Black and white image of a young woman fallen asleep on her desk surrounded by books and notes

We’ve all been there, Googling images of cats when we should be working (or as I’m prone to, adding more and more books to my Amazon Wish List or looking up properties to see if any in the local are are ever going to be affordable). But just think about how much time we waste (I can’t read those books quicker than they get added to my wish list, nor are house prices going to vary that much from day to day), and a cheeky check of Snapchat can quickly turn into a bad habit, and hours that could have been spent far more productively (including racing through a boxset of Gilmore Girls).

In fact, procrastination is not about bad time management; people prone to procrastination can get their work done on time and to a high standard, and perhaps procrastination can be said to not be about time management at all. Instead, the reasons for our deferring tasks are generally because they are too big to get to grips with, and we've no idea of the end result.

You might be one of these people who are clearly very capable of answering all their emails and getting their to-do lists ticked off; a great way to feel satisfied and busy, without having actually worked through something vital and complex that needs to be done to drive your studying or your job forward, and leaving what really matters for another day.

It's because end results are so abstract that we struggle to come to grips with them, and an intangible and unknowable result is far too complicated for our brains to understand. What's easier is short-term efforts with short-term, small rewards, hence why we procrastinate.

If this picture of procrastination is you (and let’s face it, if it isn’t you, you must be a god!), here are a few tips to help you beat your procrastination habits:

Recognise that you are procrastinating

Let’s not compare this to an addiction, but the first step in overcoming procrastination is to realise that you are actually doing it. Procrastination comes in many forms, but it may involve sitting down to work and quickly making a cup of tea, filling your day with low priority tasks that aren’t all that necessary, or carrying forward an item at the bottom of your to-do list has been there for months.

Why are you procrastinating?

When you’re not in the mood to do a task, there’s usually some reason behind it. More often than not it’s because you’ve just no idea where to start, and are unsure of what’s expected of you. It may just be that it all feels a bit too daunting, or perhaps it's too pointless to even contemplate.

Break it down

One reason why we procrastinate so much is that we can’t face the size of a project and it just feels daunting, especially if there is no clear target in sight. For example, we might tell ourselves to start that dissertation or get fit this year, but what does this actually mean? Try breaking down these tasks into manageable steps that give you a path to finishing the overall task, so it’s no longer intimidating. This may begin by reading two papers a day for the week, or running three times this week for ten minutes, and after a while you’ll see yourself heading in the right direction. Getting over the inertia of starting, achieving small goals and seeing results will motivate you to take the next small step, and before you know it your task is complete!

What are you working towards?

Beyond getting an essay done by Friday, one way to beat procrastination is to think about what you want from your future and ask yourself why you are doing that you are doing in the long run. If you’ve a lack of a direction, it’s often hard to get engaged with tasks that are boring or meaningless. So perhaps try to think of your essay as a small step towards gaining a good degree, which will in turn lead you to your dream job, and consistently remind yourself of why you are doing something and how it fits in with your ambitions.

Visualise

Think about your future self having completed the task at hand, and celebrating. You could give yourself something to look forward to when it’s completed, for example champagne and cocktails (for a bigger project mind, not just a day in the office!). In a similar vein, research has shown that people are more likely to save for future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves, with their future self feeling more real and future benefits of saving also feel more weighty. If you apply this method to your procrastination, and imagine yourself as the person you will become in doing it, it might just help you to get stuff done.

What happens if you don’t do it?

Although we’re great at evaluating the pros and cons of doing something, we’re less good at evaluating the pros and cons of not doing that thing, and this often leads us to ignore some obvious benefits of getting stuff done. For example, leaving an essay until the last minute can mean that your grade will suffer as you won’t have the time to find the right direction or research for the essay, and if you don’t get the grade you want, you might not get the career you want. Just think about it.

P.S. I checked Facebook three times and Twitter seven during the writing of this blog. I did hold off the urge to look up houses, you’ll be pleased to know, but three books were added to my Amazon Wish List this morning.

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