It goes something like this:
You have a new deadline. Let’s say you’re writing a post on procrastination (funny, right?).
This time, you swear you’re going to start ASAP and knock the whole thing out well in advance. You’ll be able to get a headstart on your other projects, and maybe – just maybe – you’ll have that relaxing Saturday where you aren’t scrambling to finish all your leftover tasks.
You gather all your materials. You grab that fresh cup of coffee, sit down at your desk all ready to work and –
You end up doom-scrolling through Twitter and ruthlessly judging strangers on Reddit instead and generally feel like a failure at life. At your age, you should be well past this procrastination thing, right?
Well, not necessarily. As it turns out, procrastination isn’t about self-control; it’s about self-regulation. Or rather, misregulation.
We put off tasks that we have some sort of negative feeling about, even though we know doing that will or could have a negative consequence later – which makes us feel even worse. It feeds into itself.
Typically, this negative mood prompts us to alter our behavior so we feel better. With procrastination, this doesn’t happen. Instead, the negative mood triggers a defensive response that causes us to avoid the thing making us feel bad rather than address it.
Put simply: Your present self is quite willing to throw your future self under the bus when threatened.
Obviously, that article you’re supposed to write isn’t actually a threat; but your mind perceives it that way. It’s irrational, which is precisely what makes it so difficult to change.
I’ve spent a good part of my life trying not to procrastinate. I’ve been recommended everything from mindfulness to hypnosis. Then, of course, there are those incredibly helpful individuals with the incredibly helpful: Just don’t procrastinate so much.
None of this advice has really worked for me – largely because it all seems to require some major overhaul of your daily routine, or even how you live your life.
Sure. I’ll get right on that. Tomorrow.
Instead, I’ve come up with a few ways to outsmart myself. These tactics don’t require early starts, cold showers (why would you do that??), or even a vision board. (Sure. Give the procrastinator another thing to do instead of the task they’re meant to do. Great idea. 😁)
No one – not even procrastinators – really likes rushing around at the last minute.
I’m not promising to permanently cure procrastination forever, or even every time. Past Me and Present Me are in a permanent standoff over lack of consideration for Future Me, but these (very small) changes have made accomplishing tasks much easier and – more importantly – much less stressful.
Self-acceptance: The secret key to increasing productivity
One of the simplest – though not the easiest – ways to combat procrastination is to accept that you procrastinate.
Repeat after me: I’m a procrastinator, and that’s okay.
Acceptance is always the first step to any change, obviously. More importantly, acceptance will eliminate that tendency to beat yourself up over putting things off. Feeling good – about yourself, about your task, or even just the muffins you had for breakfast – is absolutely vital to motivation.
In fact, according to Dr. Srini Pillay, negative feelings about yourself literally reduce the amount of grey matter you have in the regions of your brain that control emotions and stress. Low self-acceptance disrupts emotional regulation and increases feelings of stress and anxiety.
Stress and anxiety are also contributors to the procrastination effect, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The key takeaway here is that self-acceptance and cultivating a positive self-image isn’t just some trite, feel-good phrase. Low self-esteem not only inhibits your ability to function mentally and emotionally, but physically as well.
Many people will tell you to tackle the biggest or most difficult task first. Get it out of the way and the rest of your day will run smoothly. Eat the frog, as Mark Twain advised.
Don’t do that.
Pick something small and start there.
I very rarely jump straight into writing at the start of my day. I work up to it. I check Slack for any team updates or scan my inbox for new queries. I do not do either of these things with a goal in mind. This is a reconnaissance mission.
The key to this working is the statement: All I’m going to do is X – when I know that X will only take a few minutes.
Often, that “small task” will actually be something I’ve left over from the day before.
As in: “Oh, I finished my article but I didn’t insert the images from the design team. That’ll only take a couple of minutes. That’s all I need to do.”
The images get added, but there’s a blog title poll up. That’s just a click of a button, so I do that. Another writer asks for a peer review. She rarely ever has anything more than a few typographical errors, and how hard is it to read an article?
Before I know it, I’m writing that post on procrastination. I didn’t even have to force myself; it just required a little misdirection.
As it turns out, this is a proven psychological phenomenon first studied in 1927 by Russian psychologist, Bluma Zeigarnik. Called, naturally, the Zeigarnik effect, her theory suggests we remain more focused – and remember better – tasks we haven’t finished yet.
Zeigarnik conducted an experiment where participants were asked to complete a series of tasks. During one round of the tasks, participants were interrupted while the remaining tasks were completed without interruption.
In their interviews after the experiment, participants were able to recall details of the interrupted tasks 90% better than the uninterrupted ones.
Hold yourself accountable: Is this the best use of my time right now?
At Process Street, we use the Scrumban method to keep on top of projects by working in four-week sprints. At the beginning of the sprint, we get all of our tasks and due dates for those four weeks, and it’s basically up to us how we choose to manage them.
When a sprint starts, we each take a “sprint planning day” which is used to coordinate our responsibilities and come up with a rough plan for the month.
“Rough” is an important adjective here, because if you schedule your month too stringently, inevitably, your plan will fail. You need to build some flexibility into your schedule because the unexpected will always happen.
