Procrastination is the sin of our age. Nearly everyone suffers from it.
Of course, difficult problems require lots of thought. Unfortunately, too much thought always results in too little action. It’s the old Hamlet Syndrome of “thinking too precisely on th’ event.”
Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet suffers from a complete paralysis of action when he finds out that his uncle has murdered his father, married his mother and stolen his throne. Honestly, you can’t blame him, can you?
“..I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do ‘t.
In other words, he has everything he needs — motivation, willpower, and the means of taking revenge — yet he can’t commit to action (not even suicide) for unknowable, existential reasons. His dithering eventually causes the deaths of six other people.
So What Is Procrastination?
Is it a psychological weakness? Is it mental laziness? Or is it, perhaps, a dietary thing? Do we procrastinate because we’re deficient in a vital chemical compound: one which tells the brain to “just get on with it.” Is there such a compound? What do the experts say?
In his 2007 paper “The Nature of Procrastination,” Dr. Piers Steel of the University of Calgary wrote: “Procrastination is a prevalent and pernicious form of self-regulatory failure that is not entirely understood.”
Oh, great. The experts don’t know either. While we all occasionally procrastinate, notes Dr. Steel, “some have made it a way of life.” Several studies have shown how “80%–95% of college students engage in procrastination; approximately 75% consider themselves procrastinators, and almost 50% procrastinate consistently and problematically.”
Ohh, that’s bad! People are clearly learning how to procrastinate at university, then they take the habit into their careers with disasterous results.
Can It Be Good?
But wait, can’t we say something good about procrastination? After all, taking hasty action — before gathering essential information — can be extremely damaging. That’s why we try suspected criminals in a court of law rather than simply lynching them on the spot.
Quoted by Dr. Steel, financial historian Peter L. Bernstein noted in his book “Against the Gods: The remarkable story of risk,” (New York: Wiley, 1998): “The more uncertain the outcome, the greater may be the value of procrastination.”
That’s all well and good, but in common usage, the word “procrastination” is entirely negative. It has nothing to do with taking active steps to find the vital information you need to make a decision — and everything to do with faffing around.
Here’s a good definition.
Procrastination is “the voluntary, needless delay of an intended course of action past the time most likely to produce the desired performance or successful completion.” (Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl, and others, Carleton University, 2010).
It’s when you know what has to be done, and when you need to do it, but you just go ahead and do something easier instead. Your alternative course of inaction makes you feel guilty and depressed — and even less likely to begin the intended task. Welcome to a vicious circle!
5 Ways to Break the Vicious Circle and Beat Procrastination
Have you tried making a list of priorities? Well, that’s fatal. When you take a look at your list you’ll have an overwhelming temptation to start at the bottom. Why? Because otherwise these humble tasks at the foot of the list will never get done. The ones above them are so obviously time-consuming.
Try these 5 strategies instead:
1. Forgive Yourself
Psychologically, your best course of action — according to Dr. Pychyl and his colleagues — is to start by forgiving yourself for procrastinating and in doing so “experience a motivational change away from self-punishment towards self acceptance.” As a result, researchers found people were more inclined to engage in positive “approach behaviors” rather than “behaviors motivated by avoidance.”
If you’re going to “let yourself off the hook” you may think it’s necessary to have a good reason for doing so, such as not feeling very well, or being overwhelmed by duties to family, friends, or partner. But this isn’t what the researchers mean. If you already have a good excuse, you wouldn’t have any guilty feelings about procrastinating.
True procrastinators know when they’re dithering. Science tells them to say sorry to themselves, then make a fresh start on their next intended task.
Here are some other strategies to help you beat procrastination:
2. The Two-Minute Rule
Try to clear the way so you can concentrate on larger projects, but don’t waste time doing so. Use the Two-Minute Rule to get rid of those little tasks which nag away at you — the ones you can complete quickly with just two minutes of your attention.
By getting rid of half a dozen minor tasks you’ll feel a lot better and get a surge of energy to help you tackle something bigger.
3. The One Brick at a Time Rule
When you’re faced with a huge, unwelcome, but essential task, don’t contemplate its size and difficulty. To do so will simply make you feel small and powerless. In fact, it can be really depressing — and is one of the main causes of your procrastination.
Just take it one step at a time and don’t look too far ahead. Tackle problems as they occur and don’t worry about them in advance. For example, if you’re painting the inside of your house, start with one small room and make a really good job of it.
Remember, we’re talking about how to combat procrastination and it’s vital not to leave any task to the last minute. That’s because you may have to rely on other people responding promptly to your requests for information. Unfortunately, they don’t have your time constraints. Here’s an example:
If you’ve put off filing your taxes until the deadline you may find it impossible to get the necessary codes for logging on to the official system until after the deadline has passed. Now you still have to do the unwelcome task — and your reward is an expensive penalty. That’s really depressing!
4. Structured Procrastination
If you can’t beat your everyday, regular procrastination, use it to your advantage. Philosopher John Perry, author of “The Art of Procrastination: a guide to effective dawdling, lollygagging and postponing” coined the phrase “Structured Procrastination.”
Essentially, Structured Procrastination is what happens when you start an interesting, creative project in order to avoid doing less interesting but otherwise essential tasks. OK, that seems like cheating, but it works.
With more than a touch of irony, Dr Perry says that his Structured Procrastination “converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all they accomplish and the good use they make of time.” If you’re a “dyed in the wool” procrastinator his method may be just right for you. You’ll still be neglecting your tax returns, but at least you’ll stand a chance of making some money to pay an accountant.
5. Take Something for It
Your tendency to procrastinate may not be entirely the fault of your psychological make-up. It may be the result of a chemical imbalance caused by a dietary deficiency.
That’s right. You’ve been eating the wrong stuff.
Tiredness, lack of energy, slow metabolism, an inability to focus, a lack of stamina — these are warning signs that your system is not functioning properly. If the symptoms appear suddenly or if they’re extreme, see a doctor. Otherwise, check your diet and make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need.
For example, a choline deficiency affects both the body and the brain. Choline is essential for making the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which is vital to the health of the nervous system. If your diet lacks eggs, meat, and dairy foods you may not be getting enough choline.
The solution is to take a choline supplement, such as Alpha GPC or CDP Choline. This will help to restore your metabolism which in turn helps you overcome procrastination.
Uridine is another supplement that can lend a helping hand. Like Alpha GPC or CDP Choline it’s a safe and widely accepted nootropic, extracted from natural sources. It acts quickly to cheer you up and put you in a positive frame of mind. In fact, it’s a bit like drinking beer without the bitter taste — or the hangover.
Thirdly, there’s L-Theanine, which — like Uridine — has an impact on mood. It’s an amino acid found in black and green tea, including matcha, and has the power to relieve symptoms of anxiety, improve the quality of sleep, and counterbalance the effects of stimulants.
All of these supplements, whether taken individually or together, can support your effort to beat procrastination.
Days Are Where We Live
We all deserve our fair share of enjoyment and leisure, but there’s no pleasure in feeling guilty because we’ve postponed an essential task.
As the poet Philip Larkin questioned in his 10-line poem
“What are days for?”
For the individual, they’re finite in number. Don’t let them drift by without doing something useful.