“Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” That is the motto of the procrastinator. We all procrastinate to one degree or another. It becomes a major problem in your work life when important tasks or responsibilities are left undone or are completed in a slipshod manner because inadequate time was left to complete the task properly. Procrastination lowers anxiety in the short run due to the relief we feel from task avoidance. But it greatly increases our stress in the long run as tasks pile up or time runs short.

The main and most direct cause for procrastination is low frustration tolerance (Ellis & Knaus, 1977). You need to accept the fact that to receive future rewards, you often need to undertake present discomfort. Low frustration tolerance is based on the irrational notion that present pain or discomfort is “too hard to bear.” This belief that you cannot stand present pain for future gain invites and practically commands you to continue your delay tactics. This can be a very debilitating cycle.

Again, everything hinges upon what you tell yourself about the onerous task. To overcome a tendency to procrastinate, you need to begin by learning to identify your irrational thoughts (Ellis & Knaus, 1977) and then replacing them with thoughts that promote productivity. If your frustration tolerance is adequate, you will take the temporary discomfort in stride and conclude that, indeed, the task may be aversive, boring, or anxiety-provoking, but so what? Where was it decreed that you have to like everything you do? After all, the task will not go on forever, particularly if you start now. If you tell yourself that it may be unpleasant, but so are many things that you easily survive, it will help you to persevere. If you remind yourself that there actually may be aspects of the task that will even intrigue you or benefit you, it can give you the wherewithal to get started.

For example, if you are avoiding beginning or completing a certain project at work or school, it is likely that you are thinking (on either a conscious or unconscious level) one or more of the following irrational and ridiculous thoughts: (1) that you will be totally miserable the whole time you are working on this task; (2) that you cannot possibly bear the torture of this duty; (3) that it is entirely unfair and sadistic for your boss or your teacher to foist such a terrible assignment upon you; (4) that you cannot possibly enjoy any part of this project; (5) that you are destined to fail horribly at this task; or (6) that if you rebel you will get a hero's acclaim down the road. In place of these self-sabotaging statements, you can choose to substitute the following: (1) that you can choose not to be miserable; (2) that you certainly won't die from working on this task, so of course you can stand it (no doubt you have endured much worse); (3) your boss's goal is not to ruin your life but to make the business succeed, and your teacher's goal is to ensure that you learn; (4) perhaps some aspect of the work will prove reasonably interesting; (5) there is no guarantee you will fail, and, in the event that you do, it is not the end of the world if you don't succeed in everything; and (6) the one you hurt the most by delaying is yourself.

Many people believe that if they wait until they feel more like doing the avoided task, then they will be able to finally get moving. But actually, often the reverse is more true and certainly more efficient. That is, if you wait around for your feelings to change, you could wait forever. But if you change your behavior, your feelings will change to match your new actions. This follows the tenet that “attitude change follows behavior change.” When you behave differently you will tend to feel different, as emotions tend to shift to fall in line with your actions. Therefore, acting in a timely, efficient, and productive manner (even when you don't feel like it) actually creates the motivation to continue working and, in some cases, may even lead to increased task enjoyment. At the very least, you can enjoy the fact that you have completed the task and it no longer hangs over you.

Six Steps to Overcoming Procrastination

1. Use the Bits-and-Pieces Approach

One of the best antidotes to procrastination is to break tasks or projects down into doable chunks. Are you prone to letting tasks pile up until you feel overwhelmed and/or indecisive as to where to begin or how to prioritize the tasks? You might feel as though you need to accomplish an entire task once you get started, and this can become an overwhelming prospect. Giving yourself permission to do just one small piece can get you started and provide the necessary momentum for completion of the whole project in time. By using the bits-and-pieces approach, you can whittle down unfinished tasks and finish parts of projects (and eventually the whole project). Once you start a small part of a task and get into the swing of it, you might discover that you feel like finishing the whole thing, especially if it goes faster or smoother than you had anticipated. Or you can use your energy to switch over to another avoided task, which may prove to be easier once you have built up positive momentum from the former, especially if the tasks are related.

