On procrastination and a preference for lower-priority tasks

Source: Management Team (20/09/2019); Author: Katleen De Stobbeleir

Do you sometimes do so much firefighting at work that you have no time for the really important things, such as strategy development? Or are you too busy at work to play sport, eat healthily and have time for yourself? If so, then you are far from alone.

However, research shows the cause might actually not be your firefighting or too-busy life, but your tendency to procrastinate. People often incorrectly label procrastination as a form of laziness or bad time management. But someone who fights fires or rushes to help others can hardly be called lazy.

But then, what does lead to procrastination? This was the central question in a recent article in The New York Times based on research by Dr Timothy Pychyl, Dr Fuschia Sirois and Dr Piers Steel. They came to the conclusion that people put things off because they experience negative emotions around a particular (often long-term) task, and because they cannot regulate these negative emotions well. In other words, we procrastinate because we find a task too difficult, too boring, too challenging or too frightening, and we are not able to deal with these negative emotions in an effective way. 

Vicious circle

Procrastination means that we prioritise our more urgent need to suppress negative emotions over our less urgent need to finish the task. The negative emotions we experience can be a consequence of the task itself, as it might be inherently hard.

Let's face it: no one likes getting up at 6am to do an hour of sport. But the negative emotions can also stem from a lack of self-confidence around the task. Perhaps you do not feel entirely at home in the abstract world of strategy, and you are a bit unsure of your strategic skills? These negative emotions cause us to avoid the task at hand by investing disproportionate amounts of energy in less important tasks, and so we end up in a vicious circle.

Dr David Rosenbaum names this phenomenon "precrastination". Some examples: going to the shop before it opens, delivering your work long before the deadline or dealing with something "urgent" which is far from it. Precrastination of course has many advantages, because it means we are conscientious and ensures that we get things done. But the flipside is that we focus on things that require less effort, which makes it more difficult to achieve the more important goals and to grow. And that gnaws away at our self-confidence.

So if you really want to work on a strategy or healthy lifestyle, it is important to properly examine the time that you spend on other things and to ask yourself why you spend so much time on them. After all, avoiding a task or spending a disproportionate amount of time on other tasks are not effective ways of dealing with your negative emotions, regardless of the reasons why you behave that way.

A lot of stress

So what is effective in getting you to finally start working on a strategy or acting on those good intentions to live more healthily? By far the most important thing is to go a little easier on yourself. Those who procrastinate experience a lot of stress, tend to set the bar very high and are often very strict on themselves.

Therefore, it is vital that we try to reduce our stress levels and be somewhat nicer to ourselves. Say: “It's logical that I find it difficult to get started, as I have actually never managed to do it before.” Or: “The fact that this is tough means that I am learning from it.” To reduce the pressure on yourself, it also helps to ask “what could be a first step?”, or to consider your first attempts as an experiment.

Furthermore, you should be smart with rewards. Only reward yourself after you have taken the first step. Treat yourself to a coffee once you have worked on your strategy for an hour, rather than pouring a cup beforehand to try and prompt you to get started.

My personal favourite tips are to reduce distractions as much as possible and make the task as accessible as you can. For example, for your accounts on social media, choose passwords that are very difficult to remember, and that you need to enter every time. Or put on your sports gear before you go to bed to make sure you do not keep pushing the snooze button when your alarm goes off. I have tested this tip out in recent weeks, and as a result can report that I have managed to be on my bike at 7am on several mornings. Next step: 6.30am?

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