Procrastination: Not now – I'm busy - Features - Health & Families - The Independent

Procrastination: Not now – I'm busy

From paperwork to paying the bills, we're all guilty of putting off tasks we know we can't avoid. But confronting the real reasons for procrastination can help us beat it

At this time of year, we're all as sluggish as a hibernating dormouse, with the efficacy of an embattled wintry immune system, and the productivity of a stale slice of bread. And yet we're supposed to swing joyously into action for spring, with the youthful vigour of a passel of One Direction fans, heedless of the weight we've put on since the clocks went back or the fact we feel completely outfaced. No wonder we spend so much of our time pretending not to think about work, or putting off minute tasks that have since piled up to create one enormous, insurmountable obstacle.

Procrastination is in our genetic make-up; we shy away from dull or taxing jobs, inventing reasons why we cannot get on with them, clicking "refresh" on Twitter until it's too late to do anything else. Some people, a blessed and focused minority, are hard-wired to knuckle down and get on with things, but what about the rest of us?

"Procrastination is putting things off despite knowing that it will make life harder and more stressful," says Dr Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation and an authority on the science of motivation. "If these tasks were fun, we'd just do them now, but we put off what is difficult or unpleasant."

Such as the paperwork that needs doing before leaving the office, the many niggling and non-urgent bits of DIY that need finishing off, tidying the attic and cleaning the bits that people can't see. Top of the procrastinating pops is housework, followed by dieting or fitness regimes, treating illness and going to the dentist, and working on one's career or education.

"You can put off anything," Dr Steel continues. "We know we should be doing these things like saving for retirement, or studying for exams. The fact is, the less people procrastinate, the more money they have, the better relationships they have, and the healthier they are."

So much is obvious in the couples who don't argue about whether anyone has mended the loo seat yet, in the young go-getters who rise straight to the top at work, in the health freaks who simply go for that run instead of endlessly rescheduling it in their own heads. Statistics show that chief executives procrastinate much less than those on the factory floor. And then, of course, there are the rest of us, who feel daily the chores piling up around us like ever-accelerating Tetris bricks.

"We've evolved to respond to the moment, and not to set our sights too far in an uncertain world," Dr Steel adds. "We are not set up to appreciate long-term rewards, whether it's the benefit of a four-year degree, doing exercise or dieting. You feel the cost now and the reward comes much later. But humans value the short term."

As a symptom, procrastination is associated with conditions such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; the inability to act or to be constructive can be deeply harmful to our own sense of self-worth. Ever looked around your messy house and felt that you didn't deserve your quota of oxygen? By constantly putting off unpleasant tasks, one could condemn oneself to a bout of existential malaise. So now is the time to unlearn your time-wasting techniques and work-avoidance tactics.

"You have two decision-making systems in your brain," Dr Steel says, "the limbic, which is responsible for the short term, and the prefrontal cortex, which deals with the future – it's responsible for civilisation. We bounce between long-term goals and short-term temptations, so we need goals that will translate our plans for the limbic system."

Consider writers: they set themselves targets and word counts per day, translating an abstract, seemingly endless task into something concrete with easily measured progress. Dr Steel recommends such techniques, terming them pre-commitments and adding that engaging yourself and others around a month before the "deadline" makes it more likely a task will be completed. The added benefit of a pre-commitment is avoiding the associated embarrassment of not following up on something people are expecting you to do – telling all your friends you are going to stop smoking makes you less likely to buckle; pledging money to a cause you don't much like in the event that you fail is another tactic that will hold you steady.

Procrastination ultimately comes down to planning, which, if you're not careful, becomes procrastination in itself. But it's worth making sure you have everything in place to change your strategies for the better – a separate computer log-on for work and for play, the former with a plain background, fewer applications and limited internet access. If you wish to check your emails, make sure they're a log-out, rather than a click, away and remember every time you disengage, that it takes 15 minutes fully to re-immerse yourself in the task at hand.

Novelist Jonathan Franzen famously fills the internet portals on his computer with superglue to prevent him from procrastinating instead of writing, but there are programs available that will block your internet access for as long as you dictate – just give the password details to your more iron-willed partner. Victor Hugo is said to have written in the nude, ordering his valet to let him have his clothes only when he had finished an allotted amount, but these days, this seems less effective: there are plenty of things you can do at a computer naked.

"Successful people don't pretend they don't procrastinate," Dr Steel says. "People who pretend they have willpower are less successful – they're like mediocre swimmers who find themselves too far out."

Instead, plan for procrastination: make your work environment a temple of productivity by stripping back all extraneous technicolor noise, so you can really focus on moving forward.

The Procrastination Equation, Second Edition is out now (£9.99 Prentice Hall Life)

 

Carpe diem: how to do it now

Dr Piers Steel's procrastination wisdom

 

* The tasks we hate are among those we tend to postpone

 

* The more uncertain you are of success, the harder it is to stay focused

 

* Accomplishment creates confidence, which creates effort, resulting in more accomplishment

 

* The snooze button is the Devil's device

 

* The overconfident tend to discount serious problems and subsequently delay responding to them

 

* Contrast where you want to be with where you are now

 

* Instead of aiming never to procrastinate, aim to start just a little bit earlier on more and more projects

 

* To relieve boredom, try making things more difficult for yourself

 

* As you get closer to a temptation, your desire for it peaks, allowing the temptation to trump later but better options

 

* Identify your distractions and cleanse their accompanying cues from your life

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Energy Markets Analyst

    £400000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Energy Markets An...

    Junior Web Analyst – West Sussex – Up to £35k DOE

    £30000 - £35000 Per Annum Plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

    Nursery Manager

    £22000 - £23000 per annum: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recrui...

    Web Analyst – Permanent – Up to £40k - London

    £35000 - £40000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: We are currently r...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week