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How to fight procrastination

Whatever you can do today can surely be put off till the day after tomorrow as well … or something like that. Who of us is not familiar with that thought and especially where it concerns something unpleasant, tedious or boring or, to make matters worse, if there are a lot more titillating alternatives begging for our attention. Not a problem if it happens occasionally, just as long as it does not get to be the rule. On the other hand, there are people with whom putting things off has become chronic and in extreme cases manages to mess up their entire life. The technical term for the tendency to continuously postpone things is procrastination; there are folks who actually have to be treated with psychotherapy because they just can’t manage to begin or complete their tasks on time. In those cases writing a dissertation can take years…

With most of us it is fortunately not that serious. Nevertheless, there are totally normal people who tend to procrastinate more than others. Among our personality types those are especially the “spontaneous” (that is to say all Doers, the Analytical Thinker and the Groundbreaking Thinker, as well as the Spontaneous Idealist and the Dream Idealist) who are susceptible to it. That has a lot to do with the fact that they like to reserve their decisions as long as possible in order to cover all their options and also because they would rather start something new than finish something old. Both of it is well understandable and not all that bad – as long as it does not take over. If you notice your spontaneous personality preference beginning to dominate and you are about to lose control with all those available temptations, maybe a few of the following tips are going to help put one over on that little procrastination devil.

1. First of all, you should take the time for a quick self-analysis. Here it is best if you limit yourself to a set period of time (the past four, six or eight weeks are sufficient) and review what you should/wanted to have accomplished and still kept putting off. Or what it was that required that disproportionate amount of motivational energy to make you get it done just on time. Does this show a recognizable pattern? Does your tendency for procrastination affect certain life- and task sectors but does not at all or barely touch others? If the answer is yes, what could be the reason? Based on these results, carefully and honestly examine your objectives and priorities one more time. There may be areas where fundamental changes are necessary because you are no longer satisfied with the present-state. Then it is possible that you obstruct yourself subconsciously so to speak because although you may superficially think: “I should really call Stefan again”, but subconsciously realize that the connection between you has grown so far apart and tentative that it would be more honest to finally end it. Or, you may do a job because it pays the monthly rent although it does not satisfy you. These situations are fertile procrastination hatcheries because this need to procrastinate can also hide a latent rebellion. (How to find a job that really suits your personality? Take our free career test!)

2. Self-discipline and perseverance can be practiced. There is no question that all of us have to put up with certain tasks that are never going to make it into the hit list of human favorites: the tax return (except maybe for tax accountants), the bikini-fit program (except maybe for those who like to exercise anyway), the “as of tomorrow I quit smoking” resolution, the term paper about the lecturer’s deadly boring favorite subject … in cases like these only self-discipline and perseverance will do. And those can be practiced. First of all, here it is important to shed the thought that one morning the sun is going to rise and one is going to be in exactly the right mood and energetic condition to enjoy tackling these tasks voluntarily. Otherwise you may as well wait for the second coming! It is better to trust the sense that doing it may not be all that much fun but the feeling of relief and pride about its accomplishment is going to be plenty compensation! Now: Exactly fix the starting time, realistically estimate the time it will take until it is done and then stick to the plan regardless of inclination or mood. To set it out in writing is best! If it concerns recurring tasks (as for instance something dealing with the household or if you plan to jog) it is a perfect idea to establish a specific date and time (day of the week, time of day) and tenaciously stick to it – note it in the calendar in the same way in which you would post any other appointment and consider this “appointment with yourself” just as obligatory as any other!

3. Calculate obstacles from the outset and prepare a plan “B” for that. If you decide to jog three times a week but know perfectly well that you only enjoy jogging in pleasant weather, it is a given that you are going to stay home at the first rainy opportunity. For this situation, your plan should provide for a rain alternative (an “if-then-scenario”, so to speak), for instance: “If the weather is nice I jog Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays right after work. In the case of rain or snow I go home/to the gym and do half an hour on the cross trainer, instead.” And voila, you already have one excuse less!

