The project may be entirely ordinary like cleaning out the garage, or it may be critically significant like preparing a major presentation for work. The goal may be to start eating more healthy foods or to advance your career.
Whatever the circumstances, one of the major obstacles facing any project or goal is the phenomenon of procrastination. And the digital era we live in, with its feast of portable screens, makes it easier than ever to find entertaining ways to avoid buckling down to the task at hand.
When we avoid a task we trigger an awareness (we’re procrastinating), a judgment (procrastination is a bad thing), and a negative feeling (rotten). We all know this feeling. According to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a leading researcher in the study of procrastination: “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” He estimates that 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators.
New psychological research in the area of procrastination has zeroed in on the management of the negative feelings (induced by knowing you are doing something against your own best interests) as a key to understanding exactly how procrastination operates and how to overcome it.
Procrastination is a mechanism which allows us to trade unpleasant feelings (doing something we find difficult and stressful) for something (whatever distraction we choose) that provides a temporary mood improvement.
In the immediate moment, putting off a task provides instant relief (however short-lived) which is a kind of psychological reward. And because we tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, procrastination is often not just a one-off behavior but a cycle that can easily escalate to become a habit.
Our inclination toward procrastination is a result of our being hard-wired to see short-term needs as being more important than long-term needs (present bias). Dr. Hal Hershfield, a psychology professor at UCLA says “We really weren’t designed to think ahead into the future because we needed to focus on providing for ourselves in the here and now.”
The problem is the high price we pay for the temporary improvement in mood provided by procrastination. Procrastination (especially when frequent or chronic) “has not only productivity costs, but measurably destructive effects on our mental and physical health, including chronic stress….low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic illness and even hypertension and cardiovascular disease.”
Four Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination
- Find a better reward than avoidance. Look for a way to relieve the negative feelings in the short-term without harming your long-term interests. Dr. Judson Brewer at Brown University’s Center for Mindfulness says we have to give our minds what he calls the “Bigger Better Offer.” Try to reframe the task by focusing on the positive emotional aspects of it. Think about how you will feel about completing the task. Or remind yourself of a time you did something similar and it turned out well.
- Imagine the next action.You ask yourself: “What’s the next action I would take on this if I were going to do it?” Maybe you would create a document or gather the supplies/resources you would need for the project. Mentally rehearsing the steps you would take rather than actually having to do them feels less risky, so it is also far less stressful.
- Divide the task into smaller steps.Smaller actions require lower levels of motivation to complete and generate less anticipatory stress. As the master procrastinator and blogger (Wait But Why) Tim Urban put it: “No one ‘builds a house’. They lay one brick again and again and the end result is a house. “
- Get started. Don’t wait for your mood to be positive to begin a task. Tell yourself that your motivation will increase as soon as you take a positive action, no matter how small.