Put your procrastination to work
Article3 min30 July 2019
It’s the enemy of productivity – but there are ways to manage and even harness procrastination, say experts.
Avoiding our to-do lists is something nearly everyone can relate to and there are a wealth of studies, self-help books and courses about how to beat procrastination to prove it.
Even famous high achievers struggle with procrastination. Bill Gates and Bill Clinton have publicly admitted to battling their tendency to put off challenging tasks, and Oprah Winfrey recently confessed, “I procrastinate with confrontational things. I’ll give myself a deadline, and then I’ll change that deadline.”
Procrastination is a natural reaction and there is the science to prove it.
We can be so easily distracted these days in ways that weren’t possible as recently as a decade ago.
Procrastination is primal
Behavioural studies have repeatedly shown that our brains are hardwired to seek immediate and assured pleasure, while minimising discomfort.
“We're wired to avoid uncertainty, because of survival!” says Lynne Cazaly, productivity expert and author of ‘ish: The Problem with our Pursuit for Perfection and the Life-Changing Practice of Good Enough.’
“Procrastinating shows our fear not of the activity itself, but rather our ability to handle the uncertainty associated with it.”
It doesn’t help that our ancient procrastination instincts are constantly triggered by today’s distraction-loaded society. The modern, digital world offers endless temptations for instant dopamine hits at a keystroke, in our inbox and social media feeds.
“We can be so easily distracted these days in ways that weren’t possible as recently as a decade ago,” says Wendy Cole, productivity coach and founder of iMastery training consultancy.
Disturbingly, this is no accident; today’s tech companies are actively invested in distracting us.
“They hire people called ‘attentional engineers’ whose role is to design ways to hijack our attention and create addictive habits,” she says.
Eat that frog!
Fighting this assault on our focus requires serious discipline, says Cole.
Her go-to strategy for helping clients beat procrastination is known as Eat the Frog – a mantra popularised by productivity expert Brian Tracy in his bestselling book Eat That Frog! 21 great ways to stop procrastinating and get more done in less time.
Based on a Mark Twain witticism that if you eat a live frog first thing in the morning, ‘nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day,’ this tactic involves tackling the most important, procrastination-inducing task of the day first. It’s most likely ‘deep’ work, requiring maximum concentration.
And while your brain might tell you there’s no immediate reward for the mental heavy lifting and nags you to check your Facebook feed instead, this isn’t true.
There’s a psychological phenomenon known as the Zeigarnik Effect: the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts and tension about incomplete tasks.
“By finishing the task,” says Cole, “you remove the stress and anxiety from not having completed it.
“In addition, the momentum created from accomplishing an important task builds further momentum and is an empowering psychology, as we have exercised self-discipline and self-belief.”
It’s all in the planning
The secret to eating that frog successfully, says Wendy Cole, is masterful planning the night before.
“The end of day shutdown is a game-changing strategy. It sets your day up for success.”
Cole recommends closing out each working day by setting out a clear structure for the next one.
“I look at my to-do list and clarify the deep work I need to achieve first thing in the morning. I identify what else I need to get done and decide where and when; I diarise it all. This makes a huge difference to taking action.”
Despite today’s array of productivity software, physical cues can be the most effective, she says.
“I’ll put the most important thing on top of my keyboard so it’s right there waiting for me. I’m not an advocate of forests of post-it notes, but one note highlighting the first thing you need to tackle in the day can be very effective. It cuts through the digital noise.”
She also advises setting up an optimal ‘deep work’ environment, such as a pre-booking a meeting room.
“There is value in that physical action, in knowing you’ll be working there for ninety minutes, in a state of flow for that amount of time. You can’t procrastinate, you need to get on with it and get it done.”
She adds: “Also consider how you might stack your meetings together to quarantine time for that deep work and concentration.”
Stick with it
When you hit work roadblocks it’s easy to succumb to distractions, but there are useful techniques for staying on track.
Coles favours the focus-building Pomodoro Technique of blocking out chunks of time, punctuated by breaks.
“I use a timer app, and if I’m struggling to get started, I’ll begin with a 20-minute stretch, take a quick break and then do another 20.”
Lynne Cazaly agrees that eating that frog is easier in bite-size chunks.
“If the task does feel bigger or harder, then it's a sure sign you're trying to tackle the whole project. It's best to break it down and work in increments.”
During breaks, resist the urge to zone out with digital distractions, adds Cole, but aim to stay in your thought space while you have a cup of tea or move around. This is a practice referred to by some experts as ‘positive’ procrastination and is adopted by many great creatives who say they have a habit of doing an afternoon walk.
“If procrastination allows our subconscious to ruminate on something and formulate new ideas, then that’s not a bad form of procrastination, but if we are distracted and not sitting with that thought, we are not going to get the benefit of ‘positive’ procrastination.”