Stop procrastinating now!

January 30, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Are you or someone you know a serial procrastinator? With some advice are the authors of "Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It Now," Dr. Jane Burka and Dr. Lenora Yuen.

Buy the book on Amazon: Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now

10 Techniques for Managing Procrastination

1. Identify a behavioral goal (observable, specific, and concrete), rather than setting a vague, global one.

NOT: "I want to stop procrastinating."

INSTEAD: "I want to clean out and organize my garage by September 1."

2. Set a realistic goal. Think small, rather than large, and choose a minimally acceptable goal rather than an ideal goal. Focus on one (and only one!) goal at a time.

NOT: "I'll never procrastinate again!"

INSTEAD: "I'll spend an hour a day studying for my Math class."

3. Break your goal down into small, specific mini-goals. Each mini-goal is more easily reached than the big goal, and small goals add up to the big goal.

NOT: "I'm going to write the report."

INSTEAD: "I'll spend thirty minutes working on plan for my spreadsheet tonight. Tomorrow I'll spend another thirty minutes filling in the data, and then the next day, I'll spend an hour writing a report based on the data."

4. Be realistic (rather than wishful) about time. Ask yourself: How much time will the task actually take? How much time do I actually have available?

NOT: "I have plenty of time to do this tomorrow."

INSTEAD: "I'd better look at my calendar to see when I can start. Last time, it took longer than I thought."

5. Use the next fifteen minutes and just get started. You can stand anything for fifteen minutes. You can only accomplish a task by working at it fifteen minutes at a time. So, what you can do in fifteen minutes is of value.

NOT: "I only have fifteen minutes, so why bother?"

INSTEAD: "What part of this task can I do in the next fifteen minutes?"; "What is the one first step I can take to get started?"

6. Expect obstacles and setbacks. Don't give up as soon as you hit the first (or second or third) obstacle. An obstacle is just a problem to be solved, not a reflection of your value or competence.

NOT: "The professor isn't in his office, so I can't work on my paper. Think I'll go to a movie."

INSTEAD: "Even though the professor isn't in, I can work on my outline until he gets back."

7. Protect your time. Learn how to say no. Don't take on extra or unnecessary projects. Delegate (or even dump!) tasks. You can choose not to respond to what's "urgent" in order to attend to what's important.

NOT: "I have to make myself available to anyone who needs me."

INSTEAD: "I don't have to answer the phone while I'm working. I'll listen to the message and call back later when I've finished."

8. Watch for your "excuses." Instead of using your "excuse" as an automatic reason to procrastinate, use it as a signal to spend just fifteen minutes on your task. Or use your excuse as a reward for taking a step.

NOT: "I'm tired (depressed/hungry/busy/confused, etc.), so I'll do it later."

INSTEAD: "I'm tired, so I'll just spend fifteen minutes working on my report. Then I'll take a nap."

9. Reward your progress along the way. Focus on effort, not on outcome. Watch out for all-or-nothing thinking: The cup can be half-full just as well as half-empty. Even a small step is progress!

NOT: "I can't feel good until I've completely finished."

INSTEAD: "I took some steps and I've worked hard. That feels good. Now I'm going to watch a movie."

10. Use your procrastination as a signal. Stop and ask yourself: "What message is my procrastination sending me?"

NOT: "I'm procrastinating again and I hate myself."

INSTEAD: "I'm procrastinating again: what am I feeling? What does this mean? What can I learn?

Reasons Why You Procrastinate

Researchers and behavioral economists have identified some very common issues that can lead to procrastination. The "aversiveness" of a task is often viewed as a major cause of procrastination. If a task is unpleasant, boring or tedious, people put off doing it. Or, when goals are far off in the future, they feel less relevant than an immediately-gratifying activity, even though the future goals may be more important. So people often put off working toward long-range goals.

