Procrastination: this is how you overcome it
Three days before the important exam, the reader hasn’t even been printed out. The project at work has been completed for two weeks, but the project report is still not done. Various studies show how widespread chronic procrastination is.
Almost every second Austrian is said to have problems with procrastination. According to Statista, around a quarter find their worst habit is procrastination. Students belong to the high–risk groups because they can organize their time relatively freely. 75 percent of them regularly do not know how to overcome their lack of drive and complete tasks in a timely manner. Some colleges have set up counseling specifically for procrastinators.
Procrastination isn’t a bad thing per se, but chronic procrastination is
Procrastination is not a character trait or a disease, but a habit. Even things you do voluntarily and for fun can be put on the not-now pile. When was the last time you viewed and sorted out your holiday photos?
There are understandable reasons for this: Evolutionary biologists assume that humans are not designed to act with foresight. Our ancestors had all hands on surviving in the here and now. Nor is it inherently a bad thing to procrastinate. Sometimes the information situation improves if you wait a bit, or the task turns out to be irrelevant.
When making purchases, waiting for the right moment can save money. Even so, procrastinating can have a number of negative effects. It starts in a rather banal way with the fact that you have less time for a task and the result is not so good. This can affect your success at university and at work.
If you regularly don’t know how to overcome your listlessness, it can lead to chronic feelings of failure. Studies have shown that habitual procrastinators are more likely to suffer from stress and health problems such as digestive and sleep problems, depression, anxiety and fatigue. They are more likely to be single, unemployed and have lower incomes than people who don’t procrastinate as often.
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Why am I procrastinating? Research into the causes offers solutions
So you will be single and unemployed tomorrow because you didn’t feel like doing housework today? It’s not that fast. Still, there are plenty of reasons to fight procrastination – if only because it’s really no fun and a guilty conscience becomes a constant companion. To break the habit, one should reflect on what exactly triggers this avoidance response.
Do you procrastinate for the excitement because you think you can only perform well under pressure? Are you one of the avoidance procrastinators who don’t dare to face the task? In addition to the escape motives, there is often poor time management and a false estimation of effort, as well as a lack of organization and prioritization of tasks.
These factors lead to overlooking things, tackling them too late, and then getting stressed. It is more difficult when you have high expectations of yourself and at the same time doubt whether you can really meet them. The fear of failure can paralyze you.
It is also possible that you foresee a conflict lurking in the task – for example with colleagues, or with other goals and tasks – and want to avoid it. Finally, psychological problems such as depression can be a reason for procrastination.
Getting procrastination under control – tips and tricks
Because chronic procrastination is a habit, there are a number of tricks to break it. These help in the long run to be more productive and successful. Not every tip works for everyone – people are too different for that.
It is important to reflect on automatic avoidance and to find starting points to interrupt it. If you are unsure whether you are among the serial procrastinators, there is a self-test from the FU Berlin.
Cluster, visualize and manage tasks
If you know exactly what to do, it’s easier to start. That is why it makes sense to break down a complex task into small subtasks. Putting the item “Write essay” on a to-do list can be intimidating.
It is better to take small bites. You first carry out a literature search, then create an outline, work out the individual chapters, formulate a conclusion and proofread at the end. If necessary, you can go into even more detail. It is best to write down the components of the task at the beginning.
This helps to put them in the right order and structure the work. It’s also fun to check off to-do lists. Set deadlines for the individual work packages so that they can be submitted on time.
Be sure to plan realistically and not take on too much. Otherwise there is a great danger that you will throw away the whole plan after the first failure. With a Gantt chart, for example, you can visualize what needs to be done when and what steps will follow. Also make sure that you prioritize your activities correctly.
Shortly before a deadline, it is not so important to fill out the survey from your master’s student friend. But you should still go to work and transfer the rent.
Finally, if you tend to perfectionism, you should think critically about how much fine-tuning the work really needs and – very importantly – what is the relationship between effort and result. 80 percent is often enough and can be achieved in significantly less time than the perfect 100 percent.
Get to know your own way of working and adapt to it
Are you more of a lark or an owl? Do you like to get rid of unloved things quickly or do you need a bit of advance notice to zero in on challenges? The right organizational tactic for to-dos depends on how you think and work. Are you a night person and do homework well between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m.? No problem!
Then use the day for other things and don’t waste time sitting at your desk and doing nothing. Do you always have a low in the afternoon? Complete simple tasks during that time and keep the morning for demanding activities. Take enough breaks in between to keep working fresh and alert.
Avoid distractions and being overwhelmed
A ringing phone, email notifications popping up, loudly talking colleagues – if you’re constantly being distracted, it’s hard to concentrate and work through a task well. It’s particularly bad if you don’t want to do them at all and are secretly happy about a distraction – or if you’re looking for them yourself.
The keywords here are Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat. The problem is solved by planning separate time slots in which to take a break and otherwise catch up.
The rest of the time is offline and reserved for work. Consider studying in the library, where you’ll be under the scrutiny of others and might not feel comfortable playing mobile games for a few minutes. Multitasking sometimes seems to be the only way to get everything done on time, especially in stressful situations.
Studies show that multitasking reduces cognitive ability – it is more effective and ultimately time-saving to concentrate on one thing and then move on to the next.
Create rituals and positive feedback
Especially when you are struggling with a task that you really don’t feel like doing, you should try to incorporate positive experiences as well. On the one hand, this can consist of taking regular breaks and doing things that you enjoy – whether it’s a short walk in the park or ten minutes on Tinder.
On the other hand, you’re welcome to praise yourself for the successes achieved and consciously savor the steady progress: Great, you’ve already worked through three chapters of the macroeconomics textbook!
The most complicated part is in place! It is worth incorporating and maintaining rituals into everyday life so that you don’t fall back into the old routine of procrastination after a productive phase.
It may sound harsh, but: If you get up early every day, even if there is no lecture, and sit at your desk for two hours, you are more likely to be able to complete unloved tasks in that time window. Another option is to do warm–up rituals like listening to three favorite songs, airing out the room, getting a coffee, and then getting to work. After a while, the brain gets used to the signal that concentration follows.
Invoke your goals and get support
The more unpleasant the task, the greater the doubts about success, the more difficult it is to stick with it. It can be helpful to remind yourself why you are actually doing it. What is your goal and how does the current task contribute to achieving it? This can give you new motivation. Visualize the outcome of overcoming the present hurdle.
For example, after passing the exam, you can go on vacation for two weeks and then start your dream internship without having to worry about a make-up appointment.
Your environment can help you: For example, make an appointment with friends or fellow students in the library. Make sure you study for three hours and then have lunch together. Or make appointments with supervisors and mentors to talk about your work. You should have results by the time the meeting is held.
Overcoming listlessness brings long-term success
Granted: Cramming for the statistics exam isn’t fun, and you won’t jump up enthusiastically when you think about confidence intervals, even with our help. But with a little practice, it will be less difficult for you to stand up to your weaker self. What’s more, your work results will benefit from it.
And because unpleasant tasks will await you for a lifetime, you contribute to your long-term success by fighting procrastination now.