Procrastination is often thought of as a time management problem, but recent research is suggesting that procrastination is actually more of an emotion management problem. While to-do lists, schedules, and reminders can keep you on task, ultimately it is important that you learn the strategies needed to manage the feelings of boredom, dread, and frustration that feed into procrastination. This blog post discusses how you can increase productivity by accepting these feelings and implementing strategies to lessen their intensity.
“I can’t get started until I feel ready.”
“I will get to it when inspiration strikes me.”
“Once I get into a productive mood, I can finish it in no time”
Have you ever had these thoughts? These are examples of some common thought processes that feed into procrastination. They all boil down to the same illogical belief: that productivity requires being in a specific emotional state. Certainly, there are times when we feel inspired by our work, get into the right flow, and effortlessly accomplish what we set out to do. However, many people who struggle with procrastination erroneously believe that this is how all of their work should be.
Unfortunately, life is full of boring, unengaging tasks that you will never feel like doing. I have never once come home and thought to myself, “It sure would be fun to do the laundry!” Nor have I ever thought, “I am so excited to complete my taxes! I am going to start working on my 1040 right now!”
Empirical research shows that we are most likely to procrastinate on tasks that we perceive to be involved, repetitive, and dull. Trying to convince yourself that at some point you will feel like doing these boring tasks is just wasting time and emotional energy. Overcoming procrastination does not require making yourself feel like doing work. It requires accepting that you will never feel like doing some types of work and then doing them anyway.
So how do you make yourself do something you do not feel like doing? It requires implementing strategies to minimize the immensity, repetitiveness, and dullness of the tasks, and then embedding these strategies into your everyday habits.
When you have to deal with a large, unpleasant task, break it into smaller units that feel less unpleasant, and then dedicate yourself to completing those units regularly. For instance, you could set an agreement with yourself to spend 10-15 minutes a day working on the task. No matter how unpleasant the task is, you can likely tolerate it for 10-15 minutes – and any work done during that time is progress.
It is important to give yourself credit for incremental progress. Procrastinators often get themselves into trouble by engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, believing that either the task is done or it is not. Any progress toward your goal counts. Even if you do not complete the task entirely by the deadline, a partially completed task means you are closer to your final goal than you would be if you had done nothing at all, and catching up will be less arduous.
What can be done to deal with the repetitiveness and dullness of tasks? First, recognize you will never make these tasks pleasant, but you can make them less unpleasant. Do things to make your environment more enjoyable – put on some music, light a candle, sit in a comfy chair. Be sure to reward yourself when you make progress.
Sometimes people procrastinate on repetitive, dull tasks by completing tasks they find more engaging. This is especially dangerous because they believe they are being productive when in reality they are just avoiding the dull task that is most important at that moment. I recommend the “worst first” method to overcome this: do the unpleasant task first, and do the tasks you enjoy afterward.
Ultimately, if you want to be productive, you need to embed these strategies into your everyday life by scheduling time regularly to focus on mundane, unengaging tasks. Habits are automatic and they do not depend on your feelings. By committing to making progress on these tasks every day, you can slowly take away their sting and make it easier to accept that they just need to get done.
Paradoxically, you may find that tasks you don’t feel like doing initially start to feel more enjoyable once you get started on them and as you establish these habits, you may come to dread the unpleasant work less than before.
But sometimes this doesn’t happen. Sometimes even with the best habits, a dull task remains a dull task. Stop trying to make those tasks into something they are not and focus on implementing strategies to get the tasks done.
Procrastinating means that the unpleasant task is going to hang over you and spoil the activities you really enjoy. Give these unpleasant tasks a small piece of your schedule, and let them stay there – reserve the rest of your day for meaningful work, time with those you love, and opportunities to play and recuperate.
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William Hasek PhD, ABPP is a board certified clinical psychologist. Will takes a humanistic and existential approach to therapy, with treatment focused on understanding one's personality and values, taking accountability for one's life, and making intentional life decisions for the future. William works with business owners, young profesisonals, and members of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly gay men. He also teaches undergraduate and graduate level classes with Duquesne University.