By Megan Bruneau
When it comes to under-stimulating or overwhelming tasks and projects, we generally wait until we’re motivated by needing (enter panic, shame, and all-nighters). At that point, the anxiety around not doing the task actually outweighs our anxiety around doing it, and we can’t avoid any longer.
Now, we procrastinate for the same reason we make most of the choices in life: to avoid uncomfortable feelings–in this case, the ones that arise when we think of doing the task at hand (generally overwhelm, anxiety, irritation, boredom, and under-confidence). Fortunately, you can do something about it. Here are five simple steps to combating procrastination and getting started:
- Get to know how you procrastinate and remove temptation
The solution to procrastination is not to take away all potential distractions, but it can help with” symptoms.” Be honest with yourself and get clear around how your procrastination manifests: Social media? Buzzfeed? Netflix? Peanut butter? Pulling out the oven and scrubbing the baseboards behind it?
The easiest way to free yourself from usual distractions is by changing your environment to one you associate with work–you’re more likely to hold yourself accountable, and less likely to fall into procrastination traps. If you’re more extroverted and like a little “buzz,” hit up a coffee shop. If you’re most focused in complete silence, go to a library. If you don’t need internet, go somewhere you can’t connect to wireless (and get off that damn hotspot!). Permit yourself breaks every 30-40 minutes or so, during which you can spend 10 minutes checking your phone and reading satirical Trump articles.
- Aim for “good enough”
Perfectionism pressures us to procrastinate (say that ten times fast!). Because we have unrealistically, inflexibly high expectations for ourselves, we feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. We don’t want to make a mistake or screw up. One of the easiest ways to prevent perfectionism-related procrastination is to aim for “good enough”–75% or 80%.You know that saying “Perfect is the enemy of good?” Truth: If every time I sat down to write an article, I tried to write THE BEST article I’ve ever written, I’d never produce a thing. Aiming for “good enough” empowers me to actually press the Publish button.
- Set ‘SMART’ goals and write them down
If you’ve read anything else I’ve written, I’m not a fan of setting goals–at least long-term ones. I am, however, all for goals when it comes to short-term projects and areas we’re vulnerable to procrastinating. The most effective process I’ve found for goal-setting is to break your task down into manageable steps, write them down, and make sure they’re “SMART.” This acronym stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented. Allow me to elaborate on each of these:
Specific: Describe exactly what you plan to do–stay away from vague statements like, “I’m going to do work.” Instead, for example, write: I’m going to write 500 words toward the report that’s scheduled to go out Friday.
Measurable: Making your goals measurable helps you feels more certainty and less overwhelm because you can tell where to start and finish. In the previous example, “500 words” makes the goal measurable. You can also attach a time-frame to the goal–for example, I’m going to work on the report for 1.5 hours.
Attainable: Make sure your goal is attainable–i.e. that you have control over meeting it. If writing the report depends on a colleague getting numbers to you “sometime this week,” your goal might not be attainable. Make sure you have all the resources you need to achieve your goal, and it doesn’t depend on someone or something outside of your control.
Realistic: Be realistic when you’re goal-setting. Notice I said 500 words, not 5000 words. Think of what you’d expect from a friend or colleague in a similar position.
Time-Oriented: Write down the actual time you plan on actioning your goal, and write it into your schedule.
So now you’ve gone from I’m going to do work, to On Tuesday at 3:30 p.m., I’m going to write 500 words toward the sales report. Notice the difference in how you feel? Which statement leaves you feeling more empowered to take action? Boom.
- Be nice to yourself
Shame is rarely a helpful emotion, yet it’s something we feel far often as a result of our inner critics. We shame ourselves more frequently than we’re aware, judging our behaviour, our work, our interactions, our appearances, and so on. We have good intentions, thinking beating ourselves up for whatever we’ve done or not done is an avenue toward changing that behaviour. But psych! It actually does the opposite: because shame is an extremely difficult emotion to sit with, we tend to beat ourselves up, momentarily feel that unbearable shame, then avoid or distract to alleviate the discomfort. When we’re procrastinating and beating ourselves up for it in the moment, the cycle is exacerbated as we can’t be gentle and honest with ourselves and change our behaviour. When we’re thinking of past instances of procrastination, shame prevents us from really understanding what was going on at the time.
The way around this is treat your experience with understanding and curiosity. Imagine a friend came to you and was like, “Dude, I don’t know what to do. Every time I go to work on this report I black out and wake up three hours later on YouTube.” You probably wouldn’t be like, “You’re such a waste of life. Why do you keep doing that?! FOCUS!!!” Instead you’d probably be like, “Oh geez I know exactly how you feel. I do that, too, and it’s super frustrating. What do think is getting in the way of your focus?”
You might not come up with an answer, but at least you’ll be able to look at the experience with curiosity rather than criticism, and thus be able to explore avenues to change. And a final piece for you to consider on the note of shaming and blaming: maybe, just maybe procrastination is working for you. You’ve made it this far with it. Some of us work better under pressure (ahem, yours truly). So notice where you’re being hard on yourself, ease up, and see what comes out of a less judgmental awareness.
- Whatever you do, do it with intention and permission.
Despite how that sergeant manager made you feel, you’re not a robot designed for continuous “productivity.” We humans need to rest, recharge, introspect, connect, and have fun–which is all meaningful and necessary. So if you’re having a particularly difficult time focusing and being productive, consider just giving yourself permission to do whatever you’re doing with intention, and become skilled at determining how it’s meaningful for you. Then “wake up” to whatever you’re doing (even if it’s binge-watching Netflix or spending hours on the Daily Mail), and do it intentionally. When we shift from autopilot to intentionality, we’re empowered to make a change in behaviour that doesn’t serve us. Now get off Forbes and get started ;).
Megan Bruneau, M.A. RCC is a mental health therapist, wellness coach, writer, and host of Forbes’ The Failure Factor.