Did you ever find yourself facing an important assignment, but somehow you just couldn’t get yourself motivated to start working on it? Time goes by, days turn into weeks, but you don’t seem to be any closer to getting the job done? You are hardly alone. We all know what it’s like to procrastinate – and for some of us, it’s become something of a way of life.
But procrastination comes at a great cost: it leads to poor performance, inefficiency, anxiety, and regret. So if you find yourself having trouble getting started, try using these scientifically-proven strategies to give yourself a much-needed kick in the pants.
Stop Relying On Willpower
Too often, we try to tackle the problem of procrastinating through sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never have procrastinated in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.
Make peace with the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or anxiety-provoking. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.
Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.
If I have not heard back from HR by the end of the day, then I will call them at 9am tomorrow morning.
If it is 2pm, then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.
If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.
By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, using these plans dramatically reduces the demands placed on your willpower. If-then planning has been shown in over 100 studies to be uniquely useful when it comes to resisting temptation and building good habits, increasing rates of goal attainment by 200%-300% on average.
Scare Your Pants Off
There is more than one way to look at the same goal. For some people, doing their jobs well is about achievement and accomplishment – they have what psychologists call a promotion focus. In the language of economics, promotion focus is about maximizing gains and avoiding missed opportunities.
For others, doing a job well is about security, about not losing the positions they have worked so hard for. This prevention focus places the emphasis on avoiding danger, fulfilling responsibilities, and doing what you feel you ought to do. In economic terms, it’s about minimizing losses, trying to hang on to what you’ve got.
It turns out, another great way to avoid procrastination is to adopt a prevention focus about the project you are working on. Studies show that prevention-minded people almost never procrastinate – it keeps them awake at night, terrified of the consequences of slacking off. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action.
I know this won’t sound like a lot of fun, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to stop dawdling than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of potential failure. If procrastination is your problem, try thinking about everything you will lose if you don’t succeed. I realize that’s an unpleasant thing to do, but great achievement does come with a price.
Don’t Label Yourself “Procrastinator”
Never underestimate the power of labeling. Countless studies have shown that once a person is given a trait label like “generous,” “shy” or “creative,” they begin behaving in a manner consistent with that label – even if they have rarely done so in the past. Tell a typically reserved person that a test has scored them high on “extroversion,” and just watch them start talking up a storm, without even realizing that their behavior has changed. When we are given a label, we tend to believe it.
So once you’ve decided you are “a procrastinator,” your brain, on an unconscious level, will believe you. And unconsciously, you will act accordingly. Like any other self-fulfilling prophecy, you will keep on procrastinating to conform to the identity you’ve given yourself.
So stop buying into the idea that you are “a procrastinator,” and there’s nothing you can do about it. Procrastinating is something you do, not something you are. Rejecting the label is the first step to ridding yourself of the behavior once and for all.
I can’t imagine that keeping myself up at night being terrified of the consequences of my actions is a good long-term strategy.
Heidi Grant Halvorson says
Actually, if it forces you to take action the next day to rid yourself of your anxiety, then isn’t that an excellent long-term strategy? Assuming of course that you actually care about reaching your goal – and clearly if you are terrified, you care a great deal.
Hi – I think your initial advice is true. However, as with the prior commenter – you advise relaxing, knowing you’ll make a few mistakes. You allow yourself the benefit of being human. We make mistakes.
Unfortunatly, you also propose that it’s a positive to be in terror of the results of your mistakes.
If you’re uptight about the mistakes, you already care a great deal.
Some people make mistakes because they’ve been too casual. The terror is a wake up call (as it were). It creates the drive and ability to do better.
For others, the desire to succeed and the fear of failure were so great, they started the problems in the first place.
Heidi Grant Halvorson says
I see your point Marie, and understand the confusion. These are two pieces of advice meant to address different problems: making errors vs. procrastinating. (Some people might call procrastinating an “error,” but really it’s a failure to get going at all, rather than a mistake you make when actually pursuing the goal).
If your problem is that you worry to much about making a mistake and the anxiety is getting in the way of doing your best (and enjoying what you do), it’s best to take the “get better” approach. You’ve already got plenty of motivation, but you need to reframe your thinking a bit to make the most of it.
But if your problem is that you can’t motivate yourself to take action at all (procrastinating), then giving some serious thought to the negative consequences of INaction can be very motivating.
As you noted, it depends on where you are starting from.
I care a great deal and love my job. The problem with if-then is that next day you have 20 more new targets to achieve and whatever you planned goes to pieces.
I am the one who cannot sleap because I am too excited about my job which I adore…. I indeed often make plans at night. My plans are always excellent and very pointed. However with the first email next day priorities change… From my experience sleeping well actually helps more than worring aboyt the job. Still have not achieved much!