Calling All Chronic Procrastinators: Productivity Tips That Work

Chronic procrastination may get the best of you. Despite your best efforts to remain productive, you may quickly fall behind on everyday tasks. And the more you fall behind, the harder it becomes to rebound.

Ultimately, you need to take measures to avoid chronic procrastination. With the right approach, you can remain productive. Best of all, you’ll be able to get the most value out of your time, energy, and resources.

5 Productivity Tips That Work

1. Find Out Why You Procrastinate

In some instances, procrastination can occur due to anxiety or fear of failure. Or it may be related to a lack of energy or motivation. Regardless, you need to identify the root cause of your issue, so you can put this problem in the rearview mirror.

Self-awareness is key, particularly when it comes to procrastination. So, take a look in the mirror and figure out why you procrastinate in the first place. Then, you can make a plan to address the problem.

2. Start Slow

One of the biggest problems that procrastinators face: getting started. Yet, those who embrace the opportunity to start a challenging task are well-equipped to alleviate the uncomfortable feeling that often accompanies the endeavor.

Typically, it helps to start slowly to boost your productivity. Much in the same way Rome was not built in a day, you should not expect your procrastination habit to go away immediately. Rather, begin a task and work diligently to complete it. Take breaks as needed along the way. Don’t forget to track your progress, too. Over time, you’ll become more productive as you tackle task after task. In the long run, you’ll overcome your tendency to procrastinate as well.

3. Establish Deadlines

You may feel like you have all the time in the world to complete a task. However, the clock can run out if you are not careful. In the worst-case scenario, you may end up rushing to complete a task, which can lead to poor results.

Deadlines are must-haves for chronic procrastinators. Generally, it helps to give yourself as much time as possible to complete a task.

To determine an appropriate deadline, map out the steps involved in a task and how long it takes to complete each one. Next, you can identify how much time is required for the entire task. It can also be beneficial to build buffer room into your deadline. That way, if an emergency arises, you’ll still have sufficient time to finish your task on deadline.

4. Get Organized

It may seem like a pipe dream to get organized. But anyone can become an organization expert — even a chronic procrastinator. In fact, with patience and hard work, a procrastinator can get organized without delay and reap the benefits of doing so long into the future.

To get organized, declutter your workspace. Remove any non-essential items, along with potential distractions that can otherwise hamper your productivity. Furthermore, it can be beneficial to use a personal organizer and take notes throughout the day. This can help you stay on track with myriad tasks.

5. Find an Accountability Partner

If you’re concerned about procrastination, get an accountability partner. This allows you to be accountable to yourself and someone else. It can challenge you to push the limits of your productivity as you work hand in hand with a peer who drives you to perform your best.

An accountability partner can be a colleague or friend who wants you to be the best version of yourself. You and your partner can provide regular updates on how well you perform day after day. Plus, you can offer support to each other. In doing so, you and your accountability partner can achieve unprecedented results.

How to Beat Procrastination?

How to Beat Procrastination?  Procrastination comes in many disguises. We might resolve to tackle a task, but find endless reasons to defer it. We might prioritize things we can readily tick off our to-do list—answering emails, say—while leaving the big, complex stuff untouched for another day. We can look and feel busy, while artfully avoiding the tasks that really matter. And when we look at those rolling, long-untouched items at the bottom of our to-do list, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed in ourselves.

The problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate. In general, we all tend to struggle with tasks that promise future upside in return for efforts we take now. That’s because it’s easier for our brains to process concrete rather than abstract things, and the immediate hassle is very tangible compared with those unknowable, uncertain future benefits. So the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds—an example of something that behavioral scientists call present bias.

How can you become less myopic about your elusive tasks? It’s all about rebalancing the cost-benefit analysis: make the benefits of action feel bigger, and the costs of action feel smaller. The reward for doing a pestering task needs to feel larger than the immediate pain of tackling it.

