7 ways to overcome procrastination

Are you having trouble getting motivated and finding yourself locked in a pattern of action avoidance?

Perhaps you simply can’t be bothered because you can’t muster a compelling enough argument to get started.

This kind of avoidance has a few root causes.

  1. The end seems too far away – so it doesn’t matter what I do today.
  2. The end simply doesn’t float your boat.
  3. I might stuff up…again.
  4. I want the outcome but I don’t like this activity.
  5. You feel you have no agency or ownership of the activity.
  6. You focus on the next thousand steps - instead of just the next step.
  7. You don't adopt the Swiss Cheese approach to a large task you are procrastinating on.

Here I look at 7 ways to overcome procrastination that tap into these root causes.

1. Focus on the 'why' if the end seems too far away

People who procrastinate often focus too far away to sense the consequences of their avoidance enough to stimulate action. They figure it will feel better now not to do this and don’t consider the stress and self-disdain that the procrastination will inevitably bring.

To help you get started, try focusing on your Why....do this by focusing on the benefits you will experience when you complete the task.  Conquering procrastination could involve painting a vivid picture of the completed task. For example:

  • I keep procrastinating on cleaning the house.... well imagine walking into a clean house and the comfort of not feeling ashamed when a guest arrives, 
  • I keep procrastinating on going for a run.... well imagine the joy of getting up the stairs without panting, 
  • I keep procrastinating on what somebody has asked me to do....well imagine the smile on their face as you tell them you’ve done it....or the feeling of going to the movies with a clear conscience.

Try to connect with the feeling you will experience when the job is done and just how good that will feel.

2. Connect to a higher-end goal if the outcome does not float your boat.

The end you are pursuing may not be something you are particularly drawn to.

You may be indifferent to a clean house, a great garden design or a balanced account for the business. Perhaps you have been asked to write a proposal or a piece of policy you don’t agree with by someone you don’t respect – but it’s part of the job.

If this is the case, overcoming procrastination could involve connecting your achievement win to a higher-order goal. For example:

  • Perhaps you want to be a good role model for your children or lighten the load of responsibility on your partner or colleague.
  • Maybe your efforts, however dull the activity, will keep your job safe or will contribute to the quality of life for others.
  • Perhaps you have entered into a work contract that obligates you – and the importance of protecting your professional reputation and self-worth makes the job worth doing.

Which type of procrastinator are you? Find out here

3. Overcoming a fear of failure

Fear of failure looms large in the motivation theft that leads to procrastination.

On top of that, the way our brains are wired makes sure that the damage done by this thief is long-lasting. Why?

You know the scenario -  

Step 1 - I need to start this. Why should I bother? I don’t know what I’m doing and will only mess it up.

Step 2 – I feel anxious because I know I should be doing something else, so I can’t engage with anything else I’m doing – even the things that make me feel better – like sleeping.

Step 3 – I feel anxious that I am constantly feeling anxious and can’t seem to get into a state to do things.

So, in the end, we are in a kind of anxiety paralysis because we are worried about being too anxious to do things. AAARGH….

Here are some steps to conquering procrastination:

  • Recognize that having a negative result is just one possibility amongst others – consider framing the best, most achievable, and acceptable outcomes. 
  • Check in to ensure you are not catastrophizing – telling yourself that it will be a disaster if you don’t get everything done perfectly. This creates the anxiety that prevents starting on something and can ensure the predicted catastrophe, loss of reputation and self-esteem. Ask yourself this one question to kickstart you into action!
  • Get the knowledge you need to stop the feeling that you are a 'klutz' and you don’t know what you’re doing.
  • Get help from people – find someone who will keep you accountable or find a work buddy and work together.
  • Can the perfectionism – perhaps it is your uncompromising high standards preventing you from starting lest you fall below your potentially unrealistic view of what’s required?

Self-esteem and self-discipline are closely entangled. A lack of self-efficacy prevents achieving the things that would bolster self-esteem. Poor self-worth and lack of confidence inhibit the self-discipline that would get to these successes. 

