“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.” – William James (1842-1910), The Father of American Psychology
For well over a century, psychologists have been trying to figure out what drives human beings to procrastinate. Why would rational people make life worse for themselves by putting important tasks off?
It turns out that procrastinating is something we’ve been doing at least since our student days. Perhaps we can learn how to address the issue today by considering how it developed back then. Then consider a few surprising solutions to the syndrome.
Procrastination Hits Us Early
Three-quarters of students admit to procrastinating on their studies; half do it to a problematic degree. Rather than getting to that term paper, they sleep, watch television, or go out and play.
Not only are these students not getting to their work in a timely manner, adding stress at the deadline, but they are lowering themselves in their own self-estimation while adding to their fear of failure and depression.
Why Do Students Behave this Way?
Students with the least confidence in their academic abilities tend to procrastinate most. Next, come those who aren’t so good at self-regulation. This makes perfect sense: we tend to procrastinate on things we’re not good at, especially if we’re not good at managing distractions. Consider:
- Low self-esteem often underlies procrastination.
- Putting things off makes for a good excuse for failure.
- Externally-imposed deadlines are controlling, something to rebel against.
What causes students to put things off may underlie the tendency to procrastinate in us all. That may come as no surprise: we did learn the habit early in life, after all. What may be surprising, however, are the solutions to procrastination. But as the behavior is irrational, perhaps we need to surprise the rational part of our minds into action.
If all else fails, you can always try reprogramming your thoughts with self-talk.
Surprising Solutions to Procrastination
While the underlying causes of procrastination may seem understandable, the best possible solutions to the syndrome could be the surprising ones. Our rational brains likely know about the more mundane fixes: breaking tasks down, scheduling time for completing them, rewarding ourselves. The problem is these common-sense solutions aren’t resolving the issue for us.
Consider trying these:
Make the task harder (with a shorter deadline).
Sound counter-intuitive? Surely we’d be more likely to want to avoid harder tasks. Problem is, easy tasks bore us so we put them off, seeking excitement and challenges elsewhere. Our sense of satisfaction in completing a task rises with the challenge involved. Adding elements of difficulty to your tasks, like more complex calculations or more involved steps, set the bar higher to encourage leaping over it. Giving ourselves less time to complete the task adds to the sense of challenge.
Tackle the hard stuff first.
Doing the hardest, most important tasks when we’re tired can be tricky. Contemplating the difficulty involved may even cause us to put the task off another day (maybe forever?). Best to start in on the hardest stuff when we’re at peak performance. Experts say that’s around 10 o’clock in the morning for most of us.
Do it for a couple of minutes.
According to the Zierganick effect, once we start a task our brains stay engaged with it until it’s done. While we may spend hours avoiding a task, we find after jumping in on a small part of it that starting was the most difficult part. Once engaged with a task, our many reasons for procrastinating on it can melt away, leaving us focused on completion.
“I have to finish this important task. It should already be done by now and I just need to do it.” – Procrastinator’s Motto
Elements of the Procrastinator’s Motto cross all of our minds from time to time. For chronic procrastinators, it might plague us frequently.
We’re always talking to ourselves in our minds, engaging in mental debates that can deeply influence our behavior and actions. If we can become aware of our mental dialogues, and start detecting the negative patterns, we may have a chance at converting them into “productive statements”. In this way, we can empower ourselves to overcome avoidance feelings and behavior.
- We don’t really have to do anything; telling ourselves so disempowers us, making us feel forced or coerced into taking on a task.
- This feeling of being victimized can lead to resistance to a task.
- A simple change from “have to” to “choose to” (or “will”) restores our power over tasks we face.
“I choose to start this task with a small, imperfect step. I’ll feel terrific and have plenty of time for fun!” – Successful Doer’s Self-Talk
This simple rephrasing of our internal dialogue and reframing of our thoughts can instantly change our attitude toward tasks we face. Once converted into a regular habit, this reprogramming of negative thoughts can make for a positive change in our mindset and outlook. And just starting in can generate enough momentum to finish.
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