Stop Procrastinating and Do it Now!
My college friend, Akash, had his own special way of dealing with a seemingly overwhelming assignment. Let’s say he was informed on January 1st that he had to submit, by March 30, a 5000-word essay on ‘Metaphysical Conceits in the poetry of John Donne’.
“No problem,” Akash would declare confidently. “I just have to break up this formidable task into more manageable parts.” He would then proceed to create a plan to achieve this. Of course, it would take him about a week or two to come up with the plan and then it would look something like this:
- Think about the assignment: February 1st to February 15th
- Make a time-table to study the poetry of Donne and do the research that needs to be done: February 16th to Feb 28th
- Renew library/reading room membership – 1st week of March
- Start looking for material for the paper – March 8th
- Check whether the time-table needs tweaking – March 15th
- Complete the research and write the essay – all day and night March 28th and 29th.
“You can’t turn on your creativity like a water-tap,” Akash would say in justification. “You have to generate the right mood.”
“And what mood is that?” I would venture.
“Complete, blind panic,” he would respond.
But don’t feel too bad if you empathize with my friend Akash. According to American writer and feminist, Rita Mae Brown, “If it weren’t for the last minute, nothing would get done.” Robert Benchley, American humorist and actor, agrees: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” When someone asked Ernest Hemingway how to write a novel, his response was: “First you defrost the refrigerator.”
Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, describes the phenomenon as “a common pulse of humanity. We’ve all likely experienced the feeling. There’s that project we have to finish, that email we have to send, that phone call we need to make. But somehow, despite our best intentions, we never seem to get any closer to doing it.”
Putting off the completion of an unpleasant or challenging task appears to be have been hard-wired into the human psyche from the very early stages of human civilization.
“Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time.” University of Toronto Egyptologist, Ronald Leprohon, translated this off some Egyptian hieroglyphs dating back to 1400 B.C.
The Greek poet Hesiod, way back in 800 B.C, advises his compatriots not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after, for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work.”
Things haven’t improved much in modern times.
On the night of 3rd November 1787, the prolific and influential Austrian composer of the 18th century classical era, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was partying with friends who grew increasingly worried as the night progressed. What would turn out to be one of the most celebrated operas of all time, ‘Don Giovanni’, composed by Mozart, was to be premiered the next day. However, Mozart had not written the introduction yet. He was persuaded to return to his lodgings at about midnight and, despite being in a fairly advanced state of inebriation, he managed to complete his masterpiece in time for the next evening’s performance. It had a delayed start, however, because there wasn’t enough time for the introduction to be actually rehearsed.
In the week ending January 23rd 1948, a popular song composed by singer-songwriter, Peggy Lee, entered the best-sellers chart of Billboard magazine and remained there for 21 weeks, 9 of them at the number 1 position. The song called “Mañana (Is Soon Enough for Me)” had obviously struck a chord. The keyword in the title, Mañana, is Spanish for ‘tomorrow, not today – maybe later’ and its lyrics encapsulate that delicious feeling of putting off till tomorrow – or even later – what doesn’t need to be done today.
The window it is busted and the rain is coming in
If someone doesn’t fix it I’ll be soaking to my skin
But if we wait a day or two the rain may go away
And we don’t need a window on such a lovely day
Mañana, Mañana, Mañanais soon enough for me
– Mañana, Mañana, Mañana is soon enough for me
Having derived some consolation from the fact most people are procrastinators at heart, we need to consider the dark side of this affliction. According to an article in the ‘Washington Post’, for many people, “procrastination is a strong and mysterious force that keeps them from completing the most urgent and important tasks in their lives with the same strength as when you try to bring like poles of a magnet together. It’s also a potentially dangerous force, causing victims to fail out of school, perform poorly at work, put off medical treatment or delay saving for retirement. A University study from 1997 found that college-age procrastinators ended up with higher stress, more illness and lower grades by the end of the semester.’ This is probably true even today, almost 25 years later.
Why People Procrastinate?
According to psychologists, there are a number of reasons why people procrastinate, and some of them are valid, not just excuses for laziness.
Neil Fiore, psychologist and author of ‘The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination’, divides procrastinators into five sub-groups:
- The perfectionist: is afraid of making mistakes and being criticized. This person delays the task, over-thinking it and being too self-critical. Unable to manage time effectively, this type either abandons the task or rushes to complete it at the last minute.
- The dread-filled: is afraid that he (or she) is not equipped to do the task and thus perpetually avoids doing it to avoid the risk of being exposed as inferior or incompetent. This type experiences fear and anxiety and seeks escape by engaging in other unrelated tasks. However this escape is short-lived as the deadline looms inexorably closer. Anxiety increases and a vicious cycle of negativity is built up.
- The overwhelmed: This is a genuine reason for delaying the completion of a task. There is just too much to do. Such people find it difficult to distinguish between what is important and what is urgent, and freeze. Unable to decide where to start, they don’t do anything. This is a dangerous situation as it can lead to increased levels of stress and psychological ‘burn-out’.
The bored: Sometimes the task is avoided because it is not challenging or exciting enough. The drudgery and mind-numbing, mundane monotony of the assignment puts the person off.
The lucky: These people believe that they do their best work when their backs are up against the wall. They assert that they cannot achieve unless they are under pressure. They find it extremely difficult to approach the task with a long-term plan. If compelled to do so, they find it hard to stick to it and are easily distracted by other tasks that provide instant gratification. They need to hope that their luck doesn’t run out one day.
