I guess most of us have things that we don’t like doing, so we are all guilty of procrastinating on occasion. However, for some of us it is a big problem with us needing no excuse to find a distraction from what should be the task in hand. In these days of mobile phones, emails, social media etc, there are many things far too readily available to pop up as our excuse for task avoidance/task evasion.
For the majority of us, by simply making a task more pleasant, we are probably able to get on with it. I hate ironing. I have it down to a minimum, but even so the thought of getting out the board, filling the steam iron … and I would readily pick up the lap top. However, as Mary Poppins said, a little bit of sugar helps the medicine go down. I set up the iron in front of the television or put my phone onto speaker to have a catch up natter with friends. ‘Doable’ as neither of my supporting tasks require too much attention being taken away from the ‘primary’ task. This stops me reaching the stage of having to grab the iron before I go out and really want to wear the top that is lurking at the bottom of a huge pile of ironing waiting to be done. I always vowed that I would never let that happen and to date, it hasn’t, so my strategy appears to be working.
For others, procrastination is a habit that has become deeply engrained. It may begin first thing in the morning when we switch on the snooze button to avoid the task of facing the day and all it holds for us. Again, probably something that we are all guilty of on occasion especially if the rain is lashing against the window and we are wonderfully snug and cosy in bed! It’s if it becomes a regular habit and begins to dominate our early mornings that it becomes problematic, or maybe you simply prefer to wake up more slowly in the morning and the first alarm ring was a gradual lifting from the arms of Morpheus? Or is that an excuse?
The first step towards breaking the habit, as with any other habit, is to realise that this is what you do. When do you do it - if the task is perceived as too long, too difficult, too boring or nasty, not sufficiently interesting, not sufficiently important. Maybe you have other reasons that you give to yourself. Some will argue that it puts pressure on to complete the task and that this pressure helps them. I see this as an excuse as who needs more pressure in a world that seems to fling it at us from all directions?
If the task is too long – take breaks.
If the task is a brain orientated one, we really need to take a break as, no matter how clever you may think you are, brains do require re-charging time. Get away from the computer, the books and have a cuppa or go for a short walk, use some Mindfulness. You might find that once you aren’t so tightly focused that you can use this as thinking time and ideas, solutions that had earlier been evading you come winging in – great when you have a kerching moment! If you insist on ploughing through, unless you have hit the becoming totally absorbed in the task feeling, then your brain will wander. Yes, your eyes may reach the bottom of the page, but has your brain been keeping pace?
If the task is a physical one, you may need a body break – a short sit down to rest with a cuppa? There is a difference between knowing when you have had enough and giving up. Learn to recognise which is the reason driving your need for a break. I find that as I have got older, I am not as able to work for extended periods at physical tasks, so in order to avoid too many tea breaks (and resultant loo breaks!), I have other tasks that do not have such great demands. For example, I will plan to spend a set amount of time sawing wood for my wood stove, then take a break to dead head in the garden or water the hanging baskets. I can then return to the sawing with renewed vigour and enthusiasm! I make a list of these jobs – I love lists – but even more, I love crossing off things from the list when they have been achieved. A pat on the back that keeps me going.
You could also ask yourself where are you actually going to start the task – does it have to be at what you perceive as ‘the beginning’ – at the place you have always started the same or similar tasks – be inventive, think out of the box and break the task down into more achievable chunks.
If the task is too difficult – then this can be a bigger issue that you need to think about before you begin – this is not procrastinating rather having a reality check with yourself. There is a difference between stretching yourself and taking on too much.
Maybe you are genuinely concerned that you don’t know what you are doing, you are batting in the dark, you may get it wrong and end up with something even more difficult to sort out. This is where a healthy dose of reality checking comes into play.
You need to be honest with yourself – are you using this as an excuse to run away from this task or are you genuinely concerned. What is stopping you doing the task? This reflection is something we do not use enough - do you need skills you don’t have, maybe you did something similar previously and feel that you ‘failed’. If that is the case, try to look upon that as learning how not to do it this time rather than a failure.This is a strategy that has worked for very successful people, including Edison, in the past. If, however, on reflection you still have concerns, then maybe you need to seek the help of a professional.
If the task is simply difficult rather than TOO difficult, then apply some positive self talk – I CAN DO THIS – and think how pleased, satisfied, successful you will feel when you have completed the task – your goal. This is how successful sports people achieve their goal – they imagine/visualise the ball going into the net, crossing the finishing line, etc etc etc. They know what they are aiming for and how it will feel when (not if) they achieve this. You can take a similar approach – know your goal and focus on it.
If necessary, once again, divide up the task so that you can achieve in steps that are closer than the eventual finishing line.
If the task is perceived as too dull or boring – and sadly, many come under this heading. Try doing as I do with my ironing, if the task doesn’t involve doing something that may hurt you if you divide your attention, then go for it. Remember good old health and safety first though! Talking of this, often tasks that may be dirty or nasty may have negative consequences for us not doing them. Another of my pet hates is power hosing my yard as I end up filthy and soaking wet. However, I know that the yard becomes slippery if I don’t do this and I prefer being wet and dirty to me – or someone else – ending up flat on their back. One of those times when you just have to grit your teeth and do it ‘cos it just simply has to be done! I do make sure that I have a reward waiting for me afterwards and this is usually in the form of a lovely long soak in the bath with a cuppa. The thought of that is bribery enough to keep me going.
Two laws need to be borne in mind. The first is Sod’s Law – that if you don’t do something but instead do something more pleasant (but further down your mental list), then a new task often pops up that will be reliant on you having done the original task. You could well end up with two tasks you’re not keen on doing needing to be done a.s.a.p and one on top of the other. Double whammy.
The second is Parkinson’s Law – that work expands to fill the time available. Therefore, make the breaks short ones, make the thinking time structured and make the targets SMART ones, having got up at least no later than after the first snooze session and you will have time left over for living. Remember, all work and no play makes Jack and Jill very dull people. There are, however some people who just like to appear to be always busy as this can make them feel important. Maybe using Parkinson’s Law to their own advantage!
If any of the above is something you struggle with, it may be an idea to find out just what is leading to you functioning in this way – a good task for a counsellor! Don't let procrastination be a thief of your time. I am sure that if I have finished the ironing and hosing down the yard that I will be able to fit you in!
A note to those who say that time management is not a problem for them, they multi-task. Sadly, research is showing that it is not a good thing, if indeed it actually exists at all. Fine if as in the ironing/television or chatting scenario. If, however, the phone call is an important one and you are trying to answer emails at the same time and maybe listen in to a conversation, it really is best, and in the long term most effective, to focus on one thing at a time. Too many mistakes are made far too easily with what can be serious and long lasting consequences when our attention is not adequately focused on what is being done. You could also waste a lot of time in trying to undo what has gone wrong!
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