2. Get Organized

Lack of organization contributes to procrastination; when you approach your work in a disorganized fashion, tasks feel more overwhelming and generally take longer to accomplish. Experiment with the following tips for improving your organization.

  • Things-to-do lists. Making a list of things to do on a daily or weekly basis is an excellent way of getting yourself organized and helping to remember small items or tasks that are easily forgotten unless you take the time to do a daily inventory. Post your list in a prominent place where you will be likely to see it often, or keep it in your appointment book if you refer to it regularly. Scratching items off your list once they are finished becomes quite rewarding, leading to a sense of relief and accomplishment each time an item is crossed off.

  • Create a realistic schedule. Things-to-do lists are very useful, but they have their limits. In particular, avoid getting caught in the trap of spending all your time accomplishing unimportant items and scratching those off your list, while ignoring important, more difficult and time-consuming tasks. Without some sort of schedule, you can create stress by wasting time, working inefficiently, and missing opportunities because you didn't plan ahead. But overscheduling yourself is stressful as well. There is an art to creating a workable daily, weekly, and monthly schedule. Start by compiling a list of all you want and need to accomplish over a certain time period, say a month. Begin your daily schedule by arranging time for any appointments or meetings scheduled for that day. Then block out chunks of at least an hour for high-priority projects that require sustained work over time. The earlier in the day you can get to these, the better you will feel. Next, build in time for medium-priority items. Then complete your schedule with routine, quick, or easy tasks that need to be completed that day.

  • Make your schedule flexible. Build in time for interruptions, unexpected events, problem solving, and travel time, as well as for breaks and relaxation. If you can't finish everything (and this may occur often), postpone the lowest-priority items. Following a schedule will not guarantee that you always get everything done that day, but if you have made progress on your high-priority goals you will feel more in control. That feeling of control will lower your level of stress. Engaging in this type of planning may seem time-consuming at first, but it will actually increase your time in the long run.

  • Do it when you think of it. Often just the sheer volume of tasks makes you want to delay. By doing the task immediately, if possible, you can avoid the inefficiency involved in relocating the necessary materials, which saves time and effort. You also prevent yourself from forgetting to handle it.

  • Modify your work environment. Your work environment can be conducive to getting down to business, or it can promote procrastination, depending on how you arrange your workspace. Remove as many distractions as possible from your work sphere. Take an hour to clean up your desk or workspace. Throw out all unnecessary papers or paraphernalia.

  • Block off escape routes. Unplug the telephone, close your door, and turn off the TV. Arrange your work station so you have all the materials you need to get started. That way you avoid getting up, and possibly getting distracted, to get various items.

3. Use the Five-Minute Method

This technique can start a wave of positive momentum. Pick that task or project that you have been delaying starting and then agree to start and work on it for just five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, you can stop or you can ask yourself whether you are willing to invest another five minutes. Do this as a nondemand procedure and follow your sincere inclinations. You do not have to work beyond the first interval, but if you are like most people, once you have gotten past the first five minutes (getting started is often the hardest part), you will probably find that you can easily continue. So you work for another five minutes, and perhaps another, and before long you are working steadily. Many people find that once they get started, the task is far less onerous or aversive than they anticipated. Once a significant amount has been done, the drive for completion kicks in as you desire to get the task finished and behind you. Likewise, when you begin or complete one task it is often easier to switch over to other long-postponed activities (particularly if related to the first task), due to the buildup of positive momentum.

4. Don't Wait for Inspiration

Thomas Edison said, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” People who procrastinate when faced with a creative endeavor at work or school often delay in order to wait for that moment of “inspiration” to overtake them before they begin. Instead of putting off your project, use probability theory to help you begin. When you begin a project, with or without any particular inspiration, you stand a good chance of perhaps stumbling into a streak of spontaneous brilliance and producing extremely good work. At the very least, you greatly increase your chances of getting some very good ideas for that task or for future projects. The more you produce, the greater the probability that some of it will be very good.

But what if your work or creation fails to live up to your standards? It is perfectly okay if some of what you turn out is not very good. Do you really think that every canvas turned out by Picasso was ready to hang in the Louvre? And do you honestly believe that Mozart never wrote a sour note, or that your favorite author doesn't have a wastebasket filled with crumpled, rejected pages?

