Procrastination is merely the symptom. The cure must address its cause.
Imagine you went to the doctor complaining of a headache and the first words out of his or her mouth were, “Take aspirin. Have a nice day.” If your headache turned out to be, say, a brain tumor, you’d sue and win. A headache is only the symptom. Its cause will determine the right treatment.
The same is true of procrastination. You should decide how to treat it only after you’ve identified the root cause(s). Here are procrastination’s most common causes and, for each, a tactic that has helped my clients. They are derived from my new book, Careers for Dummies.
Your life is too bad to make the effort to cure your procrastination. If that's the case, it’s too early to work on procrastination. Instead, take baby steps to improve your life's blockers: work, relationship, emotional health, or physical health. Of course, your life needn’t be in perfect shape before addressing your procrastination. It just need be good enough to feel your procrastination is worth controlling.
You tend to lose track of time. For a day or, longer, keep a timer in your pocket such as the clock app on your iPhone or a small kitchen timer. Set it for whatever time you think would be helpful to track—as short as a minute, as long as an hour. Each time the timer chimes, you get a sense of how long that interval is. If you’re ambitious, log what you were doing during that interval. After a few hours, review your log. Do you want to reallocate your time?
You’re impulsive, so you escape unpleasant tasks for pleasant ones even if it hurts you long-term. Try consciousness-raising. I’m not talking here about the Buddhist kind, although that can be helpful. For the next hour or day—your choice—be aware of that Moment of Truth: when you’re facing an uncomfortable task and tempted to literally or figuratively get a burrito. Of course, there are times to opt for the burrito but, by being conscious of whether to do that, the procrastinator more often concludes it’s worth the discomfort of the darn task and that the burrito can wait.
Your philosophy of life is centered around the pursuit of happiness. Some procrastinators are helped by recognizing that the life well-led usually entails a fair amount of accomplishment. After all, many people could be happy with a life filled with sitcoms, snacks, and bubble baths. Yet even a hedonist would agree that such a life is less well-led than a life that balances work and play or even prioritizes productivity.
You’re a perfectionist, so tasks are a long, painful slog. If so, you’ll understandably procrastinate subsequent tasks. It may help to realize that you're in control of a perfectionism pedal. Rather than defaulting to perfectionism all the time, consciously decide whether to press the pedal to the metal and do the task perfectly. Or is this a time when the perfect is the enemy of the good and, for that task, half-pedal or even less is good enough?
You’re tackling tasks that are too difficult. If you particularly procrastinate tasks that are hard, can you delegate any? For example, I am lousy at fixing things around the house, so I usually just “call the guy.” Or if, for example, your job is often too hard, do you need more training, or should you pivot into a job that skirts your weaknesses and accentuates your strengths?
You’re tackling tasks that are too easy or repetitive. Boring tasks generally can be hired-out inexpensively, so consider outsourcing such tasks, for example, housecleaning or doing the bookkeeping for your small business. Even if you’re not wealthy, the freed-up time is often worth it.
You’re emotionally fragile, so you’re afraid you won’t rebound quickly after a failure or rejection. Even highly successful people fail, but they rarely allow themselves to wallow. They quickly, perhaps instantly, glean any lessons from the failure and then, instead of recriminations or anger, redirect to some positive activity. That isn’t an inborn trait; it’s an acquirable habit. So, keep reminding yourself that if you have a reasonable chance of succeeding at a task, it’s worth trying. If you fail, you’ll survive and maybe learn something from the attempt.
Of course, if you don’t try, that ensures you fail, you lose the learning opportunity, and decrease your sense of self-efficacy. That tends to worsen with subsequent tasks until you feel there’s little you can do. Of course, I’m not saying you should tackle tasks that have a poor risk-reward ratio. For example, I’d be a fool to try out for a pro football team. Chances are very good that not only wouldn’t I make the team, I’d need an orthopedic surgeon.
You’re afraid that success would swallow up your life. Indeed, success tends to yield more demands on your time, which can eat into work-life balance. It may help to, up-front, decide how much you're willing to work. Perhaps in the short-run, you don’t mind long work hours but that you generally want to keep it to 40 hours a week. Many people decide that 40 good hours makes them employable, and if that’s not good enough for a given employer, it will be for another.
None of the above. You simply need tactics to help you manage time better.
These have helped my clients:
Picture the pros and cons. Stay alert to that moment of truth when you’re deciding whether to do the task or get that burrito, At that moment, remind yourself of how your life would be better if you did the task and worse if you didn’t.
The one-second task. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. So if you’re about to procrastinate a task that you’ve decided you should do, ask yourself, “What’s my next one-second task?” One second is a friendly, not-intimidating amount of time. Maybe it’s to turn on your computer or open a book. After that one-second task, do your next one and then one more. Often, that's enough to get the ball rolling. That tactic is also useful when you reach a roadblock. Your first reaction to a tough part may be that it's overwhelming. Instead, take a deep breath and ask yourself, “Okay, what's my first one-second task?”
The one-minute struggle. Of course, there are exceptions but usually, if you haven’t made progress on a roadblock within one minute, you’re unlikely to, which makes the whole working process painful. So struggle for just a minute and then ask yourself whether you should keep struggling, get help, or whether you can do the task without toppling the roadblock.
Ritualize. Some people’s procrastination is mitigated by structure, such as allocating 9 AM to 10 AM every Saturday and Sunday to do your taxes until they’re done.
The Pomodoro Technique. This is named after those tomato-shaped kitchen timers but any timer will do. Set it for 20 minutes and work until it chimes. Then take five minutes to do whatever you want. Repeat that twice more—three comprise a Pomodoro. Or use one of the Pomodoro apps.
It may be overambitious for the inveterate procrastinator to demand a cure, but one or more of these ideas might reduce its toll on your lifeIt may be overambitious for the inveterate procrastinator to demand a cure, but one or more of these ideas might reduce its toll on your life.