Procrastination plagues most of us some of the time, and some of us all the time. It is a recurring issue in therapy, and one of the main ways that clients sabotage their success. In order to confront the problem, it is important to begin by challenging some common cognitive distortions before we can alter our behavior.
1. First, explore your resistance to the task: what, exactly, are you dreading, and why? What makes it so hard to get started? Is the task too large and overwhelming? Is performing it physically uncomfortable? Is it too mentally taxing? Is it too isolating? Is your work place too distracting? Is the task meaningful? Articulate your specific resistance and come up with ideas to address your reluctance. Think of ways to make beginning the task as comfortable as possible.
2. Don’t allow yourself to think in terms of the whole, overwhelming task ahead. Think in terms of beginning with a tiny part of the task. If you are an artist, think about simply preparing your canvas and setting it up. If you are in the midst of a painting, think of addressing just one part of the painting, or correcting a problem area. If you are a writer, think about just starting with a title, or one first sentence. If you plan to clean out a closet, visualize just getting garbage bags ready for different categories: Goodwill, consignment store, trash, etc., and then picking just one item with which to dispose. Such small steps seem do-able, instead of disabling.
3. Reframe your thinking: Instead of obsessing over how tired you are, or how scattered, or how you have a million other things you need to do, focus on how good you’ll feel once you accomplish the task. Remember: the hardest part is the anxiety beforehand. Once you begin the task, you generally feel immediate relief.
4. Don’t sabotage yourself with expectations of perfection. See the task as a work-in-progress that does not have to done flawlessly. The idea here is simply to begin and do the best you can in the moment.
5. Reframe: instead of thinking of the task as drudgery, think of it as an opportunity to liberate yourself—not only from that anxiety, but also from your limbo, your inertia. Frame the task as an opportunity to create order out of chaos, on many levels. Frame it as an accomplishment-in-progress.
6. Focus on your reward afterwards, such as a latte, an ice cream cone, a movie, a visit to a bookstore, an outing with a friend, or some other “treat.”
Once you’ve re-calibrated your thinking, you may not need to do anything else, except begin your task. However, for some people some or all of the following behaviors may be helpful:
1. Begin sticking to a daily schedule. Wake up at the same time every day, and go to bed at the same time every night. Don’t eat right before bedtime.
2. Choose your most energetic time of day/night to start your task, regardless of whether you are a morning or an evening person.
3. Prepare: If you need to exercise before beginning your task, to get your body and mind going, do it. Take a walk, run or bike ride, go to the gym, etc. Stay in the moment with your exercise and try not to think about the task ahead.
4. Prepare: Shower/bathe and put on some comfortable clothes.
5. Prepare: Eat something healthy, preferably including protein.
6 Prepare: If the task is at home, try making your bed and cleaning up the kitchen to de-clutter your head. This is the “clean slate” approach.
7. Prepare: Prep your work space: get your supplies ready, straighten up clutter, etc.
8. Prepare: Put on music, if that helps you work.
9. Prepare: Fix your favorite drink—with caffeine if that helps you stay focused.
10. Prepare: Perform a brief grounding exercise. Settle down at your work station. Begin to pay attention to your breathing; you don’t have to do anything special, just focus on your breath. Next, relax your jaw, neck and shoulders. Un-tense your stomach. Feel your hips where they make contact with the chair. Feel your feet on the ground. Feel your hands as they prepare to begin working. Now you are “in the moment.” If it helps to use a grounding mantra, to get you there quickly, do so; think of a word, or phrase, that is resonant for you. “Me, here, now” works well for some people.
11. Start your task. Don’t overwhelm yourself with “rules” that you have to accomplish a gargantuan amount in one sitting. Begin by breaking the task into small pieces, if you need to. Work until you truly lose focus. You can always repeat the grounding exercise if you want to try and keep working. But don’t force it.
12. Reward yourself for your efforts. Take a walk, go to a coffee or ice cream shop, visit a bookstore or park. Call a friend.
13. Begin again, if you have the energy. Or start over again tomorrow. You’ll find that each day, once you have the ritual in place, you can accomplish more each time, and dread the task less and less.
* If you have several tasks, choose the easiest, less onerous task first.
The beauty of these strategies is that eventually, you may be able to discard much of the ritual and just buckle down to business. By addressing the anxiety beforehand—tweaking your thinking and creating a calm, pleasant work experience—you have re-wired your brain.