- Pay bill
- Schedule dentist appointment
- Call back client
- Finish project due tomorrow
- Go to the gym
- Learn Chinese
- Start a blog
- Found the next Facebook…
One endless to-do list.
Can your life be summed up as one giant list of things you should be doing, should do, or should have done? Should – the battle cry of the productivity versus procrastination war. Productivity: Good. Procrastination, laziness, and inefficiency: Most definitely, products of evil.
These days, it seems that everyone is trying to squeeze in that last “to-do.” Whether it’s a small, nagging task or starting a business, each opportunity to generally get more sh!t done haunts us. If we don’t have a decent elevator pitch ready for the next “Sooo what’s new with you?” We feel as though we’ve failed, we feel like something is very wrong. Guilt and shame infuse our psyche.
And rightly so. A great deal of literature today would lead you to believe that optimal productivity is the goal. We have an overwhelming amount of advice on how to become more productive. Google “best productivity apps” and you can find not 1 best, but 50 best smartphone apps to help you become more productive. Modern career advice tells you that you need to download these tools, employ these tips in order to become way more productive.
The notion of productivity as the goal is also conveyed through much of “disruptive” technology. You can summon a cab, order a burrito, ship your furniture, with ease and immediacy. The next generation will want to go places faster, get things quicker, retrieve information instantaneously. Anything short of this standard will feel maddening slow or simply unnatural.
So what do we do with all that saved time and effort?
We continue to build our Tower of Babylon to-do lists, agonizing over how we could still be doing so much more. We develop FOBU (fear of being unproductive), because frankly if we can accomplish so much more, then we should. The “I should really…” plays in a continuous loop in our heads, and we add things like “write book” to the back of our mental life check-list, without ever taking real steps to pursue it.
Undoubtedly, there is a emotional and psychological toll that procrastinating and FOBU can have on an individual. People who procrastinate generally have higher levels of stress and lower well-being. Economists have even quantified the cost of procrastination, such as the money lost on late fees or even booking vacation last minute
In fact, some people, recognizing that time is money, willingly pay to have an app punish them with irritating stimulus if they begin to procrastinate.
Even then, we continue to drag our feet on plenty of tasks, big or small. Despite all the productivity hacks and information available at our fingertips, we can’t help procrastinating.
Is procrastination inevitable, even unstoppable?
If by this point, you are starting to hyperventilate from despair and anxiety – Why am I even reading this?! I should be… – stop. Take a breath, slowly back away from your to-do list. Deactivate your Write or Die app. There’s some hope left.
Here’s the reality: You’re not lazy.
You don’t need another app. Or fancy trick.
There’s a greater narrative at play behind your procrastination, one that involves unconscious habits, behaviors and beliefs. Procrastination stems from a deep, psychological origin, rather than from a lack of information or tools.
Re-evaluate the psychological “why” behind your procrastination: Is it aimlessness or is it fear?
No direction or a fear of failing are the two most common root problems that lead to dreading or delaying a task. Understand where your procrastination originates and approach the issue accordingly.
Productivity is not the goal. You need an actual goal.
There’s no point in being really productive at something that does not move you closer towards your goals.
Wait, you don’t have any goals? Perhaps, aimlessness is the problem.
You could work on maximizing the number of emails you shoot off or calling back every single client in your address book. Even the best of us fall into the rabbit hole of blog-hopping (for inspiration!) or updating our social media accounts (to stay relevant, of course!). But that’s not necessarily productive, particularly if it has no positive impact on reaching your goals – be them professional or personal.
Fuchsia Sirois, psychology professor at Bishop’s University in Canada notes that direct strategies to counter procrastination don’t work, because it requires the type of self-regulation that is already lacking when procrastination begins. In other words, focusing on how to not procrastinate is just another form of plain ol’ procrastination. It’s a bit like how to see through a window. You’re supposed to look through it, not look at it.
