Nothing is more daunting than a blank document. It’s always a challenge to begin a new task, but eventually you will need to take that first step. The problem for many of us is that we keep delaying for as long as possible. We find other things that we also need to do, but which are easier. Or else we just allow ourselves to be distracted. The day ends, and we’ve made almost no progress.
No one magically becomes more productive. If you want to improve your performance, you need to start using strategies for overcoming procrastination.
What Exactly Is Procrastination?
Before we continue, it’s important to be clear: what is procrastination? Many people confuse procrastination with laziness, but the two are quite different.
Procrastination involves doing something with your time, often even something valuable, but not spending time on your most pressing task. Usually, it also means putting off work until the last minute, which can result in a few sleepless nights.
Laziness, on the other hand, implies wasting time. If you do anything at all, it’s completely unrelated to work and purely for pleasure.
Causes of Procrastination
There are several causes of procrastination, but research shows that it is most common when the task at hand is tedious, challenging, frustrating, ambiguous, or unrewarding or it lacks structure or personal meaning.
Unfortunately, it is often necessary to undertake such tasks. It doesn’t matter who you are: entrepreneurs to top executives all have work they’d rather not do. The only solution is to find ways to overcome your procrastination, finish the task as quickly as you can, and move on to more enjoyable work.
Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination
Overcoming procrastination means training your brain to be more disciplined. For this to be work, you need to apply several different strategies.
1. Acknowledge That You Are Procrastinating
Your mind often plays tricks on you to keep you procrastinating. In particular, you may fail to accept the fact that you are avoiding a certain task. When something more appealing crops up, you convince yourself that it is higher priority and finish it first.
It’s important to stop and think if the new task actually is more urgent. Go back and examine what you have done over the past few days. Has much of your work been low-priority tasks?
Also look at your to-do list. Does one task in particular keep moving from one day to the next?
Lastly, consider if you often make excuses when you are finally going to start working on the task. Maybe you decide you need a snack, you remember that there’s an email you haven’t answered yet, or your phone buzzes and you need to check it immediately.
If you’re doing any of these things, you’re procrastinating.
2. Figure Out Your Reasons for Procrastinating
Return to the list above and identify which of the seven reasons is the cause of your current procrastination. Once you know the reason, you can take steps to change the way you feel about the task.
For instance, if the task is ambiguous, communicate with whoever assigned it to you or talk to your team members for clarification. If it is unstructured, design a workflow that describes how you will tackle each aspect. If it is tedious, find a way to gamify it.
No matter what category your procrastination falls under, there is a solution.
3. Just Get Started
Instead of striving for perfection from the get-go, do whatever it takes to just start. If you sit around waiting for inspiration to strike, you’ll most likely be disappointed. Besides, you can always go back and make changes to your earlier work. The hard part is usually starting — you may well find that the task is far easier than you expected once you begin progressing.
4. Work for a Few Minutes at a Time
If you know a task is going to take several hours, you may feel even less inclined to start. However, there’s no need to finish everything in one sitting. In fact, it is far better to break your time into shorter blocks.
Perhaps an hour is too long to work, but there will be a certain amount of time when the task does become bearable, whether that’s 30 minutes or even just 10 minutes. Simply having an end in sight should be enough to keep you motivated.
5. Allow Yourself Breaks
After you finish the block of time you’ve designated to the task, do something you enjoy. After a few hours of this back and forth, take a proper break. Step away from your computer and leave your phone on your desk. Take a walk or do some exercise to clear your mind. It will help you return to the dreaded task feeling refreshed.
6. Split Projects into Smaller Tasks with Set Deadlines
Larger projects tend to have a final deadline, but this could be far in the future. Unfortunately, this just makes the urgency of the project less apparent. You may even feel tempted to leave the entire project until the last minute.
To push yourself to make continuous progress, a good strategy is to divide your project into a number of smaller tasks. Set a separate deadline for each. Even though there is no real need to finish by the deadline, many people find this motivating enough to keep them on track.
7. Focus on a Single Activity
While you’re working on a particular task, ignore everything else. If you receive an email or message, it can wait. If you feel tempted to look up something unrelated to the task (just because it popped into your head), hold off until you’re finished. Taking even mini breaks will ruin your concentration and make it much more difficult to finish.
8. Begin with Your Most Difficult Work
When you sit down at your desk in the morning, it’s tempting to pick something easy. Before you know it, you’ve spent all the morning on simple activities and all you have left is your most challenging work. By this point, you’re worn out and lack the drive to stay focused.
Although it may be unpleasant at first, a better strategy is to do the most difficult tasks at the beginning of the day. The great thing about this is you’ll end the day feeling accomplished rather than drained.
9. Reward Yourself for Each Achievement
A reward system is always helpful, but it’s particularly important when the task you are procrastinating has no value to you on a personal level. Set milestones and decide on a suitable reward for each. When you complete a big project, have a proper celebration!
10. Accept That You Won’t See Perfect Performance Every Day
Don’t beat yourself up if you have an off-day — it happens to everyone. As long as your off-days are relatively rare, there’s no harm done. Feeling guilty about procrastination may even be counterproductive, causing you to procrastinate more in the future. A better strategy is to move on and commit to doing better tomorrow.
11. Remind Yourself of the Consequences
If you are having more off-days than on-days, you may need to remind yourself of the consequences of continuous procrastination. As an entrepreneur, these could include the failure of your entire enterprise. If you work at an established company, think about how procrastination is costing your professional development.
12. Create a Support System
You’re certainly not the only person at your company who procrastinates. After all, it’s a widespread problem — 95 percent of people procrastinate at some time or other, says Dr. Piers Steel. Why not set up a system of accountability where coworkers promise each other that they’ll complete tasks by certain times?
If you work in a one-person company or you’re uncomfortable asking someone to check up on you, rely on tech instead. There are a variety of tools to choose from, including:
- Zero Willpower, which allows you to set blocks on websites where you’re wasting time
- Procraster, which gives you advice when you feel stuck, manages your tasks, and shows stats to compare your progress from one day to the next.
- Momentum, which enables you to set a daily goal that will appear as a message on your desktop to keep you motivated.
13. Remove Distractions
It’s more difficult to lose your focus if you remove distractions from your workspace. For instance, it may be worthwhile to turn off certain types of phone notifications during work hours. The likelihood is you only actually need to respond to calls, business emails, and messages through project management apps and other work communication software.
In fact, simply keeping your phone out of your line of sight can make a huge difference. After all, it will mean you’re unable to glance at the screen to check a new notification.
Utilizing these strategies for overcoming procrastination will make a big difference to your life. Continuing to procrastinate does more than hurt your performance at work — it can lead to stress, health problems, and even lower self-esteem. The temptation to procrastinate is a challenge you’ll need to face every day, but it will become easier with time. These strategies will become second nature and you’ll find that you’re gradually becoming more productive.