“I just can’t make myself do what I need to do.”
This is something a friend said to me the other day in the midst of a big work project. She’s not alone: Anyone who’s procrastinated understands the feeling of dread that builds slowly as a deadline approaches. It hangs over every part of your day and makes challenging tasks seem downright insurmountable. So why do we drag it out again and again?
For me, personally, I’ve often felt like I was gaining time when I put things off – more time to do any number of smaller tasks that seem more urgent or, let’s face it, more enjoyable. I’ve done it because the conditions for working on a tough, new task aren’t ideal – it’s too late, I didn’t sleep enough last night, etc. I’ve done it because I’ve gotten away with it in the past. Everything – from work projects to school assignments – just seemed to just work out.
But was I doing my best work? Probably not. Here’s why.
Many people (often chronic procrastinators) insist that they think and problem-solve best when they’re under pressure. What a lot of us don’t realize, though, is that we haven’t given ourselves a real chance to work or think any other way. I would argue that thinking critically without the immediate pressure of a deadline feels uncomfortable because we’re accustomed to being motivated by the time constraint, not the project itself. It requires a different kind of focus, one that takes work and practice to cultivate.
A lot of articles on this subject make it seem like you can reverse procrastination habits in an afternoon, because that would be pretty convenient. It’s a nice idea, but given how scattershot our collective focus has become in the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, it’s not realistic. There’s no quick fix. That’s not to say that some of these articles don’t have great advice – just know that it may take a little work to integrate them into your working pattern. And that’s fine. Here’s how to get started:
- Overschedule (Just a Little): Parkinson’s Law states that tasks expand to fill the length of time you’ve attributed to them, so fill your time with enough other obligations to make sure you actually have a limited amount of time to complete the task or tasks you hate most. Setting mini-deadlines for yourself seems to refute my earlier point about thinking in a different way. The difference here, though, is that – unlike working under a final, non-negotiable deadline – you actually have time to reflect on the work you’ve done. You can focus on what serves the project, not the deadline.
- Break Down Tasks: This is a popular hack for a reason. It’s a good way to get your feet wet if you’re still learning how to work and think differently. Make a list of all the steps you’ll need to take to complete a task, and be detailed. Maybe your first step is simply compiling sources. Maybe the second is reading one of those sources. The point here is to make it as easy as possible to just get started.
- Shut it Down: Put your cell phone in a drawer. Close your tabs. (Yes, even that really interesting article that you need to send to your best friend because she was talking about that exact thing the other day.) Trust that if you can get yourself to focus on the task you set out to complete, you’ll be equally able to focus on all of those other things that seem to pop into your mind the second you actually try to sit down and work.
- Feeling Distracted =/= Failure: Here’s the hard part. You’ve set the stage for good, focused work, but now that you’re sitting in front of a blank Word document or spreadsheet or what have you, all you want to do is anything else. There’s a common misconception that people who don’t procrastinate don’t experience distractions or wandering thoughts. They do. They’ve just learned to acknowledge them and move on. So, that “get me out of here” feeling is not a bad thing and it doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong; it’s just a signal that you’re doing something new that doesn’t come naturally.
So, if procrastination hacks haven’t worked for you in the past, try them again with this in mind. It’s not just about finishing things faster or earlier, it’s about readjusting the entire purpose behind why you’re working. And if you find that you’re consistently working on things you don’t care about, that should tell you something, too.
How do you combat procrastination? Tell us in the comments.
Emily Newhook is the community relations manager for the online master of public health (MPH@GW) offered through the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. She is passionate about all things health, from administrative and clinical topics to fitness and nutrition. In her free time, she enjoys powerlifting, cooking and exploring D.C. Follow her on Twitter.
Why Procrastination Hacks Aren’t Working for You