How To Beat Procrastination

Good morning, Highlanders! Here’s another edition of Career Thursdays from the UCR Alumni Association. Procrastination is something that effects everyone at some point in their lives, we all do it. Fall seems to be a busy time for most employees. Many times, we’re expected to balance multiple projects at once and this can be a lot of pressure on a single person.  Dr. Travis Bradberry, a LinkedIn influencer and author wrote this on March 13, 2016. He gives you strategies to ensure that you will not fall behind during projects, whether your busy season is during Fall or another time of year.

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Procrastination strikes everyone, and once it gets ahold of you, it can be very difficult to shake it off. When you imagine a highly productive person, you likely think of someone who focuses effortlessly on the job and never succumbs to procrastination. You know, the type who can sit on the ground in a subway station with their laptop and still manage to get more done in an hour than you would in a day at the library.

The truth is, ridiculously productive people face the same procrastination challenges as the rest of us. The difference is, they beat procrastination by using a calculated approach. First, they understand why they procrastinate, and then they apply strategies that beat procrastination before it takes hold. Anyone can follow this two-step, research-driven process to overcome procrastination.

The Procrastination Doom Loop

You can’t hope to stop procrastinating until you first have a firm understanding of why you procrastinate. New research from Joseph Ferrari at DePaul University shows that procrastination is more complicated than most people think. People tend to think of procrastination as coming from poor time management or laziness, but Ferrari’s research shows that procrastination stems from negative emotions that hijack your mood. Once you’re under the influence of these emotions, you can’t bring yourself to work. *Getting yourself in the right mind set to get the tasks done that you need to accomplish can be challenging, but if you go through steps to mentally prepare yourself or set little challenge goals and stick to them you can accomplish them on time or even early. 

Instead of being lazy or disorganized, people usually put things off because they aren’t in the right mood to complete the task. Doing so places you firmly inside the procrastination doom loop. Since you’ve decided that you aren’t in the right mood to work, you distract yourself with other tasks—checking email, checking the news, cleaning your desk, talking to a coworker, etc.—and by the time you come up for air, you feel guilty for having wasted so much time. This only worsens your mood, and as the deadline draws closer, you feel worse than you did when you first put off the task.

Overcoming Procrastination

Beating procrastination is a simple matter of exiting the doom loop by taking control of your mood. With the right strategies in place, you can take the reins and get yourself in the mood to get things done. The strategies that follow will help you to make this happen.

Figure out why. When you aren’t in the mood to work, procrastination is telling you something important. It could be something simple, such as you need to take a break or get something to eat. It could also be something complex, such as you’re carrying the team on your back or you’re dissatisfied with your job. Whatever it is, instead of punishing yourself for procrastinating, take a moment to reflect and figure out why you’re procrastinating. This could end up being the most productive step you take in conquering your task. *Whenever you can stop and take a minute to be introspective about why you’re doing something or thinking a certain way, it’s a good chance to learn about yourself. Eventually you’ll see patterns emerging and you’ll have the power to stop the cycle of procrastination.

Remove your obstacles. Prior to getting started on a task, take a moment to carefully consider the obstacles that might get in your way. Then, develop a plan to ensure that they don’t. For example, you might have instructions for a task in your e-mail inbox, and if you don’t do anything about it, you’ll repeatedly go back to your inbox to look at them, only to get distracted by other incoming e-mails. In this case, your management plan should be to get the instructions out of your inbox prior to starting your work. By planning ahead, you can maintain your focus and avoid procrastination. After all, it’s much harder to regain focus than it is to maintain it. *Having these small, achievable SMART goals, you’ll feel like you have a direction to take your day. Once you complete something that you’ve been putting off, you always feel way better that the task is complete. 

Jump right in, no matter what. Sometimes it’s really hard to get started on something, even when it’s something that you love to do. I might be staring at a blank Word document or standing on the beach on a cold winter morning. That first step is difficult, but once you get going—typing that first paragraph or taking off on that first wave—your mood improves dramatically. When you focus your attention on how difficult and cruddy it is to get started, you discourage yourself from doing so. When you dive right in no matter what, your mood quickly improves, which helps you to stay on task. *Maybe taking some time to free write and brainstorm is helpful before getting to the bulk of the task. Sometimes just getting something on paper is the hardest part and then once you get going, the ideas keep coming. Eventually you’re finished and you wonder why it was so hard to get going in the first place. 

Cut holes in your project. We often procrastinate because we feel intimidated by the size of a project. To minimize intimidation, try cutting holes in it. Find smaller pieces of the task that you can quickly and easily accomplish. For example, writing a proposal might require 10 hours of intense concentration, but you can spit out an intro in 15 minutes and develop a list of deliverables in 10. Before you know it, these smaller tasks have cut serious holes in the project and it’s no longer intimidating. *I like creating lists and then crossing off the little things that I complete that are leading me up to that ultimate goal of finishing the project. Completing a smaller task that is helping you reach the ultimate goal, is just as important as completing the whole task.

