Do you start a project or other task, lose concentration, and then find yourself doing something else instead, like playing video games or other activity? Or do you end up staring into space and doing nothing, at all?
When you find yourself thinking “I’m not sure I want to work on this project right now”, could it be that you’re delaying because the commitment is hard going? When you think the job might not be right for you, or that you might not be good enough and “need to get your head around it”, could it be that you’re afraid of the added responsibility or letting people down?
Identifying that there is a relationship between indecisiveness and putting things off can help you. Once you know this, you can start to problem-solve on a rational level. It means you can learn to handle work, projects or study worries realistically.
How to differentiate delaying
One tip is to ask yourself in which way you’re delaying. There are two ways. One is productive scheduling, and the other is procrastination. For example, if you put something off decisively because you think it’s a good idea to wait, then this would be productive scheduling. Let’s say the thing you decide to schedule or prioritise is a document that needs editing. The problem is that you need a clear head for working on it. In this case, you decide it can wait until tomorrow. The thing you delayed, therefore, would be for a good reason. In the meantime, you would find yourself continuing to be productive. Organising your desk, for instance, and getting prepared for tomorrow’s editing, is productive. The next day, the scheduled activity would get done because the motivation or belief in oneself is there.
Now let’s say you’re losing your concentration on the piece of work that needs editing. Your mind is clear, and you can do the job. You know the paper needs to be completed and handed in by tomorrow, but you decide it can wait. Within minutes of making that decision, you start to play your video games or google useless information and lose track of time. This behaviour is procrastination. You lost your motivation to continue. Procrastination is putting something off regardless of knowing you’ll be worse off for it. It might be that you initially felt the impulsive thrill of getting something done yet lost incentive at the last minute.
Several things can cause procrastination.
As we’ve seen, commitment and responsibility are two things that can lead to procrastination. Fear of failure, boredom, depression or anxiety can exacerbate the problem. A quote by an unknown author is ‘Procrastination is the grave in which opportunity is buried.‘
The point is to ask yourself, why am I burying my opportunities? Why do I have a fear of failure? Why am I bored? What’s making me depressed or anxious? Next, make a decision based on the outcome. For instance, if you have a fear of failing your exams or making a hash of the project you’re working on, but want to be successful, what’s holding you back? How can you change it? Could it be that you’re trying to meet perceived standards for someone else yet losing sight of your worthwhile goals? Are the efforts you put into your work overridden with concerns about letting your parents, family or colleagues down, and is it this that’s making you feel anxious or depressed?
To achieve a favourable outcome, all you need to do is take a different approach.
If you choose a productive approach, then the solution is to get into the habit of “productive procrastination” (Piers Steel). If you want to lose your fear of failure or reduce anxiety, depression or make tasks more attractive, then one solution is to compete with your activities. You can learn to schedule at a later date with the rational choice for getting things done, such as editing the document with a clear mind, while continuing to be productive. As illustrated already, you might tidy your desk in preparation for working on your paper the next day. Or you might decide to go for a walk to clear your head or take a short nap to help with consolidating previously learned material.
What are the steps for getting into the habit of productive procrastination?
First, identify that when you delay tasks through indecision, you are postponing doing what you need to get done. What you can do is write a hierarchy of tasks. The concept, taken from John Perry’s view (Standford University Philosopher), works by writing at the top of your hierarchy the things you would like to have done. However, these things would not be as pressing as the ones placed in the middle. So if you have five things you need to get done and the two in the middle are the most important, you would juggle the ladder. In other words, you might want to do the task you most want to get done, even though it’s the least important one. But by juggling the ladder, you would encourage yourself to compete with one task and another. For example, you might do a playoff where you do task four first, then task one, and so on, but you always save job five till last. For each completed task, you can reward yourself 10 minutes’ free time, and 20 minutes for saving task five till last. You can then spend your 60 minutes of bonus time doing something you enjoy. The advantage will be on your side when you follow through with this method.
If you still find it hard making decisions, what do you do, then?
Trust in your natural ability to make choices, and then make decisions rationally instead of emotionally. Once you act on your decision, you will know you’re on the right track, because you’ll start to see a productive outcome unfolding. No “safety” behaviours are required, such as going over “what if” scenarios about perfectionism or repeatedly seeking reassurance that your work is up to scratch. On a rational level, a productive outcome is your goal, and this includes learning to live with the uncertainties in life despite other people’s standards. More precisely, you might pass all your exams with flying colours, or you might not, but it’s more likely that you will. Or you may please your colleagues or family but might not either yet mostly you will. Also, telling yourself that it’s okay if something doesn’t go as well as you’d like is humanly fine. You can then build the resilience to handle knockbacks. The point is that uncertainty is better than living with doubts and “what ifs” about failure when your opportunities are facing you, and you are practising productive procrastination.
By Carol Edwards
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