How To Avoid Procrastination?
If you have identified yourself as one of the five types of procrastinators described above you have taken the first step to getting things done and feeling better about yourself. Admitting that procrastination is not inevitable and figuring out why you tend to postpone work will put you in the right frame of mind to break the cycle of procrastination and be more productive.
And the time to do it is NOW.
Napoleon Hill, American self-help author, known best for his book ‘Think and Grow Rich’ which is among the 10 best-selling self-help books of all time says: “Don’t wait. The time will never be right.”
And the rewards are worth fighting for.
“The really happy people are those who have broken the chains of procrastination, those who find satisfaction in doing the job at hand. They’re full of eagerness, zest, productivity. You can be, too.” This is from Norman Vincent Peale, author of ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’.
So what’s next?
Here Are A Few Time-Tested, Scientifically Validated Strategies To Prevent Procrastination From Controlling Your Life:
- Re-examine your goals. Is there a mis-match between what you are doing now and what you really want to be doing? This may be a reason for your lack of enthusiasm and consequent dilatoriness in completing your assignments.
- Break a demanding, complicated task into small steps. It’s fine – even necessary – to have an overall vision of the main task and a major deadline for the completion of the whole task. But this can sometimes be overwhelming. So you need to break the task up into a series of minor tasks and set yourself mile-stone deadlines for the accomplishment of each part of the task. Focus on one part of the task at a time and take pleasure in the accomplishment of each of the small bits within the time you have allotted for it. An expert in procrastination says: “No one ‘builds a house’. They lay one brick again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators need to be gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”
- Just do it. Don’t try to be perfect or wait for the perfect time to start. Don’t overthink the project. Don’t over-complicate things. You will never get the perfect time to do the task, nor the perfect resources. The best way to get something done is to begin. Author, editor and radio preacher, Charles Swindoll advises: “The habit of always putting off an experience until you can afford it, or until the time is right, or until you know how to do it is one of the greatest burglars of joy. Be deliberate, but once you’ve made up your mind–jump in.”
- Harness your fear. If you are anxious about not being able to complete the task on time or of doing it less than perfectly, ask yourself: what’s the worst that can happen if you fail? Chances are the consequences will be less serious than you have been imagining. Freeing yourself of the fear of failure is a sure-fire way of breaking out of paralyzing inactivity. Act brave on a daily basis. Starting today. Make a commitment to step out of your comfort zone at least once per day. Paulo Coelho, celebrated author of ‘The Alchemist’ shares: “It was my fear of failure that first kept me from attempting the master work. Now, I’m beginning what I could have started ten years ago. But I’m happy at least that I didn’t wait twenty years.”
- Visualize success. Imaging yourself completing your task within the given time-frame. Imagine how you will feel at that time. Let those good feelings recharge your enthusiasm and self-confidence.
- Build a support system: Seek out friends, family members, work colleagues who you perceive as being successful in accomplishing their goals. Their enthusiasm and positive work-habits will inspire you in your own endeavors. Enlist the support of a ‘buddy’ who is also working to eradicate procrastination habits. Encourage one another and hold each other accountable for lapses in meeting deadlines and getting the job done satisfactorily.
- Reward yourself for progress. The final reward for completing a major assignment may be too far away in the future to motivate you. So you need so set your own system of short-term rewards to celebrate the accomplishment of the little goals you have set yourself along the way. A coffee-break. Five minutes on your I-phone. A quick chat with a co-worker.
How Can You, As A Parent, Help Your Children Break The Bad Habit Of Procrastination?
As with adults, procrastination in children can be identified as
- Being unable to start working on a task until the last minute.
- An inability to complete an assigned task in the given timeframe.
- Putting off a task in order to engage in a more interesting but lower priority task.
There is a common assumption that children procrastinate because of laziness or a lack of caring. However, this is not always true.
Psychologists aver that the causes of procrastination among children include low motivation and self-confidence, fear of failure, lack of understanding of the nature of the task, difficulty in concentrating, perfectionism, low energy levels and poor organization skills.
Strategies To Help Children-
The following strategies may help your child to stop procrastinating and to be more productive:
- Help the child develop time-management skills. Create a calendar and schedule important events and tasks that need to be completed. Set a time-frame and clear goals, and include breaks and free time in the calendar.
- Break a large and intimidating task into smaller, more manageable units. For example a writing task can be split up into researching, writing and editing, with the learner focusing on one aspect of the task at a time.
- Help the learner find meaning and relevance in the task by relating to a real-world issue or the child’s own interests.
- Encourage the development of appropriate study skills, critical thinking and a problem-solving attitude and emphasize that this is more important than marks and grades.
- Build up the child’s confidence by removing the fear of not meeting expectations. Focus on the child’s skills and previous accomplishments to build a positive attitude to the task. Set clear and realistic goals for the accomplishment of the task
- Create a dedicated work area free of distractions.
- Ensure that the child eats right and gets enough sleep.
Following these strategies might enable your child to enjoy a relatively stress-free and productive school experience. More importantly, it will nip the problem of procrastination in the bud and prevent it from being a liability in adult life. It is never too early to learn the truth of Abraham Lincoln’s words: “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” The advice of Dale Carnegie (in his best selling self-help book ‘How to Stop Worrying and Start Living’) is equally relevant: “…the best possible way to prepare for tomorrow is to concentrate with all your intelligence, all your enthusiasm, on doing today’s work superbly today. That is the only possible way you can prepare for the future.”