You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Why we procrastinate and how to stop

Reader’s Digest Asia logo Reader’s Digest Asia 16/5/2019 Petr Ludwig and Adela Schicker from the book The End of Procrastination

Why we procrastinate and how to stop

a person sitting at a desk: Why we procrastinate and how to stop © Getty Images Why we procrastinate and how to stop

If you have ever had trouble persuading yourself to do things you should do or would like to do, you have experienced procrastination. When you procrastinate, instead of working on important meaningful tasks, you find yourself performing trivial activities.

If you are a typical procrastinator, perhaps you spend an excessive amount of time hitting the snooze button, watching TV, playing video games, checking Facebook, eating (even when you’re not hungry), obsessively cleaning or pacing back and forth through the office. Afterwards, you feel powerless and are overcome with feelings of guilt and frustration. Once again, you end up doing nothing. Sound familiar?

Lazy people don’t do anything and are just fine with it. Procrastinators, however, have the desire to actually do something but can’t force themselves to start. They truly want to fulfil their obligations but just can’t figure out how.

Don’t confuse procrastination with relaxation either. Relaxing recharges you with energy. In stark contrast, procrastinating drains it from you. The less energy you have, the greater the chances of you putting off your responsibilities, and, once more, you will accomplish nothing.

My dad always used to say, “Petr, you need to learn how to give yourself orders.” I would always answer: “What do you mean, Dad? I tell myself what to do, I just don’t listen.”

Seneca, the Roman philosopher, also warned: “While we waste our time hesitating and postponing, life is slipping away.” This quotation reveals the main reason why learning to overcome procrastination is so important.

The most extensive meta-analysis of studies on procrastination ever conducted indicates that failure of the ability to listen to ourselves is most likely the main reason why we put things off. The scientific name of this ability is self-regulation.

Self-regulation is the ability to consciously control your emotions. The more developed this ability is, the more often you will do what you tell yourself to do and the better you will resist temptation. Thanks to this, you will procrastinate less. Current research indicates that willpower can be compared to a muscle. It is possible to strengthen it through training.

To overcome paralysis, you need to start by setting the bar as low as possible. Creating habits isn’t about quantity; it’s about small steps and regular repetition. By making gradual increases once you learn a new habit, you can strengthen your willpower muscle. As you slowly raise the bar, your willpower will gain strength. The more powerful it is, the easier it will be for you to overcome more and more obstacles.

Learning how to wake up early, eat healthily, exercise regularly, or eliminate bad habits can all be achieved by taking small steps, too. Gradual changes are more pleasant than sudden, radical shifts. They are more enduring, and therefore the odds of success are much higher. Because you only have one willpower muscle for everything, if you train it to perform one activity, you can use its strength to do other things as well.

How to Create a ‘To-Do Today’ List

How to Create a ‘To-Do Today’ List © Shutterstock How to Create a ‘To-Do Today’ List

These ten guidelines will significantly increase the amount of tasks you are able to handle on a daily basis:

1. Lay out your tasks

Take a blank piece of paper and write down all of the tasks you would like to do on a given day. Give each task a concrete name. This enables you to better imagine what the task requires and thus decrease your aversion towards it. For example, labelling a task “Call the mechanic” does not evoke the same negative feelings as the too-abstract “Mechanic” might. If you are able to imagine your task, you will eliminate fear of the unknown and uncertainty.

2. Split large tasks up and combine small ones

a person sitting at a table: 2. Split large tasks up and combine small ones © Shutterstock 2. Split large tasks up and combine small ones

Each task should take you between 30 and 60 minutes to complete. If you have something more complicated (such as “Writing a book”), always break it up into a set of smaller tasks (“Write two paragraphs of the book”). Large and complicated tasks are easy to avoid. By breaking large tasks up into ‘bite-sized pieces’, you will be able to significantly decrease the aversion you might have towards them. (Incidentally, check out these secrets to self-publishing.)

3. Very small tasks

a person using a laptop computer: 3. Very small tasks © Shutterstock 3. Very small tasks

(“Write one email”) should be combined into one larger task (“Write all emails” or “Write 20 most important emails”). By batch processing related tasks, you will not have to shift your attention between different activities so often, and thus you will not disrupt your flow during the day. (According to one famous billionaire, this is the question you need to ask yourself at the start of every day.)

4. Colour code your priorities

a person standing posing for the camera: 4. Colour code your priorities © Shutterstock 4. Colour code your priorities

Draw a red circle around the tasks that are of highest priority (those that are important and urgent), draw a blue circle around those that are medium priority (those that are important but are not yet urgent), and then draw a green circle around those that are of the lowest priority (those that if you don’t do, the world won’t end, but which would still be nice to complete as a bonus).

5. Define your path for the day

a close up of a piece of paper: 5. Define your path for the day © Shutterstock 5. Define your path for the day

Link together your tasks with arrows; the path you make should follow the best order for completing your tasks. At the start of the day when your cognitive resources are still fresh, begin with the most difficult and high-priority tasks. Try to follow difficult tasks with less demanding ones and creative tasks with more routine ones. The ‘path’ you create is critical for fighting decision paralysis. You won’t have to spend time during the day thinking about what you should be working on.

6. Make time estimates

6. Make time estimates © Shutterstock 6. Make time estimates

Try to plan certain times for each task; define when you will start working on it and when you want to finish it. You should stick to these times, just as you would if you had an important appointment with someone. At first, your estimates won’t be exact, but with more experience they will get better. By defining an exact time to start an activity, you have improved the odds that you will actually start.

7. Focus on the one thing only

7. Focus on the one thing only © Shutterstock 7. Focus on the one thing only

Once you start working on a task concentrate only on that activity. You may switch your email notifications off, put your phone on silent mode, or ask your colleague not to disturb you. Clean your work area to limit distractions. By focusing on one task, you will find your state of flow more easily, and thanks to the peace you have created, nothing will disrupt it.

8. Learn when to stop

8. Learn when to stop © Shutterstock 8. Learn when to stop

Once you finish a task, cross it out and symbolically bring the task to a close. Some people have problems not only starting tasks but also finishing them. The first time you hold in your hands a completely crossed-out To-Do Today, you will understand how important this step is.

9. Replenish your cognitive resources

a man standing in front of a window: 9. Replenish your cognitive resources © Getty Images 9. Replenish your cognitive resources

Plan short breaks in between tasks so you can restore your energy. Once you get to an arrow, do something that will renew your willpower muscle. Go for a short walk around the block, head out to the park or eat a piece of fruit. Let your brain rest a bit. If you have been doing a creative task, do something with your hands. Your breaks can last only several minutes, but they will help you maintain your concentration and energy until the evening. Take breaks regularly throughout the day as a preventative measure.

10. Make a habit out of creating a To-Do Today

a person sitting on a table: 10. Make a habit out of creating a To-Do Today © Shutterstock 10. Make a habit out of creating a To-Do Today

It would be ideal if you could prepare this every evening for the following day. You will see how much better you will sleep knowing that you have the next day all planned out. It is also possible to prepare it first thing in the morning. The last item on your To-Do Today could be “Prepare To-Do Today for tomorrow”.

This is an edited extract from The End of Procrastination

by Petr Ludwig and Adela Schicker.

Sign up here to get Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox!

More from Reader's Digest Asia

Reader’s Digest Asia
Reader’s Digest Asia
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon