New research suggests some people’s brains make them more likely to procrastinate. But you’re not doomed to Sunday night panic – no matter how inevitable it might feel.
Anyone who says they’ve never procrastinated is a liar. Even the most industrious among us has done it: spent a Sunday afternoon tidying our bedrooms when we should have been finishing off a report for work, or decided that we can’t start prepping for a job interview until we’ve found the perfect interview outfit on Farfetch. And while procrastination is often associated most with the internet age, the habit has been around for a long time. In 1751, Samuel Johnson (he of the famous “tired of London” quote) wrote: “The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot finally be escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, to a greater or less degree, prevail in every mind.”
If it isn’t negatively affecting your life in a major way, procrastination isn’t a huge problem. But sometimes, the consequences can be severe. Psychologists Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, who have written a bestselling book on the subject, distinguish between the internal and external effects of procrastination. Internal effects are the feelings that putting things off can provoke, including irritation, despair, anxiety, self-condemnation and regret. External effects, in contrast, are the real-world repercussions for not getting something done in time – such as being hauled over the coals by your boss.
So why do we procrastinate? In a nutshell: it’s complicated. Alan Coulter, the author of How to Stop Procrastination & Get More Done, stresses that procrastination doesn’t just happen because you’re fundamentally lazy. Rather, he writes, the “inability to start or complete tasks stems from other psychological issues like anxiety, indecisiveness, or fear – fear of failure, fear of success, fear of not being good enough, etc.”
There is also some evidence that procrastination is linked to individual brain structure, meaning that some people may be biologically more prone to it than others. In one new study, researchers at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany found that people who struggle to control their actions (“procrastinators”) tend to have larger amygdalas than those who don’t (“doers”). The amygdala is the part of the brain that assesses the possible outcomes of different situations and warns us about potential negative consequences – so it’s easy to see why it could play a role in procrastination.
According to Burka and Yuen, procrastination also often goes “hand in hand” with common psychological conditions including attention deficit disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, stress and sleep problems. One 2014 study, for example, showed that sleep deprivation makes it more difficult to initiate and persist at tasks that require effort.
But if your procrastinating has become a problem, how should you tackle it? We asked psychologist Sue Firth, who specialises in helping professionals manage stress, for her advice.
1. Start with bite-sized chunks
“Usually people procrastinate because they feel overwhelmed or anxious. The task feels daunting or scary, so they get into the habit of putting it off until the last minute, at which point they’re forced to do it,” says Firth.
Rather than attempting to plough head-first into a task that feels intimidatingly huge, Firth recommends breaking it down into smaller steps. If it helps, figure this out on a piece of paper: note down exactly what you need to do, and estimate how long it should realistically take you to tick off each step.
“Really, the remedy for procrastination is to do the opposite of what you most want to do,” Firth says. “Make the first task as small as you absolutely have to in order to begin. For example, if you have five pieces of work to do, try doing the first section of each piece of work – then it will feel less huge.”
2. Remind yourself that you are capable of getting good work done
“Most of the time, procrastination occurs because a person perceives a task as being too big or outside of their own abilities,” says Firth.
If you’re burying your head in the sand about a task, it may be because deep down you’re not sure you’ll be able to handle it once you start. In these situations, Firth suggests making a list – in your head or on paper – of all the times you’ve done brilliant work in the past.
“Look for evidence of all the situations you’ve mastered and all the good stuff you manage to do in your everyday life,” she says. “That will remind you of just how capable you really are.” Remembering that you’re not a hopeless, irresponsible loser who can’t get anything done on time should give you the boost you need to get cracking.
3. Try to eliminate procrastination from everyday life
If you regularly find yourself freaking out because a big professional or personal deadline (i.e. filing your tax return) is approaching and you’re not prepared, it may be that you procrastinate with more trivial stuff too. Perhaps you always leave the washing up in the sink until the next day, or you put off opening your post because… you don’t really know why.
“Start tackling small, routine, simple stuff quickly,” advises Firth. Get into the habit of doing that, she says, and bigger tasks won’t seem so insurmountable once they’re broken down into smaller jobs.
4. Treat yourself
Doing work when you don’t want to do it is hard, so make sure to reward yourself for getting down to business. Firth suggests setting a timer, and giving yourself a treat – whether that’s a Twix, a herbal tea, a walk around the garden, a quick scroll through Instagram or a G&T – once you’ve worked solidly for a set amount of time.
“Tell yourself, ‘I can’t have or do anything else until I’ve done 30 minutes of work,’” she says. “Most people can find it in themselves to do 30 minutes – it’s when they think they have to do two hours that they keep putting it off. Even if you just do 15 minutes, that’s a good start.
“You’ve got to actually give yourself something as a reward – and an incentive – for getting started.”
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