To make the benefits of action feel bigger and more real:

Visualize how great it will be to get it done. Researchers have discovered that people are more likely to save for their future retirement if they’re shown digitally aged photographs of themselves. Why? Because it makes their future self feel more real—making the future benefits of saving also feel more weighty. When we apply a lo-fi version of this technique to any task we’ve been avoiding, by taking a moment to paint ourselves a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done, it can sometimes be just enough to get us unstuck. So if there’s a call you’re avoiding or an email you’re putting off, give your brain a helping hand by imagining the virtuous sense of satisfaction you’ll have once it’s done—and perhaps also the look of relief on someone’s face as they get from you what they needed.

Pre-commit, publicly. Telling people that we’re going to get something done can powerfully amplify the appeal of actually taking action, because our brain’s reward system is so highly responsive to our social standing. Research has found that it matters greatly to us whether we’re respected by others—even by strangers. Most of us don’t want to look foolish or lazy to other people. So by daring to say “I’ll send you the report by the end of the day” we add social benefits to following through on our promise—which can be just enough to nudge us to bite the bullet.

Confront the downside of inaction. Research has found that we’re strangely averse to properly evaluating the status quo. While we might weigh the pros and cons of doing something new, we far less often consider the pros and cons of not doing that thing. Known as omission bias, this often leads us to ignore some obvious benefits of getting stuff done. Suppose you’re repeatedly putting off the preparation you need to do for an upcoming meeting. You’re tempted by more exciting tasks, so you tell yourself you can do it tomorrow (or the day after). But force yourself to think about the downside of putting it off, and you realize that tomorrow will be too late to get hold of the input you really need from colleagues. If you get moving now, you have half a chance of reaching them in time—so finally, your gears creak into action.

To make the costs of action feel smaller:

Identify the first step. Sometimes we’re just daunted by the task we’re avoiding. We might have “learn French” on our to-do list, but who can slot that into the average afternoon? The trick here is to break down big, amorphous tasks into baby steps that don’t feel as effortful. Even better: identify the very smallest first step, something that’s so easy that even your present-biased brain can see that the benefits outweigh the costs of effort. So instead of “learn French” you might decide to “email Nicole to ask advice on learning French.” Achieve that small goal, and you’ll feel more motivated to take the next small step than if you’d continued to beat yourself up about your lack of language skills.

Tie the first step to a treatWe can make the cost of effort feel even smaller if we link that small step to something we’re actually looking forward to doing. In other words, tie the task that we’re avoiding to something that we’re not avoiding. For example, you might allow yourself to read lowbrow magazines or books when you’re at the gym, because the guilty pleasure helps dilute your brain’s perception of the short-term “cost” of exercising. Likewise, you might muster the self-discipline to complete a slippery task if you promise yourself you’ll do it in a nice café with a favorite drink in hand.

Remove the hidden blockageSometimes we find ourselves returning to a task repeatedly, still unwilling to take the first step. We hear a little voice in our head saying, “Yeah, good idea, but . . . no.” At this point, we need to ask that voice some questions, to figure out what’s really making it unappealing to take action. This doesn’t necessarily require psychotherapy. Patiently ask yourself a few “why” questions—“why does it feel tough to do this?” and “why’s that?”—and the blockage can surface quite quickly. Often, the issue is that a perfectly noble competing commitment is undermining your motivation. For example, suppose you were finding it hard to stick to an early morning goal-setting routine. A few “whys” might highlight that the challenge stems from your equally strong desire to eat breakfast with your family. Once you’ve made that conflict more explicit, it’s far more likely you’ll find a way to overcome it—perhaps by setting your daily goals the night before, or on your commute into work.

So the next time you find yourself mystified by your inability to get important tasks done, be kind to yourself. Recognize that your brain needs help if it’s going to be less short-sighted. Try taking at least one step to make the benefits of action loom larger, and one to make the costs of action feel smaller. Your languishing to-do list will thank you.

Caroline Webb is the author of How to Have a Good Day: Harness the Power of Behavioral Science to Transform Your Working Life. She is also CEO of coaching firm Sevenshift, and a Senior Adviser to McKinsey & Company. Follow her on Twitter @caroline_webb_Facebook, or Google +.