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)
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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
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