Work in the right environment. Even if you do everything else right, working in the wrong environment can make you succumb to procrastination. This means keeping yourself away from television, electronics, friends, and loud places. This isn’t what works for everyone, but you need to exercise discipline by working in the environment that’s right for you. *Personally, this effected me more in college when it came time to study. I wouldn’t be able to do it at home because I would end up doing something else, eating, TV, or napping were the most popular ones. However, if I went to a coffee shop or the library, I was able to get everything done in one sitting and even print everything out. If you work in an environment where it’s hard for you to concentrate and you don’t work well in that environment, you might want to rethink your job choice and really take environment into consideration when you’re conducting your next job search. I work in a cubicle environment and I know if I want to spend some time writing this blog, I will need headphones and my Spotify account to listen to music as I write to stay focused. 

Enjoy small victories. There’s nothing quite like checking something off of your to-do list (*YES!!). To keep yourself from procrastinating, you need to experience this sense of accomplishment by tracking your progress carefully. Small victories build new androgen receptors in the areas of the brain responsible for reward and motivation. The increase in androgen receptors increases the influence of testosterone, which further increases confidence and eagerness to tackle challenges. This keeps you fired up and moving forward. Sometimes crossing a few easy things off of a list is all it takes to build up the mental strength to tackle something big. Remember, it’s not about doing small tasks to avoid big tasks; it’s about including small tasks in your daily checklist to build your confidence and momentum. *I could not agree more with this statement. You will feel so much better about your week if there’s something large or many small tasks that were crossed off your list. This will free up your time to do other pressing tasks that you may have been putting off to finish these tasks. Do you see how this is a vicious cycle?

Get real. Setting unrealistic goals for your day is a great way to become discouraged and to succumb to the negative moods that fuel procrastination. Setting realistic goals keeps things positive, which keeps you in the right mood to work. *Making sure that your goals are SMART goals is essential when trying to keep motivated and get your work done in a timely manner. A SMART goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound in order for them to work for you.

Take control of your self-talk. Saying to yourself, “I’m not going to procrastinate. I will not procrastinate,” virtually ensures that you will procrastinate. There’s a classic study where participants were told to not think about a white bear. It turns out it’s nearly impossible to avoid thinking about something that you tell yourself not to, as your mind gravitates towards the thing you’re trying to avoid. The trick is to shift your attention to something completely different (and positive). Instead of telling yourself not to procrastinate, think about what you will do and how great it’s going to feel to have it done. This way, your mind fixates on the action you want to take instead of the behavior you’re trying to avoid. *Maybe set rewards for yourself. I sometimes do this with different tasks around the house when I’m not motivated to do them, like, “Swiffer the floor and then after that you can have a piece of chocolate or you will practice yoga, or something else you like to do.” I had a supervisor who would set goals for herself when cleaning, like, “I’m going to dedicate this half hour or hour to cleaning and whatever I get done, is what I’m doing today.” This can be a helpful one at work if you have to be at a desk all day.

Don’t be a perfectionist. Most writers spend countless hours brainstorming characters and plot, and they even write page after page that they know they’ll never include in the book. They do this because they know that ideas need time to develop. We tend to freeze up when it’s time to get started because we know that our ideas aren’t perfect and what we produce might not be any good. But how can you ever produce something great if you don’t get started and give your ideas time to evolve? Author Jodi Picoult summarizes the importance of avoiding perfectionism perfectly: “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.” *That free-writing process is so essential. Just writing ideas down or saying them out loud in a meeting can lead you or the group into decision making mode faster than if you sat around and just thought about things without putting them on paper. Sometimes just talking out an idea with a colleague can help flush out details and solidify the decision making process. 

Focus on results. Chances are, you don’t enjoy going to the dentist. Not many people do. So why do you go? It gets results. Your dentist is quite good at making your teeth and gums healthier and more appealing. You also go because the pain of having someone pick at your teeth for an hour is nowhere near the pain of getting a cavity filled, a tooth pulled, or a root canal. You go to the dentist because you know the process is worth it. The same mentality applies to a challenging task. While it may make you anxious to get started, don’t focus on that. Just think of how great it’s going to feel to get things done and how much worse you’ll feel if you wait until the last minute and don’t give it your best effort.

Forgive yourself. There’s no point in beating yourself up when you slip up and procrastinate. You might think that punishing yourself will help you to avoid procrastination in the future, but it actually has the opposite effect—beating yourself up sends you right back into the procrastination doom loop. *I notice that when I do this, and then end up finishing the task that I was putting off, I’m always surprised by the amount of time it actually takes me to complete these tasks I’m dreading. Most of the time it’s way less time than I had originally expected to spend on it. 

Bringing It All Together

The key to beating procrastination is to understand that procrastination is rooted in emotions. The strategies above will help you to turn the procrastination doom loop on its head and to achieve greater productivity than ever before.

How do you beat procrastination? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, as I learn just as much from you as you do from me.


Dr. Travis Bradberry is the award-winning co-author of the #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the cofounder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence tests and training, serving more than 75% of Fortune 500 companies. His bestselling books have been translated into 25 languages and are available in more than 150 countries. Dr. Bradberry has written for, or been covered by, Newsweek, TIME, BusinessWeek, Fortune, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and The Harvard Business Review.

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