Procrastination is a common behaviour many of us are guilty of, but it's something that can be unlearnt. We talk to experts about how to overcome putting off today what can be done tomorrow.
How to stop procrastinating
As a chronic procrastinator, I have tried and tested all the excuses in the book in order to avoid doing something that is pressing. Facebook statuses get updated, old drawers are cleared out, phone calls to long-lost relatives are made and imaginary dogs are taken for walks. From “pressing”, that little something then turns into “must do now” and from “must do now” we enter into panic mode. It is here, amid the blinding adrenalin rush and tears that I finally kick into action.
It is therefore not surprising that I happened to come across The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing – a new book by the internationally recognised philosopher John Perry – while I was trying to avoid finishing an important application form. In this book, Perry takes a humorous look at the topic, and explores a concept he calls “structured procrastination”.
Procrastinators like to put off high-priority tasks in favour of doing something pleasurable or of lower priority. You cannot blame us, really. Perry suggests we become structured procrastinators to ensure we’re at least wasting time effectively. To do this, he advises we should always put together a list of the things we need to do in priority order, while ensuring that the top item is something that is seemingly urgent, but in reality isn’t. This in turn will motivate us to do the “lower priority” items in order to avoid doing the top item. A potential problem with this, however, is that the top item may never be completed, so it is imperative to try to ensure that this is something that can be put off without too much damage.
“I think most people will find out that they are already structured procrastinators,” says Perry. “Thousands of people are sitting around feeling guilty that they have not pasted their photographs into an album, although they have been planning to do it for years. Most of these people have done all sorts of useful things while not organising their pictures. They need to give themselves a pat on the back for that, and quit feeling bad.”
So now, as a procrastinator, I’m feeling rather smug; I finally have proof that there can be method to the madness of putting things off until the last minute. Perry says that, like other procrastinators, he tells himself that procrastination has its advantages, and that the adrenalin rush you enjoy as the deadline nears unleashes incredible energy and creativity.
“While I am procrastinating, my mind actually works on the tasks at a subconscious level, so the end result is better,” he explains. “Unfortunately, psychologists who do empirical studies and experiments don’t see these effects, so they think we are kidding ourselves. On the other hand, is it so bad to kid yourself within limits? It’s a cold, harsh world. Lighten up, psychologists,” he jokes.
And it is true; many psychologists are less convinced of the positive side of procrastination. A study by Ohio State University found that the worst procrastinators received significantly lower grades than low- or moderate-level procrastinators. They were also more likely to use rationalisations such as “I work best under pressure” to justify their behaviour. The researchers argue that these lower grades, however, show their rationalisations are just “wishful thinking”.
The UAE-based life coach Michelle Burton-Aoun (www.lifecoach-michelle.com) has a similar opinion to the researchers of the study and argues that one of the main behavioural issues with procrastination is pathological lying. “Sometimes procrastinators tell themselves lies, such as ‘this isn’t that important’, or ‘I’ll have a fresh mind tomorrow morning and will do a better job, so I’ll put it off until then’. But lying to one’s self does not help.”
So if procrastination isn’t so great, how does a person with a habit of putting everything off until tomorrow start acting right here and now?
Luckily, Burton-Aoun says that procrastination is a learnt behaviour, and almost anything learnt can be unlearnt – although the latter part takes slightly longer to accomplish. “Contrary to popular belief, recommending a daily planner to people who procrastinate is as likely to work as telling someone who is depressed to be happy,” Burton-Aoun says. “Cognitive behavioural therapy, if highly structured, can help people overcome their ingrained issue with self-regulation and this will help eliminate procrastination,” she says.
However, some chronic procrastinators have found that implementing their own coping strategy is just as effective. Daniel Evans, a Dubai-based sales and marketing executive, has accepted that he is by nature a procrastinator. Trying to completely eliminate his habit didn’t work, so he decided to find a method that would help him curtail it instead. Evans therefore devised a “55 minutes work, five minutes break” rule that ensures he gets his to-do list done, while allowing himself some important time for procrastination.
“If I’m taking a five-minute break every hour, that adds up to about 40 minutes over the space of a working day,” he explains. “I found that if I don’t give myself that liberty then I will easily waste double or triple that time and it will be in bigger chunks.
“My other method is careful planning of my workload,” Evans adds. “For example, a big chunk of my work is designing flyers for the various promotions that we have. So I set myself very quantitative targets, such as: all the typography needs to be completed by 12pm, pictures need to be done by 2pm – goals such as these,” he says.
Personally, as a chronic procrastinator, I think the least I can do is try to put Perry’s structured procrastination theory to the test. I have therefore carefully drawn up a to-do list and strategically placed “devise a gym plan, stick to it and lose 10 pounds” at the top.
That ought to do it.