We're all guilty of procrastination at one time or another. But for a fair-sized chunk of the population — as many as 50% of students and 20% of the rest of us, according to the American Psychological Association — it's a serious problem, sabotaging their focus and hijacking their attention from what they know they should be doing.
So, why do we procrastinate, and what can we do about it? Piers Steel, Ph.D., of the University of Calgary, and author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, has studied the phenomenon for 30 years. While lack of confidence and aversion to unpleasant tasks are clear factors in procrastination, Steel points out that we are, to an extent, hard-wired to procrastinate.
"We have multiple decision-making centers," he said. "We make plans in our prefrontal cortex, but they can easily be subverted by the limbic system, a more primitive part of the brain that responds to temptations in front of us. When we put something off, it's usually in favor of something more enjoyable." Some of us are more prone to this than others, and Steel has identified impulsiveness, a quantifiable characteristic, as a key determinant of procrastination.
In recent years, Google, Facebook, YouTube, and other such platforms have delivered a smorgasbord of new temptations. "The deck is stacked against us," Steel said.
Other factors come into play, too, according to Fuschia Sirois, Ph.D., of the University of Sheffield in the U.K., whose research has focused on the health and well-being implications of procrastination. "We've found that people's ability to manage their negative emotions towards a task is an indicator of their likeliness to procrastinate," Sirois said. "If they lack the ability to regulate those feelings, in situations that bring them up, people will procrastinate as a means of avoiding those feelings in order to regulate them."
The good news is that there are techniques to help people manage those emotions. "Through a strategy of 'cognitive reappraisal,' you can learn to look at something distressing in a more positive way," Sirois said.
Here are a few proven tips that will help you vanquish your own procrastination, wherever you may encounter it. Some will help you manage the temptations around you; others will help you manage yourself.
- Turn off email alert sounds. Checking your email every time you hear that "ding" is an almost Pavlovian response and a huge time waster. "When you yield to this, you're probably breaking out of something more valuable," Steel said. "It's been estimated that you can gain an extra month of productivity per year by removing this distraction."
- Respect your power hours. Most of us are blessed with four or five hours a day when our energy and attention are at their peak. Use that time to tackle your hardest work. "Do this, and you'll often find you can take it a little easier the rest of the day," Steel said.
- Set up separate computer logins for work and play. "We know temptations are strongest when they're nearest, so requiring the extra step of a separate login for games and social media can help," Steel said. Choose contrasting themes. Associations will build up over time, and you'll have an easier time staying focused.
- Find something positive in what you're avoiding and focus on it. You loathe shopping for gifts, but Aunt Peggy means a lot to you and you want to make her smile. Or maybe a dreaded project will bring the chance to gain knowledge or a skill you're interested in. "Finding something in what you're putting off that's meaningful to you allows you to bring down the threshold of resistance to it," Sirois said.
- One small step … When we procrastinate, what we're avoiding assumes monolithic status. Taking one small step can break the logjam, whether it's doing some background research or getting your materials in order. "Break it down," Sirois said. "Once you've done A-B-C, D-E-F will become evident, and your confidence will build along the way."
John Lehmann-Haupt is a freelance writer based in New York City. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Chris Baysden, associate director – content development, at Chris.Baysden@aicpa-cima.com.