How to Stop Procrastinating

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How often do you find yourself reverting to the tasks you know you can do? Things like making another cup of tea, sending a text message to check in with your stressed friend, replying to comments on social media, a quick check of your emails - again, that extra call for your client because you want them to see your value.

 

You argue that you have to do all of these things but when are you actually doing them? It's most likely while you’re working on a task you don’t really want to do, isn’t it?

It might seem weird to see me, a Visual Brand Specialist and Brand Photographer, writing about procrastination but it’s something I see often. The majority of my clients put off showcasing their brands because they don’t feel their brand reflects them, haven’t got their brand right yet, don’t know what to share on social media, aren’t comfortable with what they’re sharing, don’t know how to make attractive and onbrand designs, don’t have time to create content, don’t have any social media photographs, don’t know where to start to become visible… The list goes on but it all comes back to one thing: Procrastination. I know I can help with this because I’m a master procrastinator (not a good thing!) 

Procrastination has been the subject of extensive research over the last few decades with findings which may come as a surprise. We don’t opt for procrastination because we’re lazy or deliberately putting things off (even though, ultimately, it’s what we’re doing when we procrastinate); rather, it’s connected to our emotional self-regulation and we do it to make us feel better about ourselves. Even though we know we have something we need to complete, and know it will make us feel better about ourselves in the future, in the present, we choose the opinion which leaves us feeling better now and not then.

 

The reason procrastination can be so detrimental for us in business is down to our old friend dopamine, the chemical connected to the brain’s supposedly clever reward system. By giving in to procrastination - and since you’re here, I assume you’re like me and give in too often - you’re rewarding yourself every time. And guess what happens? Procrastination becomes habitual. 

 

I’m going to take us into behavioural theory now by briefly discussing research conducted by H.E Hershfield. We all have a present self and a future self. When our future self is too far into the future, it’s hard to identify with them and fully connect them to us. In fact, our brains treat this future version of ourself as more like a stranger than the being we are. It doesn’t matter how close or distant a future we take ourselves to, it’s more about where we see ourselves. Now I don’t know much about manifestation (and Hershfield didn’t mention it) but I suspect one of the reasons this works so well for people - and entrepreneurs in particular - is because the process of manifestation is to envision yourself becoming this person in the future; you’re creating a link between your present and future self and therefore eradicating your brain’s belief that your future self is a stranger.

Returning to procrastination, we’re more likely to procrastinate when we view our future self as someone completely disconnected from ourselves. The reward that our brain craves will not come to us if we don’t believe we are the future self who’ll feel so much better when that task has been completed. However, the reward will come to our present self, and instantly, if we push the task to the side and instead focus on something we like doing better, particularly if it is still a job we need to get done.

 

There are a million ways to apparently deal with procrastination but most of them have one thing in common: they’re productivity hacks. I don’t doubt that time blocking, allocating specific times for tasks and having strictly structured days works for a lot of people; but for me, none of these methods work. Even writing lists doesn’t really work for me. I find it beneficial to write them because it reminds me of the things I have to do and I can virtually recall my list while I’m working but rarely do I return to them and I definitely don’t tick them off as I go. 

Forming habits, however, is something that does work for me (and yes, I know you can train yourself to make a productivity hack a habit and I’ve probably never stuck with one thing long enough for it to become a habit…) If we view procrastination as a habit we need to change, our perception changes and it becomes more rewarding to reject procrastination than it is to succumb to it. 

 

It is difficult to reform a habit when it's so ingrained that we’ve lost sight of why or how it started in the first place. When you’ve conditioned yourself to believe that you don’t know how to start something, it’s often a real challenge to start at all. Instead of encouraging you, your brain’s reward system is pulling you towards tasks you do habitually. 

 

If we return to the idea that procrastination is connected to our emotional self-regulation, then we need to explore the emotions around why we procrastinate at all. 

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Before we start though, how committed are you to overcoming procrastination?
 

If you’re determined to formulate a new habit and forever rid yourself of procrastination, then block out some proper time to do this task. If not, come back to it when you are.

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1. Write down a list of all the tasks that make you feel like you don’t know where to start.

It's easy to revert to procrastination if you don't know what triggers it.

 

Procrastination stimulates avoidance. If you really want to avoid procrastination, you have to know which activities cause it.

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2. Go through each task and write down a reason you put off starting it. 

Knowing what causes your procrastination is only part of the story. When you've learned to understand it, you can start to control it.

Reasons could be (this is not exhaustive, there are hundreds!):

  • Lack of knowledge about the task/ content/ ideas (K)

  • Lack of confidence around the task/ content/ ideas (C)

  • No time to complete it properly (T)

  • You need to research it first (R)

  • Not interested in it (I)

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3. Now, for each one, consider how it makes you feel. Write down at least one emotion.

Procrastination is directly related to how we feel about what we need to do, so when doing this, you have to be totally and completely honest with yourself. It will be hard but if it wasn't, you probably wouldn't be procrastinating...

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4. Now rank these tasks in order of importance for you and your business.

All of the tasks you need to do will be important - on some level - but some will be absolutely necessary for your business, others not quite so much. 

 

Spend time on this. You're building a picture of what you need to do, so that you can evaluate why you procrastinate and learn to stop.

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5. Starting with the most important, return to the reason(s) you struggle to complete each task and consider the following:

  • For lack of knowledge:

    • Is there a way you can gain the knowledge you need? 

    • Is it knowledge you want to have? 

  • For lack of confidence:

    • Is this impostor syndrome kicking in? 

    • Is it based on something someone has criticised in the past? 

  • For time:

    • Do you genuinely lack time, or is it something you put off and never get around to? 

  • If you need to research first:

    • Why is this a blocker? 

    • Is it connected to another reason and the idea of having to research is simply an excuse? 

  • If it’s a task you’re simply not interested in:

    • Why is it on your list? 

    • Is there a way you can become interested in it?

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6. Now, reconsider the emotion(s) you feel. 

  • Are there other emotions you feel? 

  • Are there any positive emotions which you associate with this task? 

  • Can you imagine yourself at the end of this task and the emotions you’ll feel when you get there? 

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7. Link actions to purpose.

​Go through your list of tasks, and for each one write down why it is important to you to complete this.

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Understanding why you feel a certain way about a task can help you to overcome the blockers surrounding it. You’ll know yourself when your emotions are irrational and when you’ve accepted this, it’s easier to push away your reticence towards completing the necessary task. At the same time, if your emotions are justified, you can look for other ways of dealing with this task - it might be one you need to outsource or accept that it’s something you don’t and won’t do.

Your procrastination won’t simply disappear after one task, so try not to be disheartened if the next time you sit down to complete this or a similar task, your brain pulls you towards something else. Gretchen Rubin (my go to for guidance on habits!) explains that it takes an average of 66 days to form a habit but this varies widely - some people can form great habits in as little as 18 days; for others it can take almost a year! 

Focus on where you are and what those tiny improvements are and eventually, you’ll find your procrastination starts to disappear…

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