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Procrastination: how to stop putting everything off?

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Putting off until tomorrow what we could do right away… When it comes to procrastination, all degrees are possible: from a temporary blockage for a particular chore that we put off punctually, to the lasting tendency to put everything off until later with very noticeable material consequences. But how can we understand procrastination and above all avoid giving in to it?

Not doing things right away, when they are tedious, may seem quite understandable. However, not everyone adopts this strategy, and it can be said that about half of the people prefer to get rid of the chores right away to have peace of mind and then devote themselves to the more pleasant things. The others opt for the opposite solution: start with the pleasant things and end with the annoying ones. If this sounds like you, and if procrastination has become a real problem for you, let’s go!

Anxiety about uncertainty
One of the main factors that drives procrastination is anxiety. As with phobias or anxiety disorders, postponing an action is an equivalent of avoidance behavior, which (temporarily) cancels out the associated stress. Depending on the context, this anxiety may be related to uncertainty, lack of confidence in one’s own abilities, or any other fear generated by the action to be performed or its potential consequences. It can be a social anxiety, for example, for appointments that are postponed or for objectives that have an important collective dimension.

Uncertainty and lack of control over the situation are determining factors. Not having a clear idea in advance of the problem to be tackled, not knowing how much time you will have to devote to it and, above all, not having previous experience of the same task and therefore of carrying it out are major obstacles to taking action, especially when you lack self-confidence. Thus, each time we have the choice between an uncertain action where we risk getting bogged down and an action that we master, we will obviously choose the second.

Wanting to do too well
Beyond the lack of mastery of a situation, a fundamental problem often explains procrastination habits: low self-esteem and its corollary, perfectionism. To constantly want to do things in a perfect way, in order to prove one’s own value, which in reality one doubts, quickly creates a vicious circle: setting the bar too high inevitably leads to not reaching it, which ends up altering one’s self-image even more (“I never achieve anything”, “This is proof that I am worthless”…). This race for perfection prevents us from acting, and it can even directly lead to procrastination: rather than facing a possible failure, we prefer, even without really realizing it, not to try at all.

The estimation of time
The question of time is central to procrastination, since we are always late. The people concerned often have a problem with the estimation of the time that such or such action can take, with a frank tendency to underestimate the necessary duration, and to overestimate the time remaining before the last limit. This can be similar to an excess of optimism, or sometimes to the ostrich policy: with the intuition of the delay that one starts to take, one prefers not to think about it and not to confront the reality. This way, you start too late and you feel overwhelmed, not because the task was too difficult but because you did not spend enough time on it.

Another type of trap also explains the reinforcement of procrastination: false emergencies. Instead of taking on an important and overdue task, one prefers another, less important but more affordable one (less complex, more enjoyable). This is done with a pretext to relieve oneself of guilt, such as “I really need to do this now, it can’t wait.” And, from false urgency to false urgency, the really necessary things are postponed to the Greek calendar.

Finally, the last factor of procrastination is, paradoxically, a tendency to hyperactivity. When this is disordered, with real attention problems, as in some children but also in many adults, the risk is to not be able to build an action in a continuous way from beginning to end. Excessive distractibility leads to a constant switching from one subject to another, and thus to the failure to complete any task. The persons concerned are thus lost in numerous actions, started but interrupted, and do not find themselves anymore. This tendency to dispersion and lack of concentration is naturally amplified by all the incentives to distraction, coming especially from the various screens and other digital media.

Beware of good resolutions
Just as it is pointless to decide to start a diet from one hour to the next (it usually doesn’t last very long…), the big resolution “I’m going to stop procrastinating completely today” doesn’t make sense and is rather counterproductive. Without preparation or an action plan, you risk failing very quickly, getting discouraged and feeling guilty, and not being able to tackle the problem for a long time… You have to move from an illusory all-or-nothing logic to a reasoned and targeted procedure.

Preparing for change consists in analyzing your own behaviors, being sure of your motivations (why do I need to change and what do I expect from it?), and setting objectives based on a fairly precise method. You probably have overdue tasks in different areas: work, study, putting away clothes or books, filing papers, paying bills, DIY, etc. Prioritize based on two parameters: the degree of urgency and usefulness of the task at hand, and the level of difficulty and drudgery.

