How to Overcome Procrastination

You’ve got a great idea for a business. You need to lose 10 lbs. You have a major report to write. But it’s not getting done.

You’re not alone and it’s not your fault.

For most people, the major challenge in life is not handling a crisis. No…it’s the daily demand to stay with the program. To accomplish your tasks day after day. To keep going in the face of drudgery, frustration, and boredom. Consistently choosing to do what needs to be done rather than what you want to do.

1. Don’t feel guilty — it’s not your fault. 
Mark Twain said, “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” 95% of people admit to procrastinating. A quarter of these say procrastination is a chronic characteristic. Is it laziness? Is it perfectionism? Only rarely. Instead, it’s evolution.

The limbic system, or “reptile brain“, evolved early in our primate history and is similar to that of most creatures. It is controlled by instinct and enables us to meet our immediate survival needs. The prefrontal cortex, or executive function, evolved much later. Its job is to analyze and plan future benefits. Usually the limbic system and prefrontal cortex work together effectively. But when the limbic system is stimulated by immediate sensations, procrastination results. The long horizon view of the prefrontal cortex is cast aside to satisfy immediate desires.

It’s not our fault but we have to deal with it.

2. Know when procrastination makes sense. 
Sometimes putting off tasks is more productive than compulsively tackling them. Do you have a niggling sense that you need more information, a different perspective, or better timing for your task? What you (and others) may see as procrastination may instead be resistance to the task due to an almost unconscious or instinctual recognition that delay is best.

When this happens, identify what you’re waiting for and plan flexibly based on this knowledge. Work on another task until you have everything you need to give ample attention to the first one.

3. Identify your procrastination triggers. 
The more impulsive we are (see #1), the more we avoid the anxiety related to deadlines or long-term tasks. No, it’s not logical. Yes, it’s self-defeating. And yes, we all do it.

Spend time identifying what triggers your impulsiveness. Are the birds singing and golf course beckoning? Ask a friend to hide your clubs until the project is completed. Does a nap seem more inviting than writing that report? Plan your most important work first thing in the morning while you are still fresh.

4. Keep moving. 
I’ve been reminded more than once that it’s easier to rudder a ship that is already moving. In those moments when you are tempted to take a break to avoid an unpleasant task, resist. Energy in motion tends to stay in motion. If you work at another task instead of resting, you will find it easier to approach the unpleasant task. Energy at rest tends to stay at rest. That one is self-explanatory.

5. Examine your self-talk. 
If you, like me, can easily justify tweaking your website rather than calling that difficult client, your creative self-talk is probably highly evolved. When it works against you, this is not a good thing. Take the time to listen to your reasons for procrastinating. Are they excuses or valid reasons? Most of the time, our justifications have enough truth in them to trick us.

Is your justification entirely true? If not, correct it. For instance, you dread cold calling and tell yourself “I can’t make that cold call until I feel more confident (or know more about the product, or practice, etc.).” Is that entirely true? Perhaps you can begin with a few low-risk prospects and learn your technique quickly through making a few calls. Identifying your false self-talk can lift major barriers to productivity.

6. Don’t visualize success…alone. 
Visualization has been all the rage for the past decade or so. All types of people are enjoying mental images of their future success in the hopes they will attract it. Does it work? Yes and no. Visualization alone tricks your brain into thinking you have already completed your task. This diminishes motivation.

Instead, imagine completing your task. Next, imagine what it will take to get you there. What obstacles and challenges will you face? According to the research, holding these two images in your mind simultaneously is the best guarantee you will reach your goal and overcome procrastination.

7. Use your energy wisely.
You are like a power grid. If you allocate physical, mental, or emotional energy in one area, it decreases energy in other areas. Worry about that upcoming presentation devours energy needed to complete your present task. Multitasking reduces your ability in every area.

At the beginning of the day or the night before, determine your goals and priorities for the day. If possible, tackle them one-by-one. Use the strategies above to keep your mind on the task at hand. You may be very surprised at how much more productive you can be. And at how much more you enjoy your work.

About the Author:

Kate Stewart, Ph.D. is a certified mediator, author, organizational consultant, and executive coach. She recently founded the web-based Gold Scaffold system scheduled for launch in July 2011. The Gold Scaffold portal will enable people to overcome procrastination, impulsiveness, and weak willpower to achieve their goals. 

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