As I geared up to write this story, providence kindly provided some proverbial grist for the mill. I did the research and interviews efficiently and without feet-dragging well in advance, but I am ashamed to admit how many hours I sat sitting at the computer handily avoiding composing these very lines.
A million important things suddenly arose: a credit card issue became incredibly appealing, as did the extremely urgent task of ordering extra electric toothbrush heads. Three hours went by, and I had gotten an enormous amount done—just not on this article.
Sound familiar? Anyone who has procrastinated will recognize the haunting feeling of simultaneously needing to get a task done but being helpless to get started. To the diehard procrastinator, anything beats the honey-do list. And yet, despite the attitude of lassitude, “people have a genuine desire to do the things they care about,” says Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct and a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University. Often, she says, it’s more a matter of finding a persuasive enough motivation.
Break the spell of procrastination
For people who prefer the idea of tomorrow over today, McGonigal offers plenty of fresh insights and practical strategies that can make a huge difference. “Procrastination comes from one of two desires,” she explains. “It’s either to avoid the anxiety that arises around tackling something, or because the task doesn’t feel compelling till you are up against the deadline.” Basically, dear slacker, knowledge is follow-through. If you can identify your hold up, it becomes much easier to complete the challenge at hand.
To get started, try this exercise from McGonigal for recognizing your style. Think of something you have been putting off, and notice your feelings about it. Take a moment to ask what’s driving the delay. What comes up when you think about facing the task right now?
- Do you feel exhausted or overwhelmed when you think about the task?
- Do you worry that you’ll fail, let someone down or make a bad decision?
- Does the task make you think about your past failures or negative experiences?
If anxiety starts to overwhelm you, the best approach is to reduce the angst by breaking the task down into small, doable steps, says McGonigal. For example, if doing your taxes is your biggest hurdle, have one task be simply downloading the tax forms. “Create an inner map of how you will finish the project, and then trust in the power of taking micro steps to get you there,” she says.
- Does the deadline seem too far away, and benefits of the task just not urgent enough, to command your full energy and attention?
- Do you tell yourself the task is boring, and there are so many better ways to spend your time and energy?
- Do you enjoy the rush of last-minute efforts, and tell yourself starting earlier is a waste of time?
According to McGonigal, people who use deadlines for motivation get an adrenal rush from leaving things to the last minute. “They feel like they’ve won if they can successfully pull it off,” says McGonigal. “They like racing the clock or doing something people say can’t be done. In fact, if you ask an arousal procrastinator why they put things off, you’ll probably get the standard line: I work best under pressure.” In fact, a 2001 study published in the September issue of the European Journal of Personality found that chronic procrastinators performed more slowly and made more performance errors, regardless of the length of time, than non-procrastinators.
For thrill-seeking procrastinators, the trick is finding ways to artificially increase the urgency of the task. McGonigal prescribes the 10-minute rule—you only have 10 minutes to do whatever you are avoiding. Also, don’t be afraid to use bribery with yourself. Hedonists thrive on rewards, so treats along the way to the finish have a big impact.
Make friends with the foreseeable future
No matter your reason for putting things off, one way to understand procrastination better is to see it as being out-of-sync with your future self. Before your woo-woo radar gets activated, consider this. Most people who procrastinate either idealize how they will be in the future (anxiety type), or don’t believe the future has much validity (arousal type), according to McGonigal.
Seen this way, procrastination is a failure of the imagination. If you have a sense of the future, you are less likely to harm your future self with needless delays. The key lies in making the future more realistic. If you can convince yourself of its inevitable arrival, tasks such as saving for retirement appear more engaging. And if you realize that fundamentally you will be the same self with the same struggles in the future—what experts call a “high future self continuity”—you are less likely to put off making immediate changes regarding your health and well-being, says McGonigal.
If you still feel disconnected from your future, McGonigal suggests time travel. Create a future memory by imagining yourself doing something in the future, or even composing a letter of thanks from your future self. The process of backward engineering memories can plant the seed of motivation essential for making difficult changes.
One of the biggest insights students taking McGonigal’s class often have is that they didn’t truly care about their targeted bugbear. The take-home? Don’t waste precious energy on a task that deep down you don’t really care about. “If it’s not a goal or a value, but instead reflects a ‘should,’ it’s OK to procrastinate,” say McGonigal.
Talk amongst yourselves, both future and present, to get perspective on what matters most to you. Armed with foresight—and hindsight—the big picture has more definition. And even with less pressing regards, I discovered my inner elder has a powerful influence on my behavior. After I imagined how disappointed my future self would be if I missed this deadline, I spent the weekend making good, and this article practically wrote itself.