“You’ve got to dig a little deeper and find some personal meaning in that task,” Sirois says. “That’s what our data is suggesting.” Sirois’s research proposes that the best way to approach procrastination is to re-evaluate the purpose of the task. Is it helping to accomplish your goals? Are you excited by your goals?
What to do: Don’t try harder, stop trying and reflect.
Ironically, it’s easier to just try harder.
“Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place.” Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D. and Associate Director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School seems to agree with Sirois’s view on self-regulation.
She says, “Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.”
Stopping, instead of trying harder, may seem counter-intuitive to conquering procrastination. But then again, when everything you’ve tried isn’t working, maybe it’s time to try something different. Take it from Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
Stop and take a moment to consider the “Why,” when you lack meaning
You have impossibly high standards and that makes you scared.
So you have a clear understanding of your wildest hopes and dreams. What’s stopping you?
Your extremely high expectations and phobia of not meeting them – which eventually perpetuates into a slew of other chicks-or-egg problems: Low self-confidence, fear of failure, general unbelief of your capabilities.
Dating 101: Placing unrealistic standards on most people will scare them off. So of course, you’re scaring yourself off with your self-imposed, impossibly high standards. Stop scaring yourself. It’s not Halloween yet.
Remember all those cheesy children’s cartoons that teach kids to believe in yourself. Turns out, that’s really important to conquering procrastination, at least when it stems from perfectionist-exhibiting behaviors.
In fact, although we know willpower may function like a muscle – the more you use it, the more tired it gets – there have been studies that show that those who believe that willpower is not a finite resource, actually have more willpower to use.
The power of beliefs, whether positive or negative, can have a huge influence over our decisions and actions.
Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., psychology professor at DePaul University in Chicago says, “Non-procrastinators focus on the task that needs to be done. They have a stronger personal identity and are less concerned about what psychologists call social esteem.”
Procrastination due to fear of failure or excessive self-regulating is linked to high psychological distress. This is different, says Ferrari, from “arousal” type procrastinators, who wait until the last minute for a eurphoric rush. “Avoider” procrastinators fear failure, because they are very concerned with what others think of them.
What to do: Just start. Anywhere.
The good news is that starting is the toughest part. Studies have shown, it’s much easier to build momentum, once you’ve crossed that threshold. So start somewhere small, no matter how trivial the task.
Jerry Seinfeld is perhaps one of the most well-known comedians of all time. He’s lesser known for his productivity approach: He writes down one joke a day, whether or not he’s inspired, or whether it’s a good or bad one. His focus is on not missing a day, rather than the joke itself. Jerry Seinfeld is remarkably consistent in his productivity, and it’s built him an impressive and successful career.
Instead of waiting to be perfect, start with one small thing that helps you move towards your goals, do it everyday, without fail. And remember, don’t judge yourself harshly.
Building small wins is necessary to changing a belief system. Expecting failure as a normal, necessary part of the process – that’s important, too.
“More often than not, our fear doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. We feel the suffering of procrastination, or the frustration of a stuck relationship… Taking risks, and falling, is not something to avoid. It’s something to cultivate,” says Peter Bregman, a consultant to CEOs and leadership teams, helping them tackle their most important priorities.
Bregman was observing surfers one morning in Malibu, California, when he realized that all the surfers, irregardless of their skill level, end up falling. The only difference involved the element of surprise. Some surfers had fun with the fall, while for others, falling clearly produced a lot of anxiety.
If you’re scared of screwing it up: Work on small habits and expect – even welcome – failure.
So is it possible to end procrastination once and for all?
That’s the question of the millennium.
For a millennial generation, leading more and more ultra-productive lives, perhaps our first task is to stop procrastinating on the big procrastination problem.
Maybe instead of banking on willpower, downloading a new tool, trying a weird, new productivity hack, we tackle the issue head on. Through a lens of psychology, let’s discern the “why?” and use specific strategies to reflect, start anywhere, celebrate small wins, and embrace failure.
As Dr. Ferrari puts it, “Let’s live life now and enjoy our lives. Don’t delay because of fears or insecurities.”