It’s Time to Deal with Procrastination

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Photo by Paul Hanaoka on Unsplash

Have you ever found yourself at war with an entry on your “to-do” list — staring down a task, project or phone call that has been literally chasing you all day (or all week, for that matter). Somehow we never fully escape the impending doom. With time it seems the task only begins to loom even larger.

Procrastination is a problem that we create for ourselves — and it’s high time we took back the reins.

But, first things first. Why do we continue to procrastinate?

Putting off the task isn’t doing us any favors (and we know this). In most cases, it only delays the inevitable, while increasing anxiety. Yet without fail, we still seem hell-bent on putting things off. It makes no sense, yet perfect sense — all in the same breath. There is a pay-off lurking there and we have to stop the dysfunctional cycle.

Procrastination is a common workplace challenge — and most of us struggle with it from time to time. But don’t fret, researchers estimate that only 20% of us are actually chronic procrastinators (this figure holds world-wide). The rest of us simply have moments when we struggle to take action. With guidance and some measure of awareness, we can usually move through the problem effectively.

Procrastination often develops when we have conflicting emotions concerning a task.  causing us to feel torn. As such, an examination of approach – avoidance conflict may lend us a few useful clues. Early theories of motivation, including the work of Lewin, identified the notion that tasks/goals can possess both appealing elements (that will influence us to move toward them) — and unappealing elements, (which influence us to move away from them). It is this dichotomy that often befuddles us. Overall, when a task lies in the future, we feel more optimistic about moving toward it. However, as we move closer to the task or event, the negative aspects become much more salient. These forces influence the dynamic which follows.

It has been suggested that goals can be characterized as either “approach goals” or “avoidance goals”. An approach goal would reflect a desired or positive outcome, such as studying to earn an “A” — and an avoidance goal would focus on staying clear of an outcome that is unfavorable, such as studying to avoid failing. (Think of all of those failed New Year’s resolutions — were they framed positively or negatively in your mind?) Research has shown that “avoidance goals” have a greater tendency to fall prey to procrastination. So, it seems that how we “frame” our view of a goal is critical.

Approach and avoidance goals can differ in regard to other relevant dimensions as well — and these factors also impact our behavior. For example, those who focus on approach goals are more likely to report feeling satisfied when they actually achieve such a goal. Moreover, personal meaning can also positively affect goal attainment.

Exploring why we feel negatively about a goal, may help us move toward it and possibly understand our tendency to procrastinate. So, let’s peel back the layers and examine the reasons behind our penchant to procrastinate and discuss methods to neutralize them. Ultimately, the control is in our hands — and we must attack our unhealthy approach-avoidance gradient head on.

First, a few reasons why we might feel negatively about a task:

  • The task is overwhelming. In many cases, we delay because the task just seems impossible to tackle. We really don’t know how to tame the “Goliath” — and as a result, we find ourselves completely frozen.
  • We’re fearful of failure. Unfortunately, failure is often the first thing that comes to our minds. So, we put off a task simply because we feel we are not likely to be successful. Why engage in a losing proposition?
  • We don’t want to commit. Sometimes we hold off because we are obsessing over which course of action to take. If we don’t choose — our options remain open.
  • The task is unpleasant. When a topic area really doesn’t interest us, laboring through it can turn into a long and painful process. On some level, avoiding the task becomes a fruitless form of protest.
  • The task seems pointless. If you have ever been stuck with a weekly report that few people read, you’ve likely experienced this. Sometimes we feel that the task isn’t worthy of the investment in our time.
  • Collateral damage. In some cases, we develop a negative association between the task and something or someone else. It’s not the task that you feel uncomfortable with, it is the individual who asked you to complete the task or what its completion signifies.
  • No rewards in sight. It’s difficult to stay motivated or focused, when the work you are about to complete will  go completely unrecognized. Why bother?

Potential solutions:

  • Set interim goals. Recent research suggests we should set smaller, approachable goals, to keep performance levels high. This involves identifying “bite sized” pieces that when attacked — add up to forward momentum and a successful conclusion.
  • Ask for help. If we feel seriously unprepared, the best route is to reach out and seek guidance. Often, another point of view from a mentor or supervisor can provide a much-needed “jumping off” point.
  • Collaborate. Drafting a friend or colleague to form a short-term “anti-procrastination” team, can prove to be an excellent approach. In these situations, two heads are usually better than one.
  • Narrow the choices. If you are having trouble weighing options use this handy sorting method: Put each option on a note card. Choose your top 3. Compare to find the winning plan.
  • Incentivize the process. One way powerful method to self-manage, is offering yourself a reward when you make progress. Try attacking your least favorite task of the day first —  then spring for your favorite latte. Offer yourself a “pat on the back”. Breaking the procrastination cycle, is no easy feat.

What techniques do you utilize to tame procrastination? Share them here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist. You can also find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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