4. Realistic and clear objectives and intermediate targets are also important. One can easily incapacitate oneself by setting a target while knowing from the outset that it can’t be reached. This prospect creates a lack of enthusiasm, uses up energy and causes one to capitulate before one has begun. In reality this is just another trick at shirking something unpleasant. It is smarter to divide larger projects (for instance cleaning the basement or that tiresome tax stuff) into smaller parts and then to plan exact timelines for each of them. The more concrete the intermediate targets, the easier they are to reach. Also use the technique of visualizing the positive end results as a motivator: Imagine how fabulous you are going to look after two months of faithful exercising in exactly this incredible new bathing suit! Or, how deeply satisfying it is going to be to dump that shoebox with all those year old tax receipts into the shredder! Small rewards that you give yourself when you have reached the intermediate target are also important: It should always be something that makes you feel good and offers additional motivation. Depending on what it is, feel free to hold the “carrot” in front of your face before you start: Buy that belly top you like so much and hang it somewhere in your field of vision – the sit ups for it are going to be a lot sweeter! Or, put the money you would have used for today’s cigarettes into a piggy bank that you butcher once a month and use for things you would otherwise not have been able to afford. Remember: The target generates the energy!

5. A strict priority management is the perfect antidote to procrastination tendencies. The iron rule states: Even though less important things may be more interesting, important things come first! If you are not sure about differentiating the important from the unimportant, at least in the beginning, go ahead and work with lists. The easiest way: In the morning (or according to the personal bio rhythm in the evening before) make up a to-do-list for every day and sort the listed items according to priority. After that no changes are allowed, just work it off in that sequence! Gradually you’ll get a sense how to organize things and you may not even need that list any longer. (I understand that this is a terrible notion for all our spontaneous personality types – just be aware that YOU are the person sorting these priorities and no one else. And in the final essence with this approach you will have more time for the things you really like to do and not less!)

6. A secret ally of procrastinating is today’s need for constantly being on call to communicate or rather for this incessant “being up to date”. Studies show that already today 30% of all people claim that they can’t imagine life without their mobile phone any longer. Turning off their phone even for a short while creates major discomfort and nervousness. E-mails can cause addiction, as well. Just a quick check … and zip, the morning is gone and those things one was going to do are still undone. A pretty nasty trap because an experiment at the University of Michigan demonstrated that one beautifully outmaneuvers oneself: The experimentees were to compose a report. Half of them were instructed to respond to their e-mail after they were finished while the other half was to take care of that on the side. Those who kept interrupting their work in order to look for newly arrived e-mails needed 50% (!) more time in total for the entire job than those who wrote their report first and then responded to their e-mails. Therefore “one after the other” is a considerably more efficient approach. (By the way, that is something the planning types among our personality types have always known). The answering machine, the incoming mail box and set times for you to respond to your e-mails (most experts suggest not more than 3 times a day) can be very helpful to you for isolating yourself from the rest of the world in order to concentrate on doing those things that must be done. By the way, that is also a great exercise for personal independence! Whoever has to be accessible always and everywhere belongs to the hired help. True luxury means not to be always available.

And if that doesn’t work? Don’t get discouraged! Procrastination is a stubborn pattern that gradually made itself at home with you over a long time. It is understandable that it won’t admit defeat from one day to the next. Just try to think who or what may be able to help you survive this lack of motivation after reversals. Are there things you could do together with others? Some things just work better together. For instance, when a lot has piled up, it can be helpful to secure support for the “initial phase” – for instance a “clearing out” session with friends that can be concluded with a garage sale party or a regular jogging meet with like-minded. And if you experience one that got away, please don’t get mad at yourself! Better to refer to the notes you made during the recent weeks to get a sense of your achievements. (Again, here it is helpful to take the time, make plans and document successes). Check one more time whether your targets may not have been too ambitious or not sufficiently divided or whether you did not schedule sufficient breaks and opportunities to regenerate. You quickly run out of steam if you take on too much!

Remember: It is better to reach your target in three small steps than to break your legs in one big jump!

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