How We: Stop Procrastinating

I have a confession to make: So far this year, on several occasions, I have received less than an hour of sleep.

I have a tendency to fall into a pattern of getting peak work done between the hours of midnight and 5am. I think part of it is that I feel that the world (or at least my corner of it) is asleep, so I can be alone with my thoughts. But I think another part of it is that I have a terrible habit of dreading working on tasks that I think will take more time than I have or that I think I won’t be able to complete in a fashion that meets my standards. As a result, I drag out working on these tasks. In short, I procrastinate. Ironically, often the tasks turn out to be much quicker, easier, or enjoyable than I had anticipated, and I would have finished much earlier (and done a much better job) if I had just confronted the task head on in the first place.

After discovering that sleep deprivation is correlated with elevated levels of cortisol (which in turn can suppress the immune system and increase the risk of diabetes), and coming to the realization that I was sick of torturing myself, I decided to put a stop to my procrastinating once and for all. But quitting procrastinating is easier said than done. I’ve scoured the internet for some research-based tips. Here are 3 of my favorites:

1. Shift from thinking about the task as something you have to do to something you want to do. According to psychologists specializing in procrastination research, one of the key reasons why people procrastinate is that they find a task boring or meaningless. Consequently, they recommend finding ways to make the task interesting or meaningful. For example, Dr. Tim Pychyl (who runs the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Canada, hosts the iProcrastinate Podcast, pens the Don’t Delay blog for Psychology Today, and published the book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change suggests devising work related games to entertain you during the process of completing the task, such as “I wonder how much of this task can I complete within the next 20 min.?” Dr. Fuschia Sirois recommends thinking about why the task is important, and rephrasing your inner monologue accordingly. So, “I have to write this stupid lecture” becomes “I want to keep this job so that I can travel over the summer.”

2. Go “Back to the Future.” According to Pychyl and Sirois (2013), procrastination is often an artifact of a “temporal disjunction between present and future selves;” we distract ourselves to feel better in the present without much thought to the consequences for the future. Thus, they recommend thinking about how you are making life difficult for your future self. I have put my own twist on the approach: Rather than thinking about how awful I will feel if I don’t get the work done, I like to think about how awesome I will feel if I do. This has been extremely motivating. I feel better almost immediately once I start working. More often than not, I even enjoy doing the work too.

3. Just do it.  As procrastination expert Dr. Joseph Ferrari explains, procrastinators tend to overestimate how much time they have left to complete a task, underestimate the time it takes to complete a task, overestimate how motivated they’ll feel to do the task later, and falsely assume that it is best to wait until they feel like doing a task. But the truth is, for some tasks, you’ll never feel like tackling them. Better to start ASAP so that you’ll have the time you’ll need (Dr. Ferrari recommends increasing your estimated amount by 100%). I have found it helps to remind myself to not think about the task, but just do it. Or, as a spin class instructor once encouraged my class as we dialed up the resistance, “remove the drama.” Personally, I have found working in a café or listening to music or a comedy podcast (such as my perennial favorite: Professor Blastoff) to help do just that.

What about you? Have you ever struggled with procrastination? How did you beat it? I am eager to hear!


Categories: Health & Wellness

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