Geetanjali Mukherjee

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Why We Procrastinate and What To Do About It

I have been thinking a lot about productivity and getting more done, and in my last post I discussed clearly setting out tasks that correspond to our goals, to make it easier to get through them. However, we all know, that making a list of things to do and actually doing them are completely separate things. We can make lists with all sorts of good intentions, and decide that we will finally start that book, and finish up cleaning out the basement storage area, and sort out our papers and file them, but one month later, the same few items get shuffled on to the next to-do list.

At this point I sometimes ask myself, should I forget about my to-do list altogether? Should I give up on ever writing that book or cleaning out that closet? Or is there something I can do to stop procrastinating on things that I add to my list?

As I thought about this a bit more, I realized that for me there were 3 broad reasons why I procrastinated on a task, and knowing why I was putting off a specific task might actually make it easier to complete the task, or otherwise re-evaluate it in some way.

1. Feeling Bored

The most common reason I suspect that many people put off doing something, and definitely one of the main reasons for me quite often, is that something is boring, or tedious, and so you don't really relish the prospect of working on it right now. You tell yourself that's maybe it isn't really that important a task, or that maybe you will work on it later. Tasks like filing, clearing out your closet or basement, organizing your receipts or balancing your checkbook - none of these are rocket science or inherently difficult, its just you are bored, and don't really want to drop everything and work on them right now.

A specific twist to this problem - I read a book about using the early, fresh hours of the day to work on focused work that requires more cognitive processing - such as maybe writing a paper for school or a project for your boss. The book suggested it was better to put off more tedious, logistical or simply routine work, for later in the day. Now while this is undoubtedly good advice, somehow I interpreted this to mean that under no circumstances should I do any routine work during the day, and any work I do that isn't very highly cognitively demanding was a waste of time. My solution? To do it at night or later in the evening. Inevitably, my evening would be filled with other pressing needs such as going to the gym, cooking dinner and perhaps light housework or catching up with family. As a result, many routine, administrative and logistical things simply kept piling up because I decided that I simply didn't have the time during the day to get to them.

The Solution: Set aside some time to work on the task(s) you're putting off, if need be, scheduling them straight into your calendar. And be realistic about how much time to schedule in. On Wednesday morning you might think that you will be inclined to spend 2 hours on Saturday cleaning out the basement, but after Saturday lunch, you will probably just rather watch a movie or go out with friends. Instead if you schedule a 20-30 minute session, deciding that you will only perhaps go in and sort the things on top, or make a small pile of things to give away, it might be more doable. After all, you can work for 30 minutes and then watch that movie.

Keep the amount of time you initially allocate short, and then try to make that time as palatable as possible, so you are more motivated to do another slot, and another, till the job gets done. You could play music as you work, or bribe yourself with a fancy latte or the promise of a pedicure. Anything that gets you started on the task. Odds are, once you get going, it won't seem quite such a daunting task, and you will make more headway than you expected.
And for those with my dilemma of the admin work piling up and getting shunted aside? Maybe you can designate an admin day - and decide that other than answering emails and any urgent work, you will dedicate the day to catching up on all the various logistical and administrative stuff that has piled up.

2. Feeling Overwhelmed 

This one is two-fold. Maybe you have been handed a task that is too complex for you to figure out how to even start. Maybe you felt unsure about where to begin or whether you could even do it, and so you kept putting it off. The other reason you might be putting tasks off and feeling overwhelmed is simply that you have taken on too much. Maybe you said yes to a favor when things were a little slower, or maybe at the time you didn't know how much work it would entail. Maybe you felt guilted into saying yes or taking something on, and now are struggling to fit it in among the 101 other things on your list. 

The Solution: Let's take this a step at a time. Firstly, breathe. As you uncover the reasons for procrastinating, hopefully you will also be able to see quite clearly how to fix the problem. When dealing with a complex or large project, we usually tend to see the project as one big monolith and feel overwhelmed and want to run away or hide. First step in dealing with a monolith, hack it into smaller pieces. Thankfully, its easier to hack a project than stone!

