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Why We Procrastinate — and How to Stop


A copy of Enjoy Time: Stop Rushing, Get More Done by Catherine Blyth landed here at Fit Bottomed Zen HQ, and we are obsessed with it. So much so that we booked the author as a guest on our podcast (ep coming up in 2019!) and immediately asked if we could share a few research-based tips from the book on the site. Thankfully, she said yes!

Blythe pulled together theories and research in behavioral studies and psychology to drill deep down into why we procrastinate — and practical ways that we can curb it.

Tackling Procrastination by Catherine Blyth

There are five reasons to procrastinate:

  1. Incapacity (not being up to the task)
  2. Situation (mess, disorder, poor planning)
  3. Arousal (you love the drama)
  4. Indecision
  5. Avoiding failure

To minimize them, be chary of taking on too much, and create conditions in which goals are more achievable. The more often you use time judiciously and stick to commitments, the more relaxed, realistic and reliable you will be.

As Robert Boice — a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University, NY, who spent six years studying the work practice of professional academics and identified six hallmarks of compulsive procrastinators — noted, chronic procrastinators consistently show poor judgement at calculating time for tasks. They justify this with claims such as “I work better under pressure” (yes, we work under pressure; “better” is a matter of opinion).

One useful exercise is to list the reasons you fall back on to rationalize putting off work. Now ask yourself: are they self-defeating? Get wise to these excuses, and next time you hear yourself use one of them, override it. See it as a trigger switch to interrupt your habitual reaction and readjust your mindset.

Unfortunately, there are two unhelpful ways in which our minds warp time. First, the remoter a deadline, the likelier that we will underestimate a task’s complexity, and therefore how long it will take to complete. Second, the more complicated a task — the more steps that it involves — then the further off the deadline seems.

Another issue is that temptations are horribly attractive. In a phenomenon called “hyperbolic discounting,” when offered the choice between £90 today and £99 tomorrow, usually we choose the former. If the choice becomes £90 in twenty days, but £99 in twenty-one, we pick the latter. Rational choices are easier when we take a long view, but an immediate temptation always appeals most: that hour watching television is invariably more attractive than an extra hour on a spreadsheet.

Taken together, these factors mean that instinctively we defer difficult things — often deceiving ourselves that there is still plenty of time.

What to Do When You Notice Yourself Procrastinating

To delay purposefully, train yourself to intercept the impulse to procrastinate.

As soon as you notice it happen, stop.

Ask yourself why you are deviating from your plan. What took your attention?

Now examine the costs and benefits of delaying. If you remain convinced that deferral truly makes sense, identify a time when you will return to the task. Write down this new time and you will find it harder to defer when it comes.

How to Counter These Weaknesses

1. Use pre-commitments. For example, arrange a regular monthly standing order to a savings account, giving the upper hand to your sensible, long-term, planner self — the part of you who has decided to save a deposit for a flat. Then you won’t splurge all your salary in the sales. In the same way, book a regular spot in your schedule for that challenging project.

2. Plan in detail. Use step-by-step deadlines to crystallize what is realistic and necessary to complete a task. First break it into stages, calculating how long each will take, then allocate dates to begin and end each phase. Now write down the plan in ink — this deepens psychological commitment, studies find.

3. Share your plan with a friend, sending regular progress reports. Social pressure (i.e. embarrassment) is a great barrier against backsliding!

Which of these reasons for procrastination resonate strongest with you? –Catherine Blyth

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