Playing the probabilities also gives you the opportunity to hone your skills through experience and practice. If your work requires creative projects or writing, or if you are an artist, musician, or writer who is not currently inspired, forcing yourself to work at the very least will improve your level of expertise. So when inspiration does come, you will be far better prepared to perform.

5. Reward Yourself

All human behavior is motivated by reward or by the expectation of reward in the future. A reward is anything that feels good, be it money, praise, awards, a new car, a vacation, a back rub, and so on. Humans can often sustain unrewarded behaviors for long periods of time as long as there is some hope for reward down the line. Procrastination persists because it is reinforced by the immediate reward of relief from task avoidance. Tasks that you dread and delay may often have rewards associated with them, but typically they are in the future or you need to wade through discomfort first to get those rewards. Even though procrastination carries with it many long-term punishments (including increasing your stress level), the short-term rewards motivate you to keep delaying. To counterbalance the rewarding aspects of procrastination, it is important to find ways to make the dreaded task also rewarding in the short run. Peruse the following suggestions for ways to reinforce yourself and see which ones appeal to you. Try them out the next time you put something off.

  • The Premack principle. One way to build in rewards for getting it done is to use the Premack Principle, postulated by David Premack, which states that if two behaviors differ in their likelihood of occurrence (that is, you are more likely to do one rather than the other), the less likely behavior can be reinforced by using the more likely behavior as a reward (Premack, 1965). In everyday terms, this strategy capitalizes on the fact that any activity you find enjoyable can be used as a reward or incentive for working on a task you tend to put off. You give yourself permission to engage in rewarding activities contingent upon doing tasks you tend to put off (for example, schedule a massage for yourself after finally completing that report or watch that movie after finishing your reading).

  • The profit-penalty system. Rewarding yourself works when you make the rewards meaningful and present them only upon completion of the desired task (or chunk, if you are using the bits-and-pieces approach). In general, punishment is a very ineffective way of inspiring change. You have already been exposed to the negative consequences of procrastination many times, and if that worked you wouldn't continue to delay! Punishment as a way of modifying behavior can be useful, however, when it is done strategically and in combination with a reward system.

  • In the profit-penalty system, you use both a reward and penalty in tandem. You start by breaking a project into doable chunks and set up a reward contingent upon successful completion of the piece. At the same time you can also penalize yourself for noncompletion. In the double profit-penalty system, you create a no-lose situation for yourself. You make a contract with yourself where noncompletion of one specified task is linked with the need to complete another avoided task. With such a plan you cannot lose, for whenever you delay, you must compensate by being productive in another area. Therefore, you “win if you do and win if you don't.”

6. View Mistakes as Feedback

Perhaps you procrastinate for fear of making a mistake or doing something poorly. However, it is quite irrational to think that leaving yourself even less time to complete something will make you less likely to make mistakes. And where is it written that it is catastrophic or even necessarily bad to make a mistake? Mistakes are feedback, nothing more and nothing less. Both forms of feedback, correct and incorrect, are equally vital for the learning process. Without both, we learn more slowly.

Research reveals a strong link between procrastination and perfectionism (Flett et al., 1992). Perfectionism goes hand in hand with fear of failure. If you maintain a perfectionistic attitude, you will be more prone to stall until you can “do it right,” or you avoid the task because you fear that you can never do it right. So what if you do it and part of it is wrong? Is the world going to come to an end? If you delay, that is the equivalent of doing it wrong anyhow. At least if you go ahead and complete it, you stand a chance of getting part or all of it right. We have no quarrel with striving for excellence, but that is not the same as holding out for perfection.

You cannot achieve excellence without making mistakes along the way or risking making other errors. In short, making mistakes is an essential part of improving yourself. What is necessary is to adopt a healthy attitude about being in error. It means learning to laugh at yourself and not taking yourself so seriously all the time. Often, what endears you to others are memories of those times when you made a funny mistake. We recognize that not all mistakes are funny, but the vast majority of errors are harmless and ultimately can be humorous or neutral if viewed from the proper perspective—that is, reframed appropriately.

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