We believe that although these may be general reasons, they do not explain why any particular individual procrastinates. For example, we think that "aversiveness" is in the eye of the beholder. One person may face an aversive task by avoiding it: "I'll do it later; I don't even want to think about it." Another person might approach the same aversive task with: "I hate this, so I'm going to do it right away and not have to think about it anymore."

Thus, we believe that overcoming procrastination takes:

  • understanding your personal reasons for putting things off, and
  • taking active steps to do things in a timely way.

All the understanding in the world won't help, if you don't take action. But you may not be able to take action unless you understand the reasons behind your procrastination. People are usually aware of how procrastination is working against them, but they may not realize that procrastination may also be working for them.

1. Procrastination is a strategy people may be using to avoid fear:

· Fear of failure:
If I procrastinate, I'll never have to find out how well I could have done if I'd allowed enough time to do my best. My best is never tested. If the result isn't good enough, it doesn't mean that I'm not good enough, it just means that I waited too long.

· Fear of success:
When my procrastination interferes with my success, I never have to deal with the downsides of success-being in the spotlight, more responsibility, higher expectations, competition, and possibly leaving others behind.

· Fear of feeling controlled:
Procrastination is my way of saying, "You can't make me do this on your schedule. I'll do it on my own time." Cooperating with someone else's timeline makes me feel like I'm capitulating and losing my independence.

· Fear of feeling too separate:
If I make progress, I may have to give up the safe feeling of being close with family and friends. I won't have people worrying about me or rescuing me at the last minute. I'll feel too lonely.

· Fear of intimacy:
If I stop procrastinating and move ahead, I could have to deal with more people in my life, be more social, and let people get to know the real me.

2. Procrastination may also reflect issues related to underlying biological and/or neurocognitive conditions. Some of these conditions include:

· Depression
When you're depressed, it's hard to get yourself to do anything and to feel motivated or energized. Procrastination may be part of a larger picture of withdrawing from the world, feeling easily overwhelmed, and feeling pessimistic about yourself and about the future.

· Attention Deficit Disorder and/or Executive Dysfunction
Some people's brains work in ways that make it hard to start, focus, and follow through on tasks. They may have biologically-based difficulty focusing attention, remembering plans and commitments, organizing materials, structuring and planning time, or regulating emotions and impulses.

· Anxiety Disorders, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Hoarding
People who suffer from some anxiety disorders such as OCD seem to have heightened sensitivity to making mistakes; parts of the brain associated with mistakes are activated very quickly and intensively. Procrastination may reflect their over-worry about doing something wrong: in an effort to avoid making a mistake, they may obsess endlessly but do nothing. Hoarding often reflects intense worry about making a mistake throwing things away, therefore clutter accumulates and even feels overwhelming, but it's still hard to clear out the mess.

3. Finally, procrastination may be a response to cross-cultural challenges. People who have moved to a new culture or country face extra difficulties adjusting to a new environment. Students who are the first in their families to attend college are also entering a new culture, one that is completely different from anything they have known before. Such challenges may add extra intensity to fears of failure, success, or separation, leading to procrastination and avoidance.

About the authors:
Jane B. Burka, PhD, and Lenora M. Yuen, PhD, are psychologists who live and practice in the San Francisco Bay Area. Creators of the first procrastination treatment group in the country at the University of California at Berkeley, they have appeared on Oprah and 20/20 and have been featured in such publications as the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, People, Psychology Today, and more. They have conducted workshops and seminars for student, corporate, and public groups nationwide.

About the book:
In this fully revised and updated edition of the classic guide PROCRASTINATION: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now, Burka and Yuen delve into the many and varied reasons why we procrastinate-including feelings of doubt and pressure, a complex relationship with time, and neurological and interpersonal roots. And most importantly, they explain how to stop procrastinating once and for all. Their time-tested advice, based on their highly acclaimed and groundbreaking procrastination workshops, includes methods for setting and achieving goals as well as living and working with procrastinators.

Buy the book on Amazon: Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now