Procrastination is common but you can beat it

Many of us are guilty of procrastination. Have you ever sat down to (or even thought about) a complex, time-consuming task and ended up surfing Facebook or playing solitaire? Join a large club: More than 80% of uni students report procrastinating regularly, and most of us have put off doing our tax returns (guilty) or cleaning out the garage (guilty!).

Clients often mention that they struggle with procrastination and want to know why and what they can do. While there are many theories about why we procrastinate, including the idea that it is a form of self-handicapping, there may be a range of reasons we procrastinate. The more important question is: What can we do? Here are a few ideas to keep in mind.

1. Visualise the Process, not the Goal

Follow your dreams, they say. This is great. But unfortunately it often means we only focus on the dream, the end goal. This doesn’t help. To make it actually happen you need to focus on the “follow” part by visualising yourself doing the actual steps on the path to making your dream happen.

So rather than just dreaming and imagining what it will be like to have published that book, completed that PhD, recorded that album or set up that business, get into the habit of mentally rehearsing yourself taking the steps you need to achieve these goals.

Mental Rehearsal

A client, Adam, wanted to finish a big work project so he could take holidays without worrying. I suggested he stop focussing on the yearned-for image of himself sitting in the sun relaxing (which was more pleasant), and instead I instructed him to close his eyes and imagining taking steps towards that goal. “What do you see?” I asked. “I am sitting at my desk, it’s quiet. My social media is all closed and my phone is off. I am keeping track of time, but focussing”. He imagined being at his computer in a relaxed way working through each step and task, filling out forms, etc. He imagined persisting calmly through the 10-hour-days for three days running and making it through each one. “I’m getting up each day at 6am to make the most of my morning. I am going to bed by 10pm to get enough sleep”. By playing (and replaying) in his mind the steps towards the goal rather than a picture of arriving at his goal, he was able to stay focussed and motivated.

Next, I asked him to watch himself doing these things. “Don’t say to yourself: ‘I am sitting here at my desk, filling in that form’. Instead say to yourself, “That’s me over there, sitting at Adam’s desk filling in that form.” He tried this: “Now I am watching him make a phone call to the bank” and other specific tasks he knew he had coming up.

This technique can work because, by rehearsing and watching yourself undertaking each step, these tasks are no longer mere abstract hassles standing between you and your goal. They become compelling and real to you, and this increases desire to do what ‘s needed. A desire to complete tasks you have started (even mentally) causes information to be retained in a person’s mind, and active rehearsal of information enables its retention. Hence, you’ll find that if you’ve strongly envisaged your practical steps, making them as vivid in your imagination as possible, it can even become hard not to do them!

2. Do the Easy Thing First (or Just Get Started)

This is a tried-and-true principle. If you have something to do, whether it’s cleaning a kitchen, writing a blog, working out, or doing a tax return and you feel yourself sliding into the ditch of procrastination, tell yourself “Right, I’m just going to empty the dishwasher!” or “I’m going to write just one paragraph of this article” or “I’m just going to do some stretches”. Find an easy first step. Interestingly, you should find that once you’ve done two minutes of cleaning or writing or working out, you now feel you want to do more because of the universal human need for completion mentioned above.

We are hardwired to feel compelled to complete things we’ve started, so even just starting something and doing a couple of minutes can compel you to continue, even if you had felt lethargic and unmotivated beforehand. And if you use the self-hypnosis process described above for 5 minutes, you can mentally start a task which gives yourself the feeling it has already started and therefore needs to be completed.

3. Do The Hard Thing First (or Eat That Frog)

Mark Twain famously said (and hopefully it was a metaphor), eat a live frog every morning and that will be the worst thing that happens to you all day. In practical terms, this means getting the hardest thing done first. A client of mine, Melanie, was unhappy with her university course and wanted to change it. We identified that, for Melanie, doing the hard thing meant making some phone calls, even though she felt very nervous, to people at her own university and at other institutions to find out how it would work and whether she could receive credit for previous study. Once the phone calls were done, she had more momentum and the process became easier.

Which of these strategies work best for you? Do you have your own personal tips to overcome procrastination and increase motivation? Please share with everyone in the comments section below 🙂

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