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How to Work Around a Procrastination Habit

Be gentle with yourself. Start with small or less important tasks.

Key points

  • Procrastination is an ineffective way of dealing with anxiety.
  • Try starting with small tasks and setting your own deadlines.
  • Reward yourself when you start or complete a task.
Source: Chiplanay/Pixabay

If you mix fear or boredom with rebellion, you often end up putting things off. You might tell yourself you need a break and indulge in some smartphone surfing—then you hear the little voice in your head saying, “Is this how grownups spend their time?” Self-criticism only perpetuates your fear or boredom and rebellion.

Procrastination is most often a way of dealing with anxiety—and it backfires. Putting off a task that makes you anxious perpetuates the anxiety over more hours and days, weeks and months. Some research suggests that procrastinators get worse sleep and feel tired in the daytime, which then amplifies their anxiety. Tossing and turning worrying that you're not getting things done makes it harder to do them.

Think about the reasons for the delay. Do you feel overburdened and keep waiting until you “have time,” but no amount of time is enough? Do you get angry and blame other people for saddling you with all this work? Are you afraid you’ll do a bad job? Facing those feelings might help you get started. But exactly how?

Structured Procrastination

Here’s a tip: You might do another less dreaded but still useful task. I learned this when I wanted to write a novel, but couldn’t get myself to start. So I began with short stories. When I found a story had become demanding, I’d switch over to another one. Soon I had four or more stories in the works at a time, and I spent hours writing every day. I was working steadily and hard, just not on a novel.

The philosopher John Perry calls this approach “structured procrastination.” In fact, he has confessed that he wrote The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing to avoid his duties as a professor.

Lists and Deadlines

Perry suggests writing a list of tasks ranked by importance, all of which are worthwhile. Do tasks near the bottom when you feel the urge to delay. Personally, I find writing “to-do” lists makes me anxious, so I follow my mental list, and, at the end of a morning of plowing through chores, I might write down my list and check off each task I just finished. Often I started with tasks at the bottom of my priorities and am now energized to move to higher-priority work.

You might break a big project into subprojects and rank those, then choose to do the less important or less scary ones first.

Perry also recommends setting your own deadlines. This has worked for me, too. When I did begin writing my novel, I immediately set myself deadlines. On Monday and Tuesday mornings I would think about the plot for the next chapter. In the evenings I wrote scenes to bring those plot points to life. I had to complete the chapter by Sunday night. Each chapter was, in effect, a subproject. In this way, I had a first draft in a year.

One reason I kept going was that I told myself that it didn’t matter if the scenes were any good—I just had to get through them by the deadline. I knew I would have many rounds of editing, anyway. Perry calls this “lowering the bar.” People often procrastinate because of high standards. Lowering them lets you get the job done, and you often can improve your work later. Much of the time people procrastinate over tasks that don’t require brilliance.

When Perry makes “to-do” lists of tasks for the day, he may include “do-nots” that are favorite time-wasters—for me, it might be “Do not check Facebook until after lunch.” Checking off the “do-nots” gives you a psychological lift.

You can also set rules that limit your time-wasters. Perry’s rule is to surf online only 20 minutes before his next class begins or when his laptop is unplugged and has only 10 minutes of battery power left.

Sometimes procrastination helps you weed your to-do list. Some tasks vanish—your mother-in-law might go to a mechanic if you forget to call her back for a week to discuss her car troubles.

Rewarding Yourself

Reward yourself. If you have tackled a particularly horrible task, give yourself a reward like going for a walk or calling a friend. Practice self-compassion. It’s common for procrastinators to beat themselves up as lazy and selfish. No, you’re just dealing with anxiety in a way that doesn’t work. If you can talk to yourself kindly, you might be less anxious and discover you can do the job more quickly and successfully than you guessed.

If you’re stalling because you lack skills or find a task so boring you can’t focus, try to delegate it to someone else, Perry suggests. Play to your strengths and passions and sidestep weaknesses. Find helpers or collaborators who can fill in your gaps.

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