in Patna, India
Dr Pauldy Otermans
Chair & Principal, Otermans Institute
Lecturer (Education), Brunel University London
Deputy Chair GU, University of Cambridge
We all know that feeling – we have to do a certain task, whether it is starting the task, finishing it or just somewhere in the middle, but we keep postponing it and thinking: “Oh I am not really in the mood now to do that, I can do that tomorrow.” We keep telling ourselves and almost promising ourselves that tomorrow we will finish that task. Now I don’t know about you, but a lot of us don’t just postpone the task till tomorrow, we postpone it for much longer. This behaviour is called procrastination.
According to us at Otermans Institute, this happens when you avoid doing a task that needs to be accomplished within a certain deadline. Some people even take this one step further and for them this is a habitual delay of starting or finishing a task despite knowing that this would have negative consequences. In a way, procrastinating is normal; we all do it from time to time. It is important however, to avoid turning procrastinating behaviour into a habit. For that, it is paramount to know and identify why you put off a task which you know will be worth doing in the end or not doing it will produce a negative impact. This lesson will address some reasons for procrastination and provide useful tips on how to avoid or minimise procrastination in your daily life.
Two essentials things:
1. Be kind to yourself: Sure you are procrastinating, but hey you are also reading this which shows you want to do something about it. That’s step 1. And yes if you wouldn't procrastinate you would get more work done, you might be better at your task etc, but we are all human and procrastinating is part of life and our inbuilt systems. Some say that while procrastinating the best ideas come to our minds. So don't beat yourself up over it. Embrace yourself for who you are, including your procrastination. Be nice to yourself even if you did not do what you wanted to do today, you are working on it and every step counts.
2. Keep trying: Sometimes no matter how much you try to force yourself to complete the task at hand, it simply doesn’t work. That’s ok. Take a break, get some distance, and come back to it later. Always come back. If you give up for the moment, do it with the promise to yourself that you will give it another try at a specific time in the very near future and do stick to that time.
Some people say that procrastination is the same as laziness, but these two terms are actually quite different. The definition of procrastination is to “Delay or postpone action; put off doing something." Procrastination is an active process: You choose to do something else instead of that task that you know you should be doing. On the other hand, laziness is about being unwilling to work or unwilling to use energy. It is about inactivity and the crucial difference is the “unwillingness to act”. Procrastination usually involves ignoring an unpleasant task, but probably a more important task, in favour of one that is either easier or more enjoyable. Although the two might sometimes come close together as some of the reasons to procrastinate might result in “actively not doing anything”. So next time you procrastinate, remember this difference.
There are multiple reasons to why you procrastinate. We have summed up some common ones here:
1. The task you want to do is:
a. Too boring: What you need to do is not really challenging you.
b. Too much work: especially if it is a long term project it might seem that if you start, there will never be an end to it.
c. Overwhelming: It seems unreachable what you want to do, so it is hard to do it.
d. Difficult to start: You are unable to find a clear starting point, it is vague.
e. Has no clear endpoint: There is no real deadline so there is no urgency to completing the task.
2. Your attitude towards the task involves:
a. Being a perfectionist: Working on a task that isn’t yet perfect puts you off but takes too much time.
b. A fear of failure: Better to not do the task than to risk failing at it.
c. A negative mindset: You feel low in energy, having a bad mood and generally a lack of motivation for the task at hand.
d. Unfocused: You can’t seem to focus on the task at hand.
e. Not having time: There are at least a 1000 other things that you need to do, and you cannot seem to be able to find the time for this one.
f. Over thinking the task: because if you do this task this way, then that will happen which will lead to another thing, and yet another and another, and before you know it your mind has run off, leaving no chance to get back to the task you wanted to do.
3. Your environment is:
a) The place of work: when same as where you want to relax or not your usual place of work. This is something that can affect us even more in the current 'lockdown' as you are being at home instead of at your office.
b) Distractions: by being surrounded with many easy small tasks that can be done first.
c) External factors: providing a lot of distraction very quickly and very often like your children spending more time at home because schools are closed due to the pandemic.
d) Demanding: For instance household tasks seem more urgent than your actual work”
Whilst this is a point based list, most of the times multiple reasons overlap but they all lead to the same behaviour of putting your task off. Each reason might need a different approach, so below we look at them more specifically and give some tips on how to get your journey to minimise procrastination in your life started. However at first, we will discuss a general approach towards procrastination.
The first step is to acknowledge your procrastinative behaviour. For many of us, especially now during the lockdown, this includes doing household chores when you actually need to focus on studying or work. Once you understand that you are procrastinating, it is time to address that as well as to understand your reasons for it. This helps to avoid similar behaviours in the future. How to deal with procrastination can be linked to good time management skills which you can find in our previous lesson. For this lesson here are the key points:
1) Recognise that you are procrastinating and accept that it is part of you (be kind to yourself): Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past. There is no magical antidote to undo it, and that is fine.
2) Work out WHY you are procrastinating . You should see and apply ‘Know your reasons’ from the excercises section below.
3) Work out WHEN you are procrastinating: You should see and apply ‘Know your habits’ from the exercises section below.
