How to beat procrastination

Putting off the inevitable? Try some pomodoros or prioritisation planning
by Bethan Rees

Procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off something that must be done and is the “pause in the process that leads to success”, according to Pasha Carter for Forbes.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits and creator of The Habits Academy, a training platform, blogs about procrastination on his website. “Human beings have been procrastinating for centuries. The problem is so timeless, in fact, that ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle developed a word to describe this type of behaviour: akrasia. Akrasia is the state of acting against your better judgement. It is when you do one thing even though you know you should do something else. Loosely translated, you could say that akrasia is procrastination or a lack of self-control.”
But can it be put down to just a lack of self-control? In an article for Medical News Today, Maria Cohut reports that although it could be perceived that procrastination is a side effect of poor time management, “research has shown that procrastination is, in fact, a complex, often maladaptive reaction to various perceived stressors”.

Here’s some tips to help combat procrastination and to start being more productive.
Recognise and identify your procrastinationBeing aware of procrastination is the first step to eliminating it, writes Carter. Following the recognition, you should try to understand why you are procrastinating. A few reasons why people procrastinate, according to Carter, are: 
  • Being afraid – for example, a fear of failing 
  • Frustration – for example, not knowing where to start or not understanding the task at hand 
  • Being a perfectionist – for example, being scared to make a mistake 
  • Lack of motivation – for example, not having the energy to do a task  

Focus on one thing at a timeSome workers might be expected to multitask in their jobs, but Dr Jim Taylor, in an article for Psychology Today, says there is no such thing: “You are in fact shifting from one task to another in rapid succession,” he explains. "The fact is that multitasking, as most people understand it, is a myth that has been promulgated by the ‘technological-industrial complex’ to make overly scheduled and stressed-out people feel productive and efficient.” 

Taylor refers to findings from the American Psychological Association, which state that when someone tries to switch focus, there is a lag time for the brain to switch to the new task, potentially costing "as much as 40% of someone's productive time". 

Trying to do more than one thing at a time can be overwhelming and inefficient. According to Andrew Cravenho in a post for Fast Company, focusing on one task means that “once a task is off your plate, your mind is clear and ready for the next one”.
Learning how to prioritiseThere are several methods you can use to prioritise your workload. A Mind Tools article describes how using the acronym SMART can help guide your goals. “To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, each one should be:

  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant)
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating)
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable)
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based)
  • Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive).”
Celestine Chua, writer and founder of personal development site Personal Excellence, writing for Lifehack, recommends creating a detailed timeline for your work, with specific deadlines. “Having just one deadline for your work is like an invitation to procrastinate,” she says. “That’s because we get the impression that we have time to keep pushing everything back until it’s too late.”

Chua advises breaking down your project into smaller chunks, and then creating an overall timeline. Within the timeline should be individual deadlines for each small task. She also says to make the timelines robust so that if it’s not stuck to, it could have a domino effect and jeopardise the other parts of the project. “This way, it creates the urgency to act,” she says. 

On a smaller scale, prioritise daily tasks, set a schedule and complete them, says Carter. “Each day set a timer and have ‘power hours’. Power hours are uninterrupted hours in the day when you work solely on your goal with no distractions.” 
The Pomodoro TechniqueAccording to Tucker Cummings in an article for Lifehack, the Pomodoro Technique is a time management technique developed in the late 1980s by Francesco Cirillo. “The process is simple – for every project throughout the day, you budget your time into short increments and take breaks periodically. You work for 25 minutes, then take a break for five minutes,” writes Cummings. The 25-minute period is called a pomodoro, named after the Italian word for tomato, as Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like one originally.

This technique can work, according to Cummings, because “the constant timing of your activities makes you more accountable for your tasks and minimises the time you spend procrastinating”. Cummings says that according to the Pomodoro Technique website “you will probably begin to notice a difference in your work or study process within a day or two. True mastery of the technique takes from seven to 20 days of constant use”.The big picturePrioritising things that aren’t urgent can be combated by considering the bigger picture, according to clinical psychologist Dr Ellen Hendriksen in an article for Psychology Today. “This annoying tendency actually has some evolutionary significance. Humans are wired to consider the needs of the present much more strongly than the needs of the future, a phenomenon called temporal discounting,” she writes. “The remedy, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is to take on a broader perspective rather than nitpicking the details. Look at everyday tasks through the lens of a bigger picture.” 

Hendriksen gives an example of how this could work with wanting to go back into education. Ask yourself what this would mean for your life, your values and goals. And what’s the big picture? “Taking on a new perspective can jump-start the process of taking action,” she says.

Learning how not to procrastinate might not be a simple fix, but it’s well worth the journey. Do you have any tips on combating procrastination? If so, leave your comments below. 

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Published: 24 May 2019
  • Career Development
  • The Review
  • procrastination
  • workload
  • Time management
  • Career advice

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