Disclaimer: Procrastination is fixable, but the reason you’re avoiding what you should be doing probably isn’t. If you’re dreading a task, chances are you’ll be able to find a reason to avoid it. But if you’re someone who by default puts some things off to the last minute, you can develop tools to help you stop the habit.
In case you’re on the fence about it, let’s talk about why you should break the procrastination habit. First, you are making people crazy. I speak for the millions of conscientious, never-miss-a-deadline workers who die a thousand deaths waiting for your last-minute report, your “just a few minutes late” arrival for the important meeting, and during the three days it took you to finish a simple task you promised to do. You’re killing us. Being late – or the idea that you could make us late – is like nails on a chalkboard.
(Brief aside: scientists have studied why no human can stand the sound of nails on a chalkboard and concluded it produces the same sound frequency as a baby’s cry and a scream.)
Second, your procrastination is making you crazy. You may be addicted to the adrenaline rush of staying up all night to finish a project or zooming in at the last minute with the data in hand, but it’s talking a toll on your peace of mind – and on your career.
Social scientists who study procrastination have stopped defining it as a character issue (laziness) and started to think of it in terms of missing systems and tools that relieve the need for willpower to get something done. Willpower comes and goes; systems are designed to be the backup, the guardrails that keep you on the road moving forward.
You already have some of these systems in place. You don’t rely on sheer force of character to wake you up at 6:00 AM; you set an alarm clock. You set reminders on your calendars. You shop and meal prep on the weekend (work with me here) so you have chopped veggies and proteins for lunches all week. Once these systems are in place, they take over the role of reminding you what needs to be done and when.
One thing that works for almost anyone is to make the task you put off a habit.
Schedule it on your calendar for the same time every day, week, or month, depending on the work. The last Thursday of the month, you schedule the last (or first, depending on your inclination) two hours of the day to work on your monthly reporting, filing, or other administrative task. It’s important that it gets scheduled at the same time every time, so it becomes a habit; randomization is your enemy. Consider enlisting a buddy to help keep you on track by checking in to make sure you’re sticking to the task.
Eventually, that time will become automatic, so you won’t need to think about whether you should do it. You’ll also start reaping the rewards of staying on top of tasks. Try to stay focused not on how doing the task makes you feel (bored, irritated, resentful) but on how you feel after it’s done (accomplished, relieved, proud.) Be sure to reward yourself the first time you don’t have to spend the weekend catching up on work because you’re ahead of the game. (Or maybe a free weekend will be reward enough.)
Creating automatic behaviors will alleviate the need to feel like doing something. Running the dishwasher every evening and emptying it first thing in the morning. Paying bills or filing receipts once a week. Setting a habit means you don’t have to wait until you’re in the mood. It also means the work won’t pile up until it becomes too overwhelming to tackle – another common issue for procrastinators.
James Clear, author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, describes the difference between amateur and professional writers (hint: talent is only part of it.) He cites a conversation he had with Todd, a successful writer.
“Todd, what do you think about writing only when you feel motivated? I feel like I always do my best work when I get a spark of creativity or inspiration, but that only happens every now and then. I’m pretty much only writing when I feel like it, which means I’m inconsistent. But if I write all the time, then I’m not creating my best work.”
“That’s cool,” Todd replied. “I only write when I’m motivated too. I just happened to be motivated every day at 8am.”
We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.