The parameter to focus on is the degree of usefulness and urgency, because moving forward on these subjects can make your life easier quite quickly, and above all will strengthen your motivation and self-confidence if you succeed. So choose the actions that you have been putting off for a long time, even if you don’t have mandatory deadlines set by external conditions (these are often the tasks that we put off endlessly), and that really matter to you or to your loved ones.

If there are several of them, apply the second criterion to rank them: first those that should require the least effort and time, then the others.

Ten small problems are better than one big one
Another essential rule in the fight against procrastination is the segmentation of problems. It’s impossible to complete a large, complex task in a short period of time at once. It is essential to break down the heaviest actions into more manageable sub-actions, taking less time and raising fewer difficulties when they are handled one after the other. For example, if your main goal is to tidy up your room or your basement, it is easy to segment this task into sub-parts: first tidy up one piece of furniture, then another, then some drawers, etc. This will allow you to avoid the hassle of having to deal with a lot of work. This will allow you not to ask yourself too many questions when you are in the action, since the task is well defined. And above all, you will get real satisfaction each time a sub-objective is completed, rather than waiting for the entire problem to be solved to feel rewarded.

It is essential to introduce rewards when you achieve goals, things that you will only allow yourself to do when you have fulfilled the planned contract. This self-gratification may seem a bit crude or trivial, but it really works to keep motivation going.

A good stopwatch
If you feel your resolve is shaky, at least initially, I recommend the rounds method. Just as you will have broken down the task at hand into several goal slices, it is useful to break down the time into fairly short periods, like rounds in a boxing match. These periods, which can be ten minutes long for example, are a good safeguard against the risks of distraction.

The rule to set for yourself, and to follow as strictly as possible, is to do nothing but the task at hand during the ten minutes of each sequence. You can give yourself a break at the end of each round by doing something else or nothing at all (rest), or you can choose to go right on for another ten minutes if you feel up to it. But the same discipline is needed for all future sequences: do nothing but the task and rely on an objective time measurement, using the stopwatch on your smartphone for example.

The rewards you give yourself must not risk making you drift too long from your main mission… So no addictive activity, like a game you find hard to quit! Similarly, you must be careful not to let yourself be distracted during the task by all the usual temptations, especially from your phone or computer. So make sure to turn off the devices during important work phases, or at least turn off all notifications. Keep in mind that your concentration will be difficult to maintain if the task at hand is not very pleasant or requires a lot of thought or attention, so protect yourself well against all temptations.

Goal management and time management
From start to finish, you risk being held back or even paralyzed by your demand for perfection or at least your desire to do well. We have seen that this tendency, laudable in principle, can be a real poison of action. You must therefore be prepared to detect it behind any criticism of yourself, or behind any attempt to give up acting or continuing a job. You will not succeed in doing everything perfectly, that is a given, but everything that is done will be a step towards your satisfaction. Be uncompromising with your perfectionism!

Two final tips:

  1. Try to identify the times of day when you are usually the most productive. We all have slightly different profiles: some work effectively in the early morning, others in the evening or at certain times of the day. Try to take these characteristics into account when planning your most energy-intensive activities.
  2. Sometimes go into “emergency” mode when things aren’t working well enough. You’ve probably already noticed that your productivity is significantly increased when you have to turn in work before a deadline, or when a deadline is imposed on you for practical reasons (going on vacation, moving, visiting a friend, etc.). These are moments when all our energy and especially our motivation are concentrated on a single objective, with a notion of urgency requiring a certain speed. This is why some people end up, more or less voluntarily and consciously, getting into the habit of working at the last minute to gain efficiency. But it is possible to reproduce this pressure through self-imposed obligations: to force oneself to finish a certain task absolutely before a certain date, considering that it takes precedence over everything else. This involves a tighter schedule than you would tend to give yourself spontaneously.

This can be a great strategy, but it is best not to overdo it, as it can lead to excessive fatigue and stress. Try to alternate periods of normal organization with those periods of intense rush.

The essentials against procrastination

  • Prioritize your goals and start with the ones that matter the most and present the least difficulty.
  • Break down tasks into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks.
  • Set 10-minute blocks of time in which you don’t have to do anything other than the task at hand.
  • Organize your activities according to your known abilities, including days or times when you are usually most productive.
  • Switch to “emergency” mode when blockages persist, by setting yourself a deadline that must not be exceeded.

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