Write down every single smaller step or individual piece you can think of, and doesn't matter if its not in order. If there is anyone you know who has done this sort of project, you can ask them for help at this stage, just to figure out what steps are involved. You could also Google this, if appropriate for your project. Then all you need to do is to know how to do some of the steps, even if not all. As you progress through the project, the next steps will become clear, and you could also ask someone for help. If your boss asks how its going, instead of lying or mumbling because in truth you haven't even started, you can confidently report on what steps you have taken, and where you are stuck. Maybe he or she has some suggestions, or can point you in the right direction. Even projects that only have 3-4 steps benefit from being broken down in this way, and tackled one at a time. 

If you have the other kind of overwhelm, where you have simply taken on too much, write down on a pad or in your laptop a comprehensive list of everything that is on your plate right now that is overwhelming you. Once you have done that, and no matter how long that list is, go through it and take a hard look at what is really not that urgent, and can be postponed to a later date. Remember postponing is not strictly procrastinating, because you made a decision to move it. 

Now, from everything that still remains, can you either delegate some of these tasks to someone (even a virtual assistant) or find a commercial solution (like buying a dessert to take to the potluck instead of baking one)? Alternatively, what could you just decide not to do? Cross those off the list as well. Or maybe downgrade - find a simpler way to accomplish something. 

Whatever is left on your list, are things that you still have to do. You should already be feeling a bit more relieved by now. Go over your list one more time, and check that the items aren't really a project with multiple tasks of their own, and then mentally ask yourself if maybe you have inflated some of them or made them more complex than they need to be? Then schedule in time in your calendar to do these tasks, maybe taking an admin / task day as suggested above. Having a lot of niggling things takes up mental space, so its actually more productive to spend some time getting them done, than having them hang over you. 

3. Feeling Fear 

This is such a common one for me, that sometimes I think all procrastination stems from it, although really that's not true. Typically I feel fear about working on something that I don't know how to do, or I don't know what the outcome will be like. It might be writing a book, or applying for a job. Or maybe the fear comes from having tried it before unsuccessfully, and so you wonder why bother trying it again, or how will things be different this time?

I think a large part of feeling fear about something and putting it off stems from not knowing how to tackle something, or looking at a task or project as one big thing and feeling overwhelmed, so going back to the previous point. While we see something all in one piece, we also insist quite often that the task or project be done perfectly, which is starting at all feels impossible, because since we don't know how to do it, how can we do it perfectly?

The Solution: Since this is a common and slightly more complex problem, I think its crucial to break down this into its component parts. Firstly, to minimize fear, start by doing the same thing suggested earlier, make a list of every single step you can think of. Invariably, you might feel a lot of fear associated with most of the steps, but crucially, not all the steps. So start with the ones you don't feel fear, and that might make another step easier or less intimidating. 

Secondly, decide that you will lower the bar for your performance. Perhaps if you are creating a report or a presentation or writing an essay for school, see the work you are going to do as a draft. Do as many drafts as it takes till you get it to a workable level, and try to get the feedback of someone to tell you when to stop working on your drafts and just hand in the work. If you are procrastinating working on something where the final performance counts the most, such as a presentation or preparing for a job interview, try to set aside your fear and allow yourself to have one or several trial runs. This is the same draft concept - keep working on your material and tweaking it till you are good as you can be. 

It is natural to feel fear surrounding something you haven't had much practice on or something that has high stakes. The paradoxical part is though that starting and starting earlier has many advantages - you can rehearse or go through many tries before you need to get it right, and the less time you leave for yourself, the harder it becomes and the more pressure there is to get it right the first time. I have found that changing the language around the task - seeing it as a trial run or a draft or just taking notes, helps to get the crucial first few minutes, or first few attempts going. 

I hope this helps you to tackle your task list, or start on that creative project you have been putting off. What are your reasons for procrastinating, and some strategies to combat it?

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