It’s no surprise that we’ve touched on beating procrastination several times at WorkAwesome – it is productivity’s sworn enemy. On our path to progress, we’re constantly kicking procrastination to the curb, and often it just reappears a few steps farther along the road. Some of us fare better than others in the never-ending contest between procrastination and production, but few of us have taken the time to fully understand what procrastination is, where it comes from, and how to fight it effectively. In fact, most of us only know two things about procrastination; a basic, tip-of-the-iceberg definition, and not to do it.
Simply knowing “not to procrastinate” is inadequate. How can we learn how to beat procrastination if we don’t understand it? You wouldn’t go into any other battle without studying your opponent, maybe it’s time you got to “know your enemy.”
Which Tasks Do We Procrastinate?
We all know – in a very general, vague sense – when we tend to procrastinate, but a closer look at our least favorite tasks can show us exactly when we are prone to procrastination. Most of us follow certain behavioral patterns, delaying certain types of tasks with specific attributes. Psychologist Edwin Van Hooft theorizes that three task traits cause “task aversiveness,” the catalyst for procrastination:
- Task difficulty. People tend to procrastinate when confronted with “difficult” tasks.
- Task importance. People tend to procrastinate when they deem a task “unimportant.”
- Task efficacy. When people don’t consider themselves “good at” the task at hand, they’re likely to procrastinate.
Structured procrastination involves the reordering of tasks against their true importance. Faced with a particularly aversive (but important) task such as doing your taxes, you might discover less important things to do, like washing your car, finishing your laundry, or exercising. You might even invent tasks that border on the unnecessary, like disinfecting your desk or checking the air pressure on your car tires. It’s all about finding justifiable reasons to avoid the more important work.
It sounds harmless, even semi-productive, but structured procrastination is a serious problem. Your “to do” list is upside-down, reordering your tasks from least to most important. You’re putting off the critical tasks for trivialities that are barely worth your time. Your productivity may be up, but it’s only to hide from yourself the fact that your priorities are completely backwards.
Waiting For The “Spirit to Strike You”
Instead of springing into action like structured procrastinators, some people have the opposite reaction, becoming paralyzed by procrastination. Rather than avoiding the aversive work by turning to small, insignificant, less important tasks, they stay on target, facing the most important work first. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing the work, and procrastinators often feel safe as long as they’re “in position,” even if they’re not actually making progress.
The classic example is the college student with a large paper due the next day. The student sits frozen at the keyboard. They aren’t writing, but they think that if they leave, they’ll miss a moment of perfect inspiration to write. The student feels comfortable and anxiety-free sitting at their desk. They’re not avoiding their work, in fact, they’re facing it… quite literally. But, they still aren’t actually doing it.
Perfectionism is often portrayed as a positive quality to have, but it’s a frequent catalyst for procrastination. Work simply won’t get started unless the conditions are perfect, and it won’t ever be finished until the results are flawless. This is the kind of behavior that will stop a gym-goer from starting their workout unless they’re fully rested, perfectly hydrated and optimally fueled via a pre-workout diet. Similarly, an author might never finish their book until every word is glimmering with perfection.
How Do We Beat Procrastination?
Understand the flavors of motivation. Internal motivation is a product of your own values and goals. External motivation involves rewards – like a salary – for completing tasks and penalties – like a poor performance review – for failure. As much as we’d love our strongest motivation to come from within, we tend to put externally motivated tasks ahead of internally motivated ones. In other words, you may want very badly to spend the evening with your family, but you feel that you have to finish that externally-motivated project report by midnight.
Practice volitional skills. Psychologically speaking, “volitional skills” is just the scientific term for “willpower,” but there is an important distinction between the terms: People consider willpower to be innate, something you’re born with (or born without). It sounds like an easy avenue for excuses; whenever you want to procrastinate, you can shrug and proclaim “I just don’t have the willpower,” as if there’s no way to summon the initiative to get the job done.
The excuse just isn’t viable: “Willpower” is not a power given at birth. It’s a volitional skill; you can develop it, improve it or neglect it. Consider your volitional skills like muscles; you can strengthen them, but you can also exhaust them. They benefit from rest, so pick your willpower battles carefully.
Stop calling yourself a procrastinator. If you get too comfortable with procrastination, you’ll eventually find yourself neglecting your job, your family and your personal health. Instead of declaring yourself a procrastinator, declare your productive intentions and remind yourself of your goals. As David Campbell said:
“Discipline is remembering what you want”
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