4) Use a strategy that works for you to avoid procrastinating: Focus on doing and keep trying. Evaluate what works and what doesn’t.
1) General strategies:
● Focus on doing, not avoiding.
● Promise yourself a reward when you have completed the task at hand in a satisfied manner.
● Ask someone to check up on you: Inform someone you can trust that you need to work on a particular task and ask them to check up on you regularly. This will avoid that you will start doing other things. You do not want to look bad in front of your friend.
● Minimise distractions: Close your social media accounts and tell your family members that you need to focus on something for a certain amount of time so that you don’t get disturbed and distracted by them during that time.
● Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past: There is no point blaming yourself for past procrastination - think positive and think ahead!
● Get the elephant out of the way: Start your day with working on an unpleasant task to get that out of the way.
● Use Eisenhower matrix (urgent/importance) – see lesson on time management.
● Tackle the most difficult tasks during your prime time – see time management.
● Set yourself time-bound targets.
● Keep a to-do-list - see time management.
● Determine your prime time and schedule-in some procrastination time: For me, I am most productive in the mornings, so in the afternoon I am most prone to procrastination.
Thus, I try to plan my work as much as possible in the morning and in the afternoon when I know I will be looking for procrastination, I plan my trips to the grocery store or try to do my sports. Like this, I allow myself to procrastinate and this helps me to keep focused in the morning.
2) Strategy for an overwhelming task:
There is this unclear, undefined big project in front of you. It looks like a mountain you have to climb and you can’t even see the top. Also, it seems that all you got given as equipment are flip-flops, not exactly mountain gear. Insight of overwhelment, it becomes easy to ignore the task you set out to do and get distracted by easier tasks. Yet, the best thing to do is to start the climb, even with flip-flops you can make some meters.
Some tips are as follows:
● Call up a friend/colleague and discuss the task. This will clear the fog in your head and a path might appear.
● Figure out what equipment you need, what are the minor steps that you can already take now.
● Don’t get distracted by first trying to get all the right gear without taking a simple step. Sure, preparation is important, but so is beginning to attack the challenge.
3) Strategy for too much work:
No matter how well you manage your time and how much you try to cut out procrastination, there is a thing as too much work. A day only has an X amount of hours in it and we also need time for our leisure and sleep to stay healthy(both physically and mentally). So, the best way out of too much work is to delegate if possible and say no otherwise when you are asked to do a certain task.
4) Strategy for changing your attitude:
When trying to change how you think and approach a task, try to keep a positive mindset. Be kind to yourself. Think and care about what you want to achieve and what you can influence; the rest is out of your hands and thus other people’s concerns.
● Remind yourself: “I do it for me”.
● Keep the end goal in mind and think about the positive effect completing the task will have.
● Use positive experiences from your past to remember how good it can be to work on a task.
● Keep trying, it will be worth it for you.
● Give yourself credits for the small steps you take.
5) Strategy for working from home:
We at Otermans Institute believe that there needs to be a distinction here between tasks you do because you don’t want to work or those you do because you are on a break from work. Now that homes are turning into offices, it can be easy to see anything that is not “sitting behind your desk” as procrastination. However, also at the office we take walks to the coffee machine, the printer, you organise your desk, re-organise the paperwork or chat with your colleague for a few minutes. These little breaks are necessary to keep you working and are a welcome distraction from working with your mind into doing something with your hands. Normally, they would involve little office tasks, yet now that we are at home, these habits can translate into doing little things around the house. The difference with procrastination is that they always bring you back to your work. The focus is on getting back to work refreshed, not on not working at all. That being said, here are some tips:
● Tell your friends/family you are going to work and when you will be back from it to spend time with them.
● Make a dedicated workplace. This can be a desk, or a separate room. Only go there when you need to work, relax somewhere else. Keep that place tidy and ready to work.
● Schedule time in for house chores and only do them in the time slot you have given.
● Working from home is different from working in the office, and that is okay, don’t expect yourself to be working at the same pace.
1) Know your reasons:
Read through the list of reasons and write down for the current task what you think are your most important reasons.
What is it about the task that makes you procrastinate here?
What is it about your attitude that makes your procrastinate here?
What is it about the environment that makes your procrastinate here?
2) Know your habits:
For a few days put a piece of paper next to your workplace. Every time you notice you are procrastinating write down the following:
a. The actual time of the day.
b. What you are procrastinating from, i.e. the task.
c. What you are doing as a procrastination, e.g. cleaning house, other small task. In other words, what is the side chore?
d. Duration: How long does the procrastination take?
e. The trigger: What started the procrastination?
f. The reason: Why do you think you are procrastinating?
After a few days, take a look at your answers and try to see if you find a pattern. A pattern in time: Is it that you always procrastinate around lunch time? Then schedule your break then. See also the tips regarding time management. A pattern in what you procrastinate from: Is it always the same task that you are avoiding? Then get the elephant out of the way. Are you always procrastinating using the same side chore? Then schedule in some time in which you are.
Family: Share your reasons and habits with your family and discuss them.
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