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Everyone could benefit from some strategies to overcome procrastination and manage time better. Today, I will share 5 psychological strategies that will allow you to succeed.
Procrastination is the great enemy of productivity. We often start out with ambitious goals and good intentions. But when it comes to beginning a task, suddenly we realize that the house is a mess and it must be cleaned before we can concentrate.
And then there’s that email we forgot to respond to. Now it’s time for a snack and the meaningless tasks go on and on.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
Why do we procrastinate on the important things or on the tasks that we know we need to do to reach our goals? One reason is delay discounting, which is our tendency to place less value on things that will take longer to achieve. For example, you may really want to save money for retirement but instead you spend that money on a new car. Even though retirement is more important, it is much farther in the future and so people place less value on it in the moment compared to the more immediate gratification of a new car.
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In addition to delay discounting, we have time and energy expenses to consider. Oftentimes the tasks that we are putting off are more complex and require willpower, mental effort, and time, all of which are limited resources. Therefore there is an opportunity cost associated with working towards our goals. Opportunity cost is what you need to give up to get something else, such as spending three hours after work on your side hustle instead of three hours binge-watching your favorite Netflix show.
Next we want to consider the value that we place on a task and how it fits with our sense of self. In some cases, we may procrastinate on low value tasks, such as writing a paper for a class. However, people tend to procrastinate more on high value tasks. This may seem counterintuitive but the more important the task is to us, the more anxiety is tied to it.
Human beings are wired to fear failing and the unknown. We may be scared to start a new business because we don’t know how to tackle such a large project. We also are often scared of attempting a goal and failing because we believe that failure means we are worthless.
Procrastination can be a real problem for people who are trying to work towards a goal. For some people, procrastination becomes a vicious cycle of constantly being behind on work. People who procrastinate tend to have more stress and health problems. Another problem with procrastination is that the larger and more complex the project is, the more time is needed to complete it. For people that wait too long to begin the task, the quality of the final product may not be as good as it could have been.
Although procrastination is generally seen as negative and harmful, there are some upsides. Some people produce their best quality work under the stress of waiting until the last minute. A certain level of stress is beneficial for performance.
Depending on how you use the rest of your time, procrastination can force you to be more time efficient and productive out of necessity. If you know that you function best under this kind of time stress, then great! Procrastination is not a problem for you. However, if you are someone who experiences more downsides from procrastination, here are some strategies to manage your time better.
How To Overcome Procrastination
1. Focus on your why
Why are you doing this task? What are your goals and how are you going to reach them? For some people, this driving motivation is to become financially free, to travel the world, become a productive person or to have more family time. It is important to have a clear “why” and to keep this in the forefront of your mind. This will help mitigate the effect of delay discounting and opportunity cost.
Visualization is creating a visual image in your mind with as much vivid detail as possible. This technique can be used in three different ways. First, visualizing your end goal or product can provide a source of motivation. Secondly, you can use this technique as a “rehearsal” for a difficult task or complex plan. You can do this by imagining yourself going through each step, focusing on what you will do, how things will look, and any problems that may come up.
Lastly, visualization can be used as a relaxation technique, which is helpful if you are procrastinating because the task is too stressful or overwhelming. In order to do this, imagine a peaceful place, such as a forest or a beach, and create in this image soothing sensations, like the warmth of the sun, a cool breeze, and the smell of the ocean.
3. Create smaller tasks
Make a to-do list with all of the smaller tasks that need to be completed and set a break with a small reward for each time you complete a task. For example, for every 30 minutes take a 10-minute break and do something you like such as watch a short video or browse social media. The point is to set the reward for after you complete a task instead of allowing yourself to avoid the task by doing other things instead. To make this easier, set a timer on your phone during each task and after each break. After you have achieved your goals for the day, reward yourself with something larger such as a movie or your favorite show.
An exposure exercise involves doing an anxiety-provoking task for a set amount of time. People tend to avoid things that cause them fear and anxiety. The problem is that the avoidance feeds the anxiety and becomes stronger. One of the most effective behavioral interventions for anxiety is to face your fear and give yourself a chance to learn that you are capable of handling the thing that you were avoiding.
Schedule the tasks you have been procrastinating on into your calendar just like you would an appointment. Some people like to schedule tasks on pen and paper, others prefer to use their phones or computers, use whatever works for you. We prefer to use an app called Wunderlist. Wunderlist allows you to set whatever categories you want with the date and times you want it completed by and reminders along the way. You can sync it to the calendar on your PC or tablet and share a task with a friend or colleague. Completed tasks get checked off and stored into a hidden completed tasks list that you can access at any time.
Putting It All Together In Order To Overcome Procrastination
Let’s look at a real life example of how these techniques could be used to overcome procrastination. Becky has a very long final paper to write that will account for most of her grade. She has been procrastinating on this paper because it wasn’t due for a while, it is time consuming, and she is anxious thinking about how she might fail this class if the paper is not good enough.
She thinks about why she needs to do this paper. Becky needs to pass this class to graduate with a degree and achieve her dream job. She visualizes herself walking at graduation and her parents’ proud smiling faces. She schedules in 30 minutes everyday at 7am to work on this paper. Then, she breaks down what she needs to do (pick a topic, gather research articles, read the articles, create an outline, etc.).
Once Becky gets to the actual writing part she finds herself feeling anxious so she sets an exposure activity. Her activity is to sit in front of an open word document for 30 minutes. She doesn’t have to write anything but she can’t do anything else either (no social networking or internet surfing). After a few minutes, Becky becomes bored and starts brainstorming ideas. Eventually she starts writing without even thinking about it. After a few days of this Becky has gotten into the habit of writing and doesn’t need the exposure exercises anymore. A few weeks later and the paper is done!
Utilize these 5 strategies into your life in order to help you overcome procrastination.