We've all been plagued by procrastination at one time or another. For some, it's a chronic problem. Others find that it occurs occasionally in some areas of their lives. The net results, though, are usually the same-wasted time, missed opportunities, poor performance, self-deprecation or increased stress.
Procrastination is letting the low priority tasks get in the way of high priority ones. It's staying in bed when you know class begins in a short while, watching TV instead of researching that term paper, or calling a friend rather than completing your math assignment.
We all seem to do fine with things we want to do or enjoy doing for fun. But, when we perceive tasks as difficult, inconvenient or scary, we may shift into our procrastination mode. We have very clever ways of fooling ourselves. See how many of the following excuses hit home for you:
- It's OK to celebrate. . .besides, I'll start my diet (or other project) tomorrow.
- I'm not in the mood to do it.
- My health problem isn't that bad. Time will heal this pain.
- There's plenty of time to get it done.
- Why does Professor Smarts make us do so much? It's not fair.
- It's too hard to do. I don't know where to begin.
- I work better under pressure so I don't need to do it right now.
- I've got too many other things to do first.
Once exposed, these self-defeating statements don't sound convincing. But, when we privately tell ourselves these excuses, they seem quite believable. Don't be fooled by how innocent they sound. They get us to postpone important tasks and duties.
Procrastination is a bad habit. Like other habits, there are two general causes. The first is the "crooked thinking" we employ to justify our behavior. The second cause is our behavioral patterns.
A closer look at our crooked thinking reveals three major issues in delaying tactics -- perfectionism, inadequacy, and discomfort. Those who believe they must turn in a most exemplary paper may wait until all available resources have been reviewed or endlessly rewrite draft after draft and risk not finishing on time. Many who feel inadequate are convinced they will fail an exam, so they delay preparation and maintain an attitude of "what's the use." Even though experience tells people that taking care of minor problems now will prevent serious ones later, many let their fear of immediate discomfort and pain interfere with progress toward completing necessary tasks.
Our behavioral patterns are the second cause. Getting started on an unpleasant or difficult task may seem impossible. Procrastination is likened to the physics concept of inertia -- a mass at rest tends to stay at rest. Greater forces are required to start change than to sustain change. Another way of viewing it is that avoiding tasks reinforces procrastination which makes it harder to get things going. A person may be stuck, too, not by the lack of desire, but by not knowing what to do. Here are some things to break the habit. Remember, don't just read them, do them!
Change Your Thinking
- Rational Self-Talk. Procrastination thinking doesn't hold up to rational inspection. The "two-column
technique" will help. Write down all your excuses on one side of a piece of paper.
Start challenging the faulty reasoning behind each of the excuses. Write down your
realistic thoughts on the other side of the paper, opposite each excuse. It might
look something like this:
I'm not in the mood now. Mood doesn't do my work, actions do. If I wait for the right mood, I may never get it done. I'm just lazy. Labeling myself as lazy only brings me down. My work is really separate from who I am as a person. Getting started is the key to finishing.
- Positive Self-Statements. Incorporate a list of self-motivating sayings into your repertoire of thoughts. Consider. . ."There's no time like the present," "Strike while the iron is hot," and "The sooner the better."
- Don't Catastrophize. Jumping to the conclusion that you will fail or that you are no good at something will only create a self-fulfilling prophecy that will stop you cold. Recognize that your negative predictions are not facts. Focus on the present and what positive steps you can take toward reaching your goals.
- Design Clear Goals. Think about what you want and what needs to be done. Be specific. If it's getting a certain grade, figure out the exact steps to achieve it. Be realistic. Don't think you'll speak like a diplomat after one course of Chinese. Having goals too big can scare you from starting.
Change Your Behaviors
- Set Priorities. Write down all the things that need to be done in order of their importance. The greater the importance or urgency, the higher the priority. Put "messing around time" (distractions) in its proper place -- last! Start at the top of the list and work your way down.
- Partialize the Task. Big projects feel overwhelming. Break them down into the smallest and most manageable subparts. You'll get more done if you can do it piece by piece. Try outlining your essays, for example. Partializing works especially well with the unpleasant jobs. Most of us can handle duties we dislike as long as they're for a short time and in small increments.
- Get Organized. Have all your materials ready before you start. Use a daily schedule and have it with you all the time. List the tasks of the day or week realistically. Check off the tasks when you have completed them.
- Take a Stand. Commit yourself to doing the task. Write yourself a "contract" and sign it. Better
yet, tell a friend, spouse, or professor about your plans to do tasks.
Use Prompts. Write reminders to yourself and put them in conspicuous places like on the TV, refrigerator, bathroom mirror, front door, and car dashboard.
- Reward Yourself. Self-reinforcement has a powerful effect on developing a "do it now" attitude. Celebrate, pat yourself on the back, smile, and let yourself enjoy the completion of even the smallest of tasks. Don't minimize your accomplishments. Remember, you're already that much closer to finishing. Go ahead, get started—NOW!
If you are still faced with a strong procrastination habit, you may wish to consult a member of the counseling psychology staff in D203. Professional consultation is free to currently enrolled students.