Professional man walking past an office reception

We've all been there... A deadline is just around the corner, and instead of getting it done, we are busy cleaning the kitchen, making the beds and anything else that will distract us from the job at hand. So how do you force yourself to start earlier and make sure the result is as good as you aspired to? Here are a few tips to help you on your procrastination journey as can be found in Paul Dolan's book Happiness by Design

Why do we procrastinate?

Worthy tasks

We procrastinate more over tasks we deem to be particularly important, like working towards lofty goals, because they require more effort and we seek to avoid expending this effort. We also dither over tasks that will be evaluated, such as when students procrastinated over writing essays when they believed the university would randomly select some students’ work and make them read them to students at a local secondary school as compared to students who just handed in their essays.

Mistaken projections

Thinking there’s plenty of time to achieve a goal is more likely to lead to procrastination, for example, if you have plenty of time to leave for work your just as likely to be late than if you have less time as you were planning for the early departure. Medical students have been shown to evaluate more patients per hour and have more patient contact on nine-hour shifts as opposed to 12-hour ones.

This is compounded by our inability to remember how long similar tasks took in the past. We remember and predict that short tasks taking a couple of minutes longer than they actually do, but we remember and predict that long tasks will take less time than actually do.

Unrealistic expectations

Perfectionists are supposed to be notorious procrastinators because they set goals that are too high. They then don’t know how to start their tasks, never start and and then fail to do what they set out to achieve.

So do you help yourself procrastinate less? 

Immediate feedback

Think about how feels to be working towards your goal and achieving them. Loan offices at the Colombian bank Bancamía put this principle into practice to tackle their serious procrastination problem. They had a bad habit of putting off finding new loan clients until just before their monthly bonuses were calculated, during the last two weeks of each month. 70% of these offices reported being stressed or very stressed, and over half reported having trouble organising their work or sticking to their plans. To shift their workload, they broke down tasks into weekly elements and received small prizes, like cinema tickets and restaurant coupons, for finishing each week. Compared to a group of loan officers who didn't enter this anti-procrastination programme, the increase the attainment of their goals by 30% and the bonus payments by 25%.

In a similar vein, you can reward yourself with the hard work you’ve put in, whether it’s going to the cinema or meeting friends, or staying at home with a takeaway and boxset, and at the same time can feel very smug about everything you’ve accomplished in the day! 

Forget the past

Being too hard on ourselves, and not accepting the fact that we procrastinate, just leads to more procrastination and makes it harder to change. Students who were self-critical and reported disliking themselves because of their procrastinating past were more likely to procrastinate the second time around compared to those who forgave themselves. If you have never forgiven yourself for procrastinating before, start now; and if you have, remind yourself of how good it felt to do so the last time. The students in the study who forgave themselves also reported experiencing more positive emotion.

Prime yourself

Putting up reminders in your immediate environment can help to get things done. For example, a picture of a clean kitchen on your fridge may help you to do the dishes. Those who work and/or study in the same location appear less likely to procrastinate because the location nudges them to do what they did the last time we were in it. So if you always work in the same place but never get anything done, change spaces, or just rearrange the space, and then see what happens.

Break down your goals

In a well-known study, researchers hired 60 proofreaders who responded to advertisements placed in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's newspaper and bulletin boards. Each participant was randomly assigned to do one of three things: 1 submit one of three texts every seven days; 2 submit three texts at the end of three weeks; or 3 set their own deadlines for the texts. Those with the weekly deadlines spotted the most errors and procrastinated the least– as did those who set weekly deadlines for themselves.

So if you have a big project, consider breaking them down into smaller deadlines that are spaced evenly apart. Breaking down a project and has also been shown to reduce a tendency to be overly optimistic about how long task will take. In one experiment, people were asked to estimate the time it would take to prepare an hors d'oeuvres tray. They thought it would take about 10 minutes less actually did, but when broke the last down and looked at all the different the steps that would be needed to complete the tray there wasn't much of a difference between predictions and the amount of time taken.