking about the result, you forget to do the work. And after having sweet thoughts of success, you enter the bitter world of reality, you procrastinate. So stop thinking about results and concentrate on the process.
One way to concentrate on processes is through the Pomodoro technique. The technique is about using a timer to break down a large work into small, executable simple tasks. Set up the timer and work on your task for twenty five minutes. After finishing twenty five minutes, give yourself a ten minutes break. Then repeat. After four such “Pomodoro” sessions (i.e. working for twenty five minutes followed by a ten minutes break and repeating the process four times), take a longer break (Half an hour at least). Following Pomodoro technique will help you concentrate on the task. You will be thinking about working on the task for twenty five minutes. You won’t need to think about ending it within one session. You reward yourself with a small break even. (You will get to know about the benefits of rewards in a later step) Find out more about Pomodoro here.
Sometimes, you will like doing your work. In that case, you can extend your “Pomodoro session” to more than twenty five minutes. Sometimes, you will finish the task before the session ends. Sometimes, you will not feel like doing. You can skip a day or two in such situations.
Imagine you want to shed ten pounds. You write on Facebook that you want to lose weight by the end of the month. But in reality, you say to yourself, “I’ll do it later.” Later, later and finally the next month arrives with you losing not a single pound. You visit your friend and they tell you, “You told you were going to lose weight. You didn’t lose anything.”
Such instances can be really embarrassing. You will be passed off as a show-off to your friends. You really don’t want that, do you?
Research has shown it matters greatly to us whether we’re respected by others, even strangers. Therefore, you should commit publicly. Write a post on your Facebook wall about your commitment or write it on a piece of paper and hang it in your room’s wall or put the writing as your phone’s wallpaper. This way, people will get to know what you are going to do and will keep you accountable. The best you can do is involve someone in your task. Working out? Go over to the gym with your friend. Learning French? Study with your friend. Planning a diet? Plan with your friend. This way you can keep yourself accountable and enjoy the company of someone.
You’re going to study for your finals that is going to be held next week. But you are also a social butterfly and your phone’s constantly notifying you of the likes you received, the messages you got and the comments you wanted. One small peek into your phone results in an hour of indulgence. And you waste one hour not studying and lagging behind.
Remove all your distractions. Place your phone where you won’t be able to reach them while you study. If having a computer in your room distracts you, shift it somewhere else. My brother would have difficulties having a computer right in front where he studied. So he shifted it to another room. If your study room is in a place where there is a lot of noise, go somewhere silent. Avoid distraction at all costs.
Congratulations! You have finally completed your task on time. You haven’t procrastinated. Now it is time to reward yourself. Why? Rewarding yourself after you completed something will reinforce the habit and you are likely to beat procrastinating. Here’s a real life example taken from the book “Steve Jobs” by Walter Issacson:
When Steve Jobs was in elementary school, he would get bored with his lessons. In fourth grade, his teacher Imogene Hill saw this and took action. She would give Jobs a workbook containing math problems in it. She promised to give him a lollipop if he returned her the workbook with mostly correct answers. This made Jobs enjoy learning and later he would do the work without anything in return.
So you see, reward can really reinforce a habit. So if you can beat procrastination once, reward yourself. If you follow the “Pomodoro” technique, you reward yourself with a break. There is another way you can reward yourself. It is called “Temptation bundling”.
Temptation bundling is a concept that came out of behavioral economics research performed by Katy Milkman at The University of Pennsylvania. The strategy suggests that you bundle a behavior that is good for you in the long-run with a behavior that feels good in the short-run. That is, you say to yourself: Only do [thing you love] if you do [ thing you procrastinate on ].
Examples can be: Only chat with my friend if I finish doing the homework. Only go to the movies if I complete the workout. Find out more about temptation bundling here.
“To err is to human, to forgive is to divine.” Many a times, you might not be able to avoid procrastination. You will fall into this evil. But it is natural for you to do so. Don’t worry! Don’t feel bad for yourself. See where you made the mistake. Forgive yourself. Studies have shown self-forgiveness can help one develop a positive image of oneself and can prevent further procrastination.
“I’ll do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow comes and we say to ourselves again, “I’ll do it tomorrow.” Day goes by and tomorrow comes but we don’t do anything. Finally, the time comes and we regret doing nothing. Procrastination thus hinders our ability to work. So next time you get the urge to do something later, follow the steps mentioned above and make the best of you. As Abraham Lincoln famously said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.”
This article’s audiobook is read by Rafsan Lazim
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