How to stop procrastinating in 5 easy steps

Filed in Blog by on April 30, 2014 0 Comments

Image post it note with words do it now written on it. Now is crossed out and replaced with tomorrowIf you want to know how to stop procrastinating then you have come to the right place.   I can tell you all you need to know in two words – “start doing”, and therein lies the problem.  The real question isn’t how to stop procrastinating but rather how to start doing.

Fortunately I can help you with that one too.  But first you need to understand a little more about procrastination.

The Power of “Should”

There are a million and one things we don’t do every day and we never give them a second thought.  But when it comes to the things that we procrastinate about our lack of progress eats away at us.  We constantly berate ourselves for letting another day go by without progressing …………………………… (fill in your own task).  So what makes the difference between not doing it and worrying about it and not doing it and never giving it another thought?

It all depends whether you believe it’s something that you should be doing or not. If you don’t believe it is something you should be doing you can put it off and you won’t give it another thought.  But if, on the other hand, you believe it is something that you should be doing then you won’t be able to let it go.  You will find yourself continually thinking about it and checking what you have achieved so far against what’s left  and this process won’t stop until the task is done.

Negative Feedback Loop

Now this is a very clever strategy for ensuring that you remain focused on completing important tasks but the downside is that it also acts as a constant reminder of your lack of progress.  Not only is this depressing in itself but it also makes it even less likely that you will take any action because you start to doubt your abilities and question what is wrong with you.  It doesn’t take much to jump from “I should have phoned the client” to “I haven’t phoned the client” to “why haven’t I phoned the client” to “I’m useless” which is then reinforced by your on-going lack of progress which becomes “see, I told you I was useless I still haven’t phoned the client.”  So how do you break-out of this cycle?  It’s actually quite straight-forward if you follow these five steps.

“When all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.”  Lou Holz

Step 1 – Put “should” under the microscope

So we know that part of the problem with procrastination is that we have a belief that we should be doing something and we’re not. So the first step is to challenge this assumption.  After all we only have a limited amount of time and energy so we need to decide where to focus and what to prioritize. Is this a good use of your time?  Is completing this task important to you?  Is it in line with your vision, values and goals?   See A simple Idea that Might Change Your Life.  You might decide that actually this task isn’t that important to you and you can let it go.  You might find that you are naturally kick-started into taking action because you realize just how important this task is to you.  In either case procrastination is no longer an issue.  Alternatively, you might agree that completing this task is important for you but you still don’t take any action.  So it’s on to step 2.

Step 2 – Are you the best person to do this task? 

We all have certain things that we like to do more than others which we never need to be convinced or cajoled to complete. They tend to be the things that we are good at and that make us feel good – our strengths in other words.  On the other hand the stuff that we don’t tend to get on with often involves the things we think are going to be difficult or that we aren’t any good at.  So it makes sense to ask yourself these questions, “Am I the best person to do this task?  Can I delegate this task to somebody else?  Who do I know who has a strength in this area?”   The benefit of this approach is that you are freed up to deal with other things that are in your area of strength; the task gets completed to a higher standard than you would probably have done it and you can stop stressing about your lack of progress.  So if you can delegate your unfinished task to another willing party this can be a great strategy to sideline procrastination.  But sometimes there isn’t anybody you can delegate to or you are the only person who is allowed to complete the task so its time to move on to step 3.

Step 3 – Check you have everything you need to do this task?

Sometimes there are very practical reasons that might stop you moving forward.  It might be that you don’t have all the information you need or you may be lacking certain equipment or perhaps you don’t know how to proceed.  It is always worth asking yourself the question, “Do I have everything I need to move forward with this task?”  And if you identify something you need that you haven’t got you can then work out how you are going to get it.  However, these situations are relatively straight forward to deal with because you can usually very quickly identify what the block is and once you get the information, equipment or advice you need you are able to start moving forward on your task so procrastination is no longer an issue.  Where life becomes much more challenging is when the block is not a practical one but a psychological one.  On to step 4.

