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What is Procrastination?

Procrastination refers to the intentional act of delaying a task or goal in favour of doing something less important or more pleasurable with no valid reason, despite the negative consequences of doing so. As much as we would like to deny it, it is a deliberate decision that we make, although it sometimes happens habitually and almost automatically. 

Procrastinators actively look for distractions, especially ones that don’t require a lot of commitment. In the Singapore study cited above, the most common distractor activities that students engaged in were napping, eating or drinking something, watching television, and surfing the Internet.

Procrastinators often lie to themselves, convincing themselves that they still have a lot of time left to finish the task, and that they will feel more motivated the next day or that they work better under time pressure. They tend to underestimate the time it will take to complete a task and believe they can only work when they are in the mood to do so.

Related: How to Stop Procrastinating

The Costs of Procrastination

Although delaying work to engage in more pleasurable activities can lower stress levels in the short term, it can increase your levels of guilt, shame, and stress in the long term. The result is often self-criticism and compromised work quality.

Procrastination can also affect your health, weakening immune systems, even causing insomnia and gastrointestinal problems. In addition, procrastinators tend to put off seeking medical treatments and tests.

When delaying work results in others having to take on the burden of our responsibilities, it can also lead to a strain in relationships.

Why Do People Procrastinate?

Contrary to common belief, procrastination is not about being lazy or having poor time management. Instead, it can be seen as a form of avoidance and an important sign that something is missing that might be preventing you from getting the work done. What then are we avoiding and why do we avoid it?

•    Unpleasant task - We dislike a task, perhaps because it is boring or uninteresting and, hence, we prefer not to do it.

•    Irrelevant task – The task has been delegated to you but you personally find it irrelevant or unimportant to your life goals.

•    Confusion – You lack the skills, information or resources to manage the task. It might be a huge task or a new one and you have no clear plan on where or how to start.

•    Low self-confidence and fear of failure – People tend to avoid tasks when they doubt their ability to accomplish it or to perform. This protects their self-esteem as they can attribute the failure to not putting in their best effort.

•    Anxiety and uncertainty – We are unsure of what to expect or fear the outcome would not be favourable, so we put off the task to avoid it.

•    No clear goals and deadlines – When there are no clear goals and hence no direction or no time pressure, we are more likely to say we will do it “tomorrow”, or “next week”, or “next month”.

How to Stop Procrastinating?

How to Stop Procrastinating

Understanding why we procrastinate can give us valuable information about ourselves and help us get “unstuck”. Try this: the next time you find yourself delaying a task, use the list above to identify your reasons for doing so. Ask yourself, “Do I need to plan this out in more detail?” or “Is this task important to me?”

In addition, the following tips could be helpful:

1. Create To-Do Lists, Deadlines, and Priorities

Create To-Do Lists, Deadlines, and Priorities

Include deadlines in your to-do list, and set personal deadlines for tasks that do not have deadlines. Rate the importance of each task when you decide which one to start on first. Strike them off the list as you complete them.

Related: Building Habits that Stick

2. Break Down Tasks

Break Down Tasks

When a task is complex or unpleasant, breaking it down into smaller, intermediate steps can make it seem easier and more manageable. Set yourself mini-deadlines for these intermediate steps.

For example, for a task such as “find a job”, breaking it into smaller steps might look like this:

  • Consider my interests, skills set, what I want in my job

  • Research for potential jobs online and/or in newspapers

  • Prepare a resume

  • Ask a friend/mentor for advice to improve my resume

  • Send my resume to employers

Related: Get Up and Go! Tips on Your Exercise Journey

3. Set Specific Goals and Tasks

Set Specific Goals and Tasks

Specify the what, when, and how, and set a time frame. For example, rather than saying, “Today I will search for a job,” say “This morning, I will spend 30 minutes looking through the newspaper for potential jobs.”

Related: Goal Setting Guide

4. Just Five Minutes

Just Five Minutes

Tell yourself that you will work for just five minutes, and then another five minutes and so on. Slowly increase this to longer periods of time. People often find that it gets easier once they have started, even if it was just for a bit.

Related: Just Keep Moving

5. Reduce Distractions

Reduce Distractions

Select a conducive time and place. Adjust your environment to reduce possible distractions, e.g. put your phone away, study at a place without wireless Internet.

Related: Minding Mindfulness

6. Set Time Limits for your Breaks

Set Time Limits for your Breaks

It is important to take breaks but ensure you set a time limit, e.g. after working on a task for one hour, take a 10-minute break, then come back to it for another hour.

Related: Relaxation — Good for Your Mind

7. Delay Procrastination

Delay Procrastination

Delay the urge to engage in a distracting activity by telling yourself “later” or “another five minutes”. Once that urge passes, you might be surprised that you end up managing to delay it for 30 minutes instead.

Related: Mental Resilience

8. Encourage Rather than Criticise

Encourage Rather than Criticise

Learn to forgive and encourage yourself, rather than beat yourself up.

Related: Positive Mental Wellbeing

9. Acknowledge Fear, Uncertainty and Negative Emotions

Acknowledge Fear, Uncertainty and Negative Emotions

These feelings are unavoidable but you can still carry out your tasks despite having those feelings.

Related: Cognitive Efficacy

10. Reward Yourself Even for Completing Small Tasks

Reward Yourself Even for Completing Small Tasks

For example, if you procrastinate by going on social media, tell yourself instead that you will do so only when you accomplish a task. This can increase your motivation to work and reduce your guilt.

Text by Ms. Janet Chang
Ms Janet Chang is a Clinical Psychologist at the Health and Wellness Programme, Eastern Health Alliance.

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