If you feel trapped in this kind of Groundhog Day, try the above remedies to break the cycle.

4. A way to overcome procrastination when you don’t like the activity

Perhaps you should rethink this activity. Pushing mud uphill can be a very demotivating.

If you find yourself engaging in something that:

  • you have no interest in
  • take no pleasure in doing
  • have little or no investment in the outcome

.....you might need to reconsider the value of committing to this activity.

Constantly forcing yourself to do something you don’t like will inevitably become a dispiriting burden, whereas doing something you like will bring motivation. Herbert Harris, the author of The Twelve Universal Laws of Success, suggests, “Is there anything about the way you think or feel about yourself that will frustrate your success or effort? If so, handle it immediately.”

The trouble with routinely trying to do stuff we don’t enjoy is that we leave ourselves open to our frustration getting the better of us. We become anxious and adrenalin-fuelled and risk falling for our own procrastination pick-up lines. The resulting feelings of anguish disable our ability to think and, therefore, complete or even get started on the work at hand. We are set up to fail.

Steve Jobs is famous for saying:

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. 

For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: 'If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' And whenever the answer has been 'No' for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

5. Overcoming procrastination when you have no agency or ownership of the activity

Ownership is, for many, a requirement to feel responsibility for outcomes. This kind of agency also means having some choice and decision-making about how something is carried out. 

The idea of autonomous motivation connects to someone engaging in an activity for the intrinsic value of the activity – as opposed to, for example, controlled motivation, where the activity is undertaken because of the threat of shame or punishment or negative consequences.  

Setting your own intentions can assist in bringing a sense of agency to the activities you procrastinate.

Negotiating for a greater say in the decision-making around an activity can lead you to identify more closely with a project’s success or failure.

6. Focus on the next step – not the next thousand steps

Big projects that have a deadline into the distant future are the things that we procrastinate on the most. Their daunting size and challenging scope means that just thinking about starting can feel overwhelming.

Getting big projects done is about reducing the feelings of overwhelm.

Do this by starting small by breaking the job into little assignments. Tick off smaller chunks and decrease stress by building more minor successes en route to completion. Keep a list so that the reward of ticking off is visible, and it is easy to see where you are going because the next little piece is right there for you. Try our 3D approach to overcome procrastination. 

7. Adopt the Swiss Cheese approach to overcoming procrastination

Do you feel that you can’t find a block of time in your schedule to get that report done? Do you sometimes feel like you have to chain yourself to your desk? That’s what Herman Melville, writer of Moby DIck, reportedly asked his wife to chain him to his desk so he could finish his novel!

Waiting for a space in your schedule before starting an important project doesn’t work. One way around this is by using the Swiss cheese approach. 

Alan Lakein, in his book ‘How to Control Your Time and Your Life,’ says that “the underlying assumption of the Swiss cheese approach is that it is possible to get something started in five minutes or less. And once you’ve started, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to keep going.”

You can use ‘small’ chunks of time, even though it is a ‘big’ task – and in that small chunk of time, you do as much as you can – whatever that is. What you are doing is punching holes in the task – just like Swiss cheese!

You need to: 

  • Choose small holes of time, such as 15, 20, or 30 minutes 
  • Punch holes into a large task on a consistent basis.

This approach avoids having to lay out the whole project – sometimes a terrifying task – and allows you the easier alternative of finding 15-30 minutes here or there rather than a large chunk of time. When a little space comes into your schedule, you try to punch a small hole in your procrastinating task.

The beauty of the Swiss cheese approach is that you make a start, and once you have started, it loses its scary, overwhelming status. If you punch holes in the task often enough, you start to get through it, which, in turn, is encouraging and builds motivation and momentum. 

It works on two fronts. One, it uses your small pockets of time to make the most significant impact and two, it gets you started on something overwhelming. 

So, when you find a small pocket of time, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What can I get done in this time?
  • How can I use this time to make a small hole in the project? 

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