Set personal due dates
I lie to myself on a daily basis.
If I have an article due on the 21st of the month, I move that deadline a week earlier. On all of my calendars, to-do lists, planners, schedule templates, etc. will say that post is due on the 14th.
I have to decide – and believe – that my deadline is the only deadline.
Once this earlier deadline is stuck in your head, you’ll unconsciously use that as the end target for your project.
Again, this has a psychological basis. Deadlines – when set properly – are actually a very positive motivator. With deadlines come what are called “goal gradients.” The closer you get to completing your goal, the more incentive you have to keep going. Each unit of effort feels more effective the smaller the gap to your goal is.
In addition to goal gradients are “opportunity costs.” The closer you get to a deadline, or to completing a goal, the more opportunity costs are reduced. You’re reading a book before bed, but when it comes time to go sleep, you only have one page left before the end of the book.
Has anyone ever put the book down and not read that last page?
The short version of this: tasks are easier if you know when they’ll be over.
According to social psychologist Nira Liberman, this is because we conserve our energy when we don’t know how long something will take. When we can see the finish line, though, we’re more likely to use the energy we’ve been saving to finish with an extra burst.
Plan your week
Make a list of everything you need to accomplish that week.
From that list, pick out the most important tasks – but no more than 5. Assign each day one of these tasks, but be realistic. If you even think a task may take more than one day, give it two. It’s always better to give yourself more time than you might need.
Sometimes you’ll have more than one important task to prioritize on a particular day. In this case, choose one primary task and two secondary tasks.
Getting used to this system will take some time, and you won’t always succeed. It will, however, force you to carefully evaluate how you spend your time, which tasks are actually the most important, and how best to divide your time between them.
Schedule your procrastination
Pick at least one day a week to take off. You can do whatever you want on that day, as long as it isn’t work-related, or even work-adjacent. Colloquially, this is often referred to as a “weekend.”
I know it may seem counterintuitive to take time off when the problem is not using your time effectively, but it actually works.
To start with, it gives you something to look forward to. If you have nothing but day after day after day of unpleasant tasks stretching ahead of you into the future, you are going to feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unmotivated.
If, however, you have an unpleasant task to do today, but accomplishing that task means that tomorrow you can have a movie marathon or go to a picnic in the park, it’s a lot easier to get started.
Ultimately, we all need space to recharge our batteries and without it, we fall into unhealthy behavior patterns. The stress and pressure of overworking can exacerbate the feelings that cause procrastination, increase the feeling of being overwhelmed, and eventually result in burnout.
Technology is not the enemy
Sure, we all spend too much time on our phones and the internet is a tempting and distracting place, but it’s also really frickin’ useful when used properly.
There are a ton of task planning apps, but I keep it simple with a Sticky Note on my desktop with my tasks for the day, or sometimes even the week. I have the same tasks on various analog lists, as well, but they all have 3 things in common:
- They’re easily accessible
- They’re not constantly visible
- I really like checking tasks off
Okay, so only the first two are really worth discussing here, but they are an important aspect of a successful to-do list. If you have your to-do list in front of your face all the time, it can easily become overwhelming. All you’re doing is looking at all the things you’ve yet to accomplish.
A to-do list that is accessible but not always visible allows you to check it when you need to, but put it away when you’ve started working on a task. For example, I only see my Sticky Note list when I close my browser, or when I get to mark something off.
If your to-do list is digital, mark what’s been completed, but don’t delete those tasks. Saving them is a good way to judge your progress at a glance, as well as complete your daily and weekly wrap-ups.
When you meet a deadline – or even if you’ve had an unusually productive day – reward yourself for it. Treat yourself to dinner or a movie. Buy yourself that new book you’ve been eyeing. Call up your best friend for a virtual coffee date.
The point is: recognize your successes and share them. Even if it’s only your goldfish, tell someone – out loud – “Today was a good day; I got a lot done.”
We all know positive reinforcement is a very effective way to train pets and children; we forget that adults need a pat on the back, too.
Be a work in progress
Procrastination isn’t the result of a lack of self-control; it’s a pattern of behavior. We put off tasks that we have a negative or unpleasant feeling about because of an inability to manage those feelings in the moment. It’s a temporary solution to a long-term problem.
To change this, you first need to change the way you manage your emotions. Ask yourself why you feel that way about the task. Is it a result of embarrassment, fear, or insecurity? How could you create more positive associations?
Remember that, like changing any habit, reducing procrastination is a process. It won’t happen overnight, and you may find that what works today doesn’t work a year from now, or a week, or even tomorrow.
It’s okay to be a work in progress.
Leks Drakos is a rogue academic with a Ph.D. in contemporary fiction from the University of Kent (Paris and Canterbury). In addition to writing for Process Street, his research interests include post-apocalyptica, contemporary fiction, and monster studies. Twitter: @leksikality [he/him]
One thought on “The Procrastinator’s Guide to Improving Productivity (without upending your life)”
I love the idea of planning your procrastination! I do write down deadlines and find that daily to-do tasks get me focused on what really needs to be done. Thanks for these tips and will have to plan my day of procrastination now 🙂