All of us procrastinate at some point. If you’re finding that you’re losing motivation to finish or even start your to-do list, then this article is for you. Learn how to spot the typical signs of procrastination, the drivers behind them and tips on managing and prioritising your tasks.
Here’s the scenario...you have a long list of things on your to do list. You decide to stab at it until the tasks disappear in small bits, but you only do the easy ones. It is more than likely that the most difficult tasks that you left on your list were more important, after all it’s sod’s law.
You don’t know why you don’t do the difficult tasks; you just stare at them and worry that they need to be done. You take longer with the easy tasks, pruning and perfecting them beyond normal standards. Then you do it again. Then you do something that isn’t on the list. The difficult tasks are still there and you’re still not doing them. This is called procrastination.
Procrastination – what is it?
Procrastination is the name for the act of “putting things off”, usually things that are urgent or difficult for us to begin or complete. Psychologists define procrastination as a gap between intention and action1. People who procrastinate will surround themselves with distractions such as email and social media notifications, sniff around for alternative and less important tasks to do and will power full steam ahead when the deadline is looming around the corner. Sound familiar at all?
15-20% of the population are procrastinators2. Everybody procrastinates to some extent. Severe procrastination can be a symptom of an underlying health issue such as anxiety or low self confidence. It is often thought that procrastination is due to poor time management, but it is mostly the result of somebody being overly optimistic about their ability to complete a task in the given time frame, thus leaving it until the last minute. Procrastination can be helped with better planning, prioritisation and the limitation of distractions – but the only way to beat it completely is by starting the task even if you feel bad, tired, de-motivated or whatever the excuse may be.
Why do people procrastinate?
Possible reasons for procrastination are:
- Lack of confidence in the task. If you can’t visualise the end, you may not even bother to begin
- Perfectionism and fear of failure
- Lack of enthusiasm or enjoyment. People are more motivated by work they are passionate about3
- Having too much work to do at once
- To delay potential anxiety or stress that may be caused by starting a difficult task
The main reason for procrastination is that humans enjoy the rush of adrenaline when put under pressure. This doesn’t happen if we have a deadline that looms ahead in the future and all this will do is drain your resources and lose vital quality in your work. According to Freud, the pleasure principle may be the driver for procrastination, in which people seek pleasure and avoid suffering in order to satisfy their needs.4
Am I a procrastinator?
As stated previously in this article, everyone procrastinates at some point as some form of avoidance. It’s all about willpower, setting your goals in a manageable way that motivates you to begin; and also enjoy that euphoric feeling of smashing a deadline. If you feel nervous about starting a task today, it will only get worse tomorrow!
Here are some typical symptoms of procrastination to look out for:
- "Bingeing" on low priority tasks and leaving the high priority ones until last
- Switching between tasks on your to-do list without finishing them
- Doing everything – that is not on your to-do list
- Feeling immediately compelled to read every email alert or Facebook notification. Ask yourself “Can it really not wait until I’m finished?”
- Putting off decision making
- Telling your self "I perform better under pressure. I’ll do this later."
- Saying things like "I don’t have the motivation today. I’m too tired today. I’ll feel more motivated after I have a break, have a coffee, go to the gym, watch TV etc."
So why not make a long to-do list?
To-do lists can become the crutch we rest on for reassurance that we are organised, sometimes the task of making a to-do list is the only one we complete!
The act of making a toilet-roll style to-do list in a panic will rid your anxiety in the short-term, but will not serve you well in the long-term. In these situations, a to-do list indicates a loss of control and in most cases will never be completed within the time-scale. The thought of having tasks stacking up on your shoulders in this manner can bring feelings of dread, guilt and constant reminder that you have unfinished tasks. The Zeigarnik effect provides a great explanation for this feeling.5
If you have to resort to writing your to-do list on toilet paper, then you’ll only procrastinate more when it comes to tackling the tasks!
The pitfalls of standard to-do lists:
- Trying to do too much at once with no prioritisation. If you don’t assign tasks priority, you are more than likely to binge on the low priority ones first, to mimic progression.
- To-do lists sometimes indicate the loss of control, done in haste and never finished!
- The thought of having a to-do list can sometimes bring feelings of dread and guilt and it’s a reminder that we may have failed to complete tasks – How do YOU combat this?
Getting around the pitfalls
- Make sub goals and action points with each task. This then becomes project management and you are less likely to experience distraction or feel overwhelmed.
- Assign each task a level of priority and a due date.
- Reward yourself with an easy task when you complete a high priority task.
- Break down each task and make the action points more specific in order to reach the desired goal.
- The average adult’s attention span is 20 minutes, unless it’s a particularly interesting topic.6 Taking shorter, frequent breaks instead of one long one will improve your concentration.
The difference between a to-do list and applying a project management method (or managing tasks efficiently) is that you are more concerned about time. There is usually an end product in mind.
Think you are a procrastinator?
Take a look at the cartoon above and see if you can relate to the signs of procrastination. The only way to combat procrastination is…to start the task!
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