Step 4 – Work out the cost of inaction

So by this stage we have confirmed that it’s important to us to complete this task and that we are the only one who can do it, there are no practical issues standing in our way but we still haven’t actually taken any action.  It’s time to think about the pain / pleasure principle.  This is Freud’s theory that describes human behaviour as being driven by the desire to move towards things that cause us pleasure and away from things that cause us pain.  The fact that we aren’t taking action suggests that at an unconscious level we are associating too much pain and too little pleasure with completing the task so inaction seems a better option.  But has our unconscious made the right call and what’s it based on?

It will probably help to work this through using an example so let’s imagine that you have sent a sales quote to a client and you now need to ring them up to find out whether they want to proceed.  But every time you think about ringing them you end up doing something else instead.

Begin by identifying all the benefits to you of taking action – e.g. you will know how the client wishes to proceed, you might get a sale or at least you will increase your chances of getting a sale because you can respond to any questions or objections the client might have.  You can tick this task off your list and you keep the boss happy.

Then identify the costs to you of taking action – e.g. If you ring the client you face possible rejection and feeling like a failure if the client doesn’t want to proceed.  Plus your boss may be upset with you for not making the sale.

In my experience most people don’t like rejection and feeling like a failure so perhaps it’s understandable that our sub-conscious would want to protect us from these feelings.  However, there are also consequences to our inaction which also need to be considered.

Identify all the benefits to you of not taking any action – e.g. you can still believe that you have a chance of making the sale, you will avoid the possibility of rejection and feeling like you’ve failed.

Finally, identify the costs to you of not taking any action –  You may feel stressed, anxious or frustrated because you don’t know what the client is thinking or planning to do, you may start berating yourself because of your failure to call the client, you may miss out on the sale because the client thinks you’re not interested and takes his business elsewhere.  You run the risk of upsetting your boss who may view your inaction as failure to perform.

By looking at the benefits and costs of both taking action and not you get a much more accurate picture of what your current behaviour is costing you and this may be enough in itself to shift the balance towards taking action.  Or it may be that this exercise enables you to at least understand what is really blocking you so that you can get some help with working through the issue.  I don’t know about you but it seems to me that overall you will be in a better position if you call the client than if you don’t although you might still need a bit of help getting over the starting line.

And if your judgement is that ultimately you are in a better position not doing something rather than doing it you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have made a conscious decision to let it go after careful and full consideration.

Step 5 – Sweeten the deal

If you have made it to step 5 without getting on with whatever it is that you need to do then chances are that the consequences of inaction are not extreme enough to galvanize you to act.  Extreme pain and extreme pleasure tend to be real motivators.  So to get you past the starting line you need to sweeten the deal either by making it less painful or more pleasurable to take action.

These are  my favourite sweetners:

1.  Make it fun – put on some music, make a game out of it or turn it into a competition.  This works well with things like housework or repetitive tasks that you find boring.

2.  Use a timer – Set a timer for ten minutes and then start your task.  Once the timer goes off you can either give yourself permission to stop or re-start the timer and keep going for another ten minutes.  Just keep repeating until the task is complete.  This is a great technique for getting you off the starting blocks – there are very few things that you won’t be able to cope with doing for just ten minutes.  And what you usually find is that once you have started you realise it’s not as bad as you thought it was going to be and you keep going.  It’s great for tasks that appear overwhelming.

3. Tell yourself out loud that you are not going to do it and at the same time start doing it.  I know this sounds absolutely ridiculous but it works.  This is the one that I use with short tasks that I know are necessary but which I don’t like doing.

4. Reward yourself for completing the task – this is the strategy I use when I have to complete something that I find challenging particularly if it’s something that I am going to have to do regularly.  By rewarding myself with something pleasurable every time I complete the task I start to associate the challenging task with feelings of pleasure and I will naturally stop procrastinating.  The reward can be big or small it’s whatever works for you.  This approach would work well with the telephone problem described above.

5. Make a commitment to others – in ten years of coaching I have met many procrastinators but none who felt comfortable in letting down other people.  So making a public commitment that you are going to complete a task by a specified time to somebody whose opinion of you matters can be a really strong motivator.

So there you go – how to stop procrastinating in five easy steps.  I would love to hear about any other strategies that you have used to overcome procrastination.

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