How can you overcome procrastination? How can you overcome procrastination?
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How can you overcome procrastination?

How can you overcome procrastination?

If you find yourself procrastinating at work or at home, consider what other interests you can introduce into your life to fulfill your purpose

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To initiate a response to being distracted, we need to overcome our own inertia: keeping us from doing things we might consider difficult, or we’re unsure about. If you are going to minimise distraction in your life and find purpose, then the truth is it’s not easy. One thing that you’ll need to overcome is your in-built mechanism to stall, to delay, to procrastinate. Everyone procrastinates according to Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle (2010), and 20 per cent of people procrastinate chronically. In his two decades of research on the topic of procrastination, he found that the more unattractive a task or project is to you, the more likely you are to stall.

He found six main elements that make procrastination more likely. These are related to what extent the task  at hand is one of the following: boring frustrating, difficult, unstructured or ambiguous, lacking in personal meaning and/or lacking in intrinsic rewards. The more of these elements a task contains, the more unpleasant it seems to us, and so we are likely to stall and avoid doing it.

Pychyl notes that: “Sometimes procrastination is just a symptom that your life just doesn’t match what you’re interested in and … maybe you should do something else.” I have had this feeling many times in my career, and in truth, until I found my outside passions – writing and teaching – to balance against what paid the bills – my corporate career, I always felt out of balance, not quite whole. It wasn’t until I was able to settle my energy across these three aspects of my life that I was able to overcome (most of the time) my inclination to procrastinate.

That doesn’t mean this is what you should do. Rather, if you find yourself procrastinating at work, or at home, consider what other interests you can introduce into your life that will fulfil your purpose. That way, you won’t have time to procrastinate as you will see time as a precious commodity not to be wasted.

Simple strategies

In the meantime, if you find yourself procrastinating, come up with some ideas on how to overcome your tendency to stall and delay. Here are a few suggestions. If the task is:   

Boring: Introduce some relish and enjoyment into it. If you need to go through an archive of spreadsheets to understand the cost structure of a balance sheet, read the first draft of a tedious piece of legislation, or complete a tiresome application form, visit a place you enjoy, such as a local coffee shop. Buy a coffee that stimulates you in a positive manner, and work through it.    

Frustrating: I often switch on a countdown timer for 30 or 45 minutes and then pile-drive through the task. When the counter hits zero, I will leave the task, go off for a while and do something I enjoy, such as listen to an audiobook, read a novel, or go for a quick walk. I then return to the task, set a new countdown timer and then steamroll through it once more. 

Difficult: Every one of us has a time of day when we are at our peak. For some, this might be early morning; others, late morning; for others, in the late afternoon. You know when your body naturally is most energised. Tackle the difficult task when you can apply the most energy to it.

Unstructured or ambiguous: Anyone who has worked in an advisory capacity will tell you that every task they have been asked to address by a client starts in the same way. The client knows there is a problem, but they just can’t put their finger on it. Or they can put their finger on it, but just don’t know why the problem exists. If you have a task such as this, then step back and deconstruct it into micro-tasks. Ensure you maintain the causal links between tasks, not losing sight of how they remain connected to the whole. Then set yourself a plan to tackle one micro-task at a time. As a novelist, I don’t write the novel in one sitting, but tackle it one chapter at a time, and often within each chapter, each sequence by each sequence, and within each sequence, each event by each event, and within each event, each beat by each beat. It’s much more manageable that way, and you always feel a sense of momentum and progress. 

Lacking in personal meaning: I have had this so many times in my career that I’ve lost count. Why am I doing this? What is the point of it? This has nothing to do with me, and so on. When this happens, and it still does, I think about something that is meaningful to me, such as spending time with the family, reading, or playing tennis, and I tell myself if I can get through this drudgery of a task, then I will have more time to do the other thing, which has more meaning to me. This usually spurs me into action. 

Lacking in intrinsic rewards: In other words, there is nothing in this task that is internally rewarding to you. You don’t feel proud, or more whole, or enriched by the experience of doing it. I know people who set aside a small monetary treat for themselves when they finish a task. Your treat will depend on your personal preferences, but it should be something that you rarely treat yourself with, not something you consume or do every day. The treat does not have to be about consumption. For example, if you have a pet, then you may treat yourself with more time to play with the pet.

Rehan Khan, principal consultant for BT and a novelist

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