There are many reasons why people procrastinate. Among the most common excuses are poor time management, or being easily distracted, and while these explanations may be true in some circumstances, our tendency to put things off is often a more psychological matter. As Nic Voge, the senior associate director of Princeton University’s McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning, explains in his TEDxPrinceton talk, some people use procrastination as a form of self-protection. His logic (which is backed by research on self-worth theory) is this: If we perform poorly on a task, our procrastination is at fault, rather than our intellect or skill level.
Similarly, fear of success could also play a role in your procrastination. “You may be afraid that being successful will cause problems. You will have more and more expectations upon yourself. You may become the object of competition or envy,” Jane Burka, Ph.D., a psychologist and co-author of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, tells Thrive.
Though procrastination often feels unavoidable — especially when we are contending with a fear of failure or success — it’s completely manageable. And the tools to combat it are not as convoluted as you might expect. Understanding the root of your procrastination habit can help you set out on a more proactive path. If you find yourself postponing pressing tasks, ask yourself these three questions to better understand why you’re procrastinating in the first place, and how to better manage the habit moving forward.
Question #1: What am I trying to avoid?
This is an important step to putting an end to your procrastination habit. Burka recommends asking yourself: “What difficulties would arise if I actually did my best and got this done on time? What would I have to face that I don’t have to face now?” Your answers might show you that the challenges you’d face wouldn’t be so difficult after all. Maybe you are avoiding feedback from your manager, or you’re hesitant about beginning your next project. Knowing what is holding you back will allow you to devise a plan to cope in a healthier way, and finally get your work done.
Question #2: How do I waste my time?
What do you usually turn to when you’re putting off a dreaded task? Maybe you log into Netflix, or take care of a much less-pressing item. Daryl Chen, the Ideas editor at TED, calls these your “‘greatest hits’ of wasting time,” and we all have them. Becoming familiar with our own habits can help us overcome them. Try identifying your top three “greatest hits” and jot them down. If you catch yourself doing one of them, take a “mindful minute” to meditate and focus on your breath. Then, bring your focus back to the task that needs to get done. If you know it’ll take only a minute or two to complete, do it right away while you’re still thinking about it.
Question #3: Why is this task meaningful?
Recognizing the larger meaning behind your work is another way to lower procrastination, and this skill is known as “motivational competence,” Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, tells Thrive. While there is no “magic bullet” that will instantly spike your motivation to get something done, Pychyl says you will procrastinate less on tasks that are not only congruent with your goals, but also intrinsically motivating.
But what exactly can you do if that larger meaning isn’t loud and clear? Upon completing a task, take a moment to recognize one distinct reason why your work is important. Did your report help your company reach a business objective? Did your email help a client solve a problem? Make a point of celebrating your own achievements. Rejoicing in the small wins can go a long way in boosting your morale, and beating procrastination.
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