“Procrastination” may win you some nice points at Scrabble but in your everyday life it will cause you to waste a lot of precious time, to miss a great professional opportunity or to sit as a guest at the wedding of this brilliant person whose messages you thought you would answer “tomorrow”… and never did because you were afraid.
But what is procrastination exactly, what does fear have to do with it, and, most of all, why does all this matter when it comes to being efficient?
Procrastination is the art of postponing the completion of a task until the next hour, tomorrow, next month, next year, next time. It is you constantly thinking that you should do it and immediately feeling this physical aversion towards the said task and finding a very good, logical and legitimate reason for keeping it for “a better moment” when you will have “more time” or the “right tool” or any other pretext your brain can come up with. And then it is you blaming yourself for being late, stressed, and not even being able to complete your to-do list.
Beating yourself up doesn’t help in any way so this one is the only one you can save for another day, someday, maybe, never. What does help is to understand the mechanism that generates procrastination and then to stick to the five tips I will give you.
One of the most common causes of procrastination is the fear of failure. You might object that if you were really afraid of failing, you would do your utmost to accomplish whatever has to be done — it sounds logical but it is not how your brain sees things. Your brain is on a mission to protect you and it has its own logic that can sometimes harm you even though the initial intention is good and noble. And let’s make it clear: it has nothing to do with how smart you are.
So, the way your brain understand the situation is the following:
If I obey this brilliant being who is hosting me in their skull, if I fully engage in this task and then miserably fail, I will have lost a lot of precious energy that I should normally save for the heart and the lungs just in case we face a sudden attack and have to run away. Plus, we will be ridiculed and rejected for our failure which is a very unpleasant unfeeling without even mentioning the shame that will come along… Do I really want to do this? Do I really want to take this risk? Honestly? No. I would much rather play it safe and stay as we are (the current situation is not that bad after all). So let’s suggest this brilliant being who is hosting me in their skull to postpone this risky endeavour until tomorrow — just so that they get the time to think about it and clearly understand it is definitely not a good idea to engage into this.
Your brain sincerely cares about you but the consequence of this loving concern is that it actually gets you the exact opposite result to what you are looking for: instead of learning, changing, growing and feeling confident in your ability to succeed, you find yourself stuck with a low self-esteem and no motivation whatsoever.
So how to get around it? Here are a few tips:
1. The Proper Use of a To-Do List
The to-do list is a great example of how to waste time while doing something that seems important and helpful. Nevertheless, it is a good tool if you use it correctly. Every evening, spend a maximum of 10 minutes defining what you want to achieve the next day. Five items are enough, you can always add more on the moment if you are done with them earlier than expected.
Then, pick the task that you feel the most reluctant to do and put it at the top of the list. Make it your Number One and think about how good you will feel once it is done and you have gotten rid of it.
The next day, start with your Number One and free yourself as fast as possible. “Very well, but what if I really don’t want to?”
2. The Good Old “Just-for-one-minute” Trick
Do you remember when you were a kid and your siblings or friends wanted to borrow “just for one minute” the skateboard/book/smartphone you had just received for your birthday? I bet you refused because you knew they would keep it for much longer than one minute. Well, something similar happens when you trick your brain you are going to work on your Number One “just for one minute”. You will soon realise that you have actually spent more than one minute on it and… that you have made great progress or even accomplished the task.
3. The Squeezing Time Machine
Our brain does its best to produce for us a reality that matches our expectations. If you start working thinking it will take at least two hours, chances are in two hours you will still be at it. Challenge yourself and decide to complete it in less than two hours. Know and feel that it is possible. And every time you catch yourself start thinking about something else or lost in a side activity that is not directly supporting your goal, go back to what you are actually doing. Remember what your goal is and how nice it will feel once it is done. Focus again your attention on doing what has to be done, no matter how unpleasant it might be.
4. Pinch Your Nose and Celebrate!
Have you ever had to eat something you really don’t like? Or to walk by a stinky place? Just thinking of answering an email or sweeping the leaves in the garden can sometimes feel like this. And the same solution applies: pinch your nose, stop thinking (about how much you hate this, how you wish you were somewhere else and what if you just didn’t do it and — stop!), just do it and that is it. Be sharp with this internal voice. The more you enter this inner conversation, the more time you will waste doing nothing (except proving yourself that yes, indeed, answering an email takes about three hours).
So, you have pinched your nose, you have hated it but… you have done it! Congrats! It is time to celebrate. You might think, “Oh, well, not much to celebrate, it was just answering an email” but don’t belittle yourself. It cost you some effort and you made it! Be kind to yourself and joyful, congratulate yourself, and make it something nice so that your brain remembers Yeah, actually, trying that new thing was quite nice. We took a risk and I was scared but the result is enjoyable. Next time, things will go so much easier and faster!
5. The Ultimate Magic Trick
The key to beat procrastination and master efficiency is to not blame yourself. There is a space between being complacent and beating yourself up. This space is free of judgement and shame and it is where acknowledgement and acceptance reside. Did you procrastinate? Did you fail to complete what you had set for today? Did you look at the vacuum cleaner and decided the fridge offered a much more attractive view? Well maybe, yes, that is what you did. Not what you wanted but… it happened. So what is next? You are still alive, still holding that same extraordinary potential within you, and you are facing two options: one is to shame and blame yourself and waste even more time making yourself miserable. The other is to stand tall, smile, and tell your brain you admit its strategy has worked this time but you will wind the next round and all the following!
I hope this article not only gave you the opportunity to procrastinate with a full clear conscience but also offered you a direction to follow to master efficiency. Let me know in the comments what is your experience — and remember that in order to achieve something you have to get started, so go and do it!