Imagine….You’ve successfully completed that important task in half the time you expected. You now have the much desired extra time to spend with family and friends. You even have time to take a leisurely stroll through the park and soak up some rays. As the sun is beaming down on you, you smile at how proud you are of yourself and how you handled this challenge. You also notice that the knot in your stomach is gone and you no longer feel that pressure on your temples. This is your new life, now that you’ve finally conquered procrastination. Procrastination is a habit that many of us develop early in our life and this problematic behavior grows with us.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of procrastinate is “to be slow or late about doing something that should be done : to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc.”
I used to proclaim that I did my best work through procrastination. I often waited for the night before to begin a paper assignment. I figured that since I still received an A, procrastination was actually helpful for me. As the length and challenges of my writing assignments increased, I quickly learned that this habit was a hindrance rather than a help. Once I became an educator, I realized that getting an A on a paper didn’t mean I was doing my best work. It only meant that my work was relatively better than my peers. Now I know that I did not submit my best work. The feedback from my teachers could have helped to make me an even better writer and thinker. As my academic career progressed, I learned that procrastination is costly. Procrastination created missed opportunities, lowered my productivity, and generated more stress.
Have you struggled with procrastination? Do you want to drop this negative habit from your life? Let me assure you, this is possible. Understanding procrastination and what it costs you, is a powerful motivator to stop it. In this article, I share a simple, but often overlooked technique to end procrastination for good.
Anxiety and procrastination
I disagree with Merriam-Webster’s characterization of procrastination as laziness. Procrastination is not about being lazy; it is about avoiding a problem. Specifically, it is about avoiding unpleasant emotions. When we procrastinate, we are attempting to avoid negative emotions. These negative emotions are associated with that problematic task. Thus, procrastination is really driven by fear and anxiety.
The decision to put off writing that paper or completing that report until tomorrow is actually an attempt to manage uncomfortable emotions. Those emotions may be fear, embarrassment, insecurity, confusion, or anger. They are often associated with thoughts such as:
- “I don’t think my writing is good enough and now everyone will find out.”
- “I am confused about what to do or where to start.”
- “I think it’s unfair that I have to do this task.”
By avoiding the task, we avoid feeling these unpleasant emotions. Thus, procrastination serves us as an emotion management strategy. But, it is not an effective emotion management strategy. Procrastination often creates extra problems, as well as more stress, frustration, and discomfort.
Procrastination ruins your productivity, health, & happiness
In a long-term study of procrastination, researchers at Case Western University revealed that procrastination has short-term benefits but long-term problems. These researchers document that procrastinators have less stress than non-procrastinators in the short-term. Yet, in the long-term procrastinators show higher levels of stress, more mental illness, and lower academic performance. This data shows that procrastination is an emotion management strategy, albeit an ineffective one. While procrastination provides short-term relief from stress, it creates more long-term stress and lower performance.
Additional research shows that procrastinators have poorer health outcomes than non-procrastinators. Part of these poor health outcomes is because they procrastinate pro-health behaviors. Pro-health behaviors include activities like going to dental and medical check-ups. Even after controlling for check-ups and similar health maintenance activities, procrastinators show more stress and physical illnesses. Thus, procrastination itself seems to create physical health illnesses.
Conquer procrastination for good
You can unblock and end procrastination for good. First, you must identify the fear that is causing this problematic behavior. Listen to the stories that play in your head when you think about performing the task. Identify the underlying fear. Is the fear the result of thinking that you’re not good enough and others will find you out?
Now that you’ve identified the source of your fear, here’s a way to manage these emotions. People frequently use meditation or mindfulness strategies to enhance one’s emotional intelligence and manage emotions. But I’d like to add a new, often overlooked, strategy to manage the emotions associated with procrastination. Best of all, you already have the tool you need in your kitchen or on your phone.
Use a timer to beat procrastination
Make timers your best friend. Timers are especially useful for activities that are important but difficult to begin. Starting the task is often the most difficult part. This is because of fears and anxieties about how challenging the task will be. Starting is also difficult because of the uncomfortable feelings that we expect will arise within us as we perform that task.
As I’ve explained procrastination helps us avoid those uncomfortable feelings by avoiding the tasks. Unfortunately, avoiding important tasks limits our success. Procrastination creates more uncomfortable feelings when the things left undone create their own crisis. It also leads to disappointed in ourselves for not fulfilling our personal goals. Thankfully, something as simple as a timer can help us address this quandary.
By setting the timer we have a known ending point. For tasks that have high levels of anxiety, set the timer for short increments of time (2-5 mins). It is easy to convince ourselves that we can live with being uncomfortable for 5 mins. This allows us to begin, knowing that even if it is painful, it will not last long.
They key to the success of this method is allowing yourself to stop at the end of the timer. Beginning is the most difficult part. When the timer goes off, you often feel that it wasn’t as bad as expected. To maintain the integrity of the value of the timer exercise, it is important that you pause at the ringing of the timer. At this pause consider whether you want to continue or to save the rest of the task for the next assigned time. Either choice is a successful outcome.
The focus here is not on the completion of the task. Rather the goal is to build behaviors that will lead to the completion of the task. Minimizing the emotional discomfort and providing an element of choice are acts of self compassion and respect. Compassion and respect works in getting the cooperation of even the stubbornest toddler. You will find that it works on yourself as well. Everyone wants to be respected. We all want to know that our feelings and well being matter. The timer exercise enables you to communicate this compassion and respect to yourself. It also allows you to build the successful track record needed to extend the desired behavior.
The next time you notice yourself procrastinating, identify the source of the anxiety. Then use the timer system to manage your anxiety and get your tasks done!
I’d love to hear about your progress with using timers to manage anxiety. Please comment below. Also share other personal strategies to overcome procrastination.