A dark cloud of procrastination sweeps in blocking the light of your enthusiasm, inspiration and creativity. Your project stalls. Momentum fizzles. Distraction and guilt follow.
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 in the United States are chronic procrastinators.
“For chronic procrastinators,” Dr Ferrari says “it’s not a time management issue, it’s a maladaptive lifestyle” which may require cognitive behavioral therapy. Telling a chronic procrastinator to “Just do it!” would be as ineffective, and inappropriate, as telling a clinically depressed person to “Cheer up!”
For the other 80% however, there are some effective strategies for overcoming procrastination.
According to Dr. Ferrari procrastinators make 5 major miscalculations:
- They overestimate the time they have left to perform tasks.
- They underestimate the time it takes to complete tasks.
- They overestimate how motivated they will feel the next day, the next week- whenever they are putting things off to.
- They believe (erroneously) that succeeding at a task requires that they feel like doing it.
- They believe (erroneously) that working when not in the mood is suboptimal.
The notorious appeal of procrastination can be found in its effectiveness as a strategy for coping with unpleasant emotions.
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.
But, as anyone who has made the trade knows, the improvement is fleeting and the price is high.
Another procrastination researcher Professor Tim Pychyl, from the University of Ottawa, puts it this way: “I can simplify that and say…..we have a six year old running the ship. And the six year old is saying, ‘I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it.’”
The emotional state of “I don’t feel like it” reflects a gap between current motivation and the task at hand. Procrastination becomes a non-issue when motivation is high.
However, motivation can be a very fickle and unreliable partner and when it abandons us we need to have a “Plan B” for ourselves getting started.
So what can you do when the task seems overwhelming and your motivation is insufficient to get you over the “I don’t feel like it” hump?
You figure out how to make the task easier!
The easier the task, the less motivation you need to successfully complete it.
For example, imagine you want to write a 600 word post on procrastination. You are staring at a blank laptop screen with a blank mind that begins to wander. You have a sudden urge to check your email or Facebook (so much easier than writing a blog!).
What do you do?
Choose something that is task related and just as easy as checking your email. You Google the word “procrastination.” Easy. You read the results. Easy. You print something out. Easy. You make notes in the margins. Easy. You make an outline of the best points. Easy.
You have now spent 90 minutes working toward your goal. Today you have beaten procrastination.
Tomorrow you will follow the same formula: scale back the task to match your level of motivation. Repeat.
Learning how to divide large tasks into small steps is an essential skill in today’s work environment with its inevitable interruptions and distractions. Julie Morgenstern, a productivity consultant, has suggested that the optimal time for these small completable steps is 30 minutes to two hours.
Next time procrastination colludes with its relentless accomplice, perfectionism, to disable your “get started” button remember to look for the path of least resistance.