Imagine a situation – you have a deadline coming up after two weeks, and you are filled to the brim with a calm confidence. After all, two weeks – those are 336 hours – enough time to easily fly to the Moon and back, listen to all of the Beatles’ discography, drink 150 cups of coffee, run ten marathons, take a foreign language course – and you would still have some time left over. However, the remaining hours are slowly but irreversibly passing by, and you feel that, with them, your confidence is leaving as well. At the end you find yourself frantically trying to finish your tasks on the evening before the deadline, once again challenging your limits of productivity, stress, and adrenalin.
Does this situation sound familiar? You are not the only one – a survey, conducted in the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, demonstrates that 99% of the surveyed students have crammed for exams at the last moment at least once; besides, more than 25% admitted that this was their main strategy to use before every test (Gerwick, 2014). What are the reasons that make us do everything at the last moment?
Why do we ignore our priorities?
One of the reasons that endangers a timely execution of our duties is procrastination – a tendency to choose to prosecute relatively unimportant side tasks when confronted with an important and urgent assignment. It can present itself in several different ways – like playing “just one more” level of Candy Crush Saga, reading the news or finally tidying your work desk, just so you wouldn’t have to do what you’re supposed to do. Procrastination is always conscious – it is the road we choose ourselves to lead us away from the planned productivity and timeliness.
Several factors lead us on this road. First of all it is an aversion from the task – maybe it’s boring or frustrating? Maybe it just doesn’t seem important? Or maybe we just can’t figure out how to go about the task? All these factors can influence the attractiveness of the task (Blunt & Pychyl, 2000). We also often leave for later the execution of the tasks that make us feel worried and afraid from a failure (Solomon & Rothblum, 1984). Although it seems like an unproductive solution to a possible failure, people often choose to do unimportant stuff instead of doing something urgent and of importance, so that they would have a ready explanation in case of defeat (McCrea, 2008).
However paradoxical it might seem, procrastination can also be detected in people who are able to plan and effectively utilize their time. Sometimes this efficiency, which lets one do large amounts of work in small amounts of time, even is used as a reason to delay the task completion as long as possible (Schraw, Wadkins, & Olafson, 2007).
Your weapons in the fight against procrastination
The recommendation of a strategy to choose to fight the procrastination depends on what has caused the tendency to avoid the pressing project. However, each of the strategies can be supplemented and improved with a development of clear, concrete and structured goals, as well as setting up your own deadlines.
If you don’t want to start working just because the task seems to be boring, think twice – maybe some aspect of the task might be personally interesting to you, or maybe you can see how your experience from fulfilling this task might help you in your future? Becoming interested in your work and keeping in mind important incentives help in decreasing procrastination.
If, however, you still can only describe the project as a huge black cloud with no silver linings, problem should be solved from the other way around, with trying to make the surrounding environment less interesting. In practice this means closing Facebook, putting on earphones to filter out the discussions of your colleagues, and setting some small incentives for yourself for every hour you have worked on the unpleasant task.
On the other hand, the cause of the procrastination can also be hidden in the uncertainty of the work – that is to say, in being unaware about what to do next. In this case it helps if you are working in a team or if you have a chance to consult with a colleague (Schraw et al., 2007). However, in absence of these opportunities, one must simply start working just about anywhere – even if it feels like the first steps will be faulty and in need of repairs. This seemingly simple advice has a deeper psychological explanation – started (and unfinished) tasks are better accessible in our memory and, therefore, cause an inclination to work towards finishing them (Taylor, 2013).
However, if you have to admit that the unwillingness to work is caused by the fear of failure, you have to figure out whether the consequences of not doing anything at all won’t be even more unpleasant than the ones arising from doing at least something.
There are also some weapons that work against yourself. One of them is blaming yourself for not being productive enough. It turns out that people who are able to forgive themselves their procrastination are also less likely to procrastinate in the future (Wohl, Pychyl, & Bennett, 2010).
Linda Sapadin, a psychologist and a success coach, has developed a practice-based approach to procrastination, distinguishing six different types of procrastinators. At the end of this article you will be provided with a link to a short, witty test that will help you in determining the type most corresponding to you.
However, not always the fault is in how we distribute our time – sometimes it turns out that there really is not enough time…
How honest are you to yourself while planning your time?
It turns out that, in setting up deadlines and planning our work, we are optimists. As Kahneman and Tversky (1979) found out, we anticipate that we will need less time to do something than we actually do. Moreover, this mistake in planning is not really dependant on one’s experience – too short time limits are set both by young newcomers and by hardened professionals and people who have gone through the same kind of tasks before. It is caused by focusing on the most optimistic scenario – we tend to ignore the negative external factors that have endangered a timely execution of a task before.
Luckily, there are ways to fight this problem as well. Darryl Forsyth and Cristopher Burt advise to divide the project in smaller tasks and to plan each of those separately (Forsyth & Burt, 2008). However, there is also an easier way to bypass this mistake – namely, to use as a guide not your expectations but the time it took to execute these kind of tasks in your experience (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979).
What kind of procrastinator are you? Find out here: http://www.bringyourchallenges.com/procrastinator
Blunt, A., & Pychyl, T. (2000). Task aversiveness and procrastination: A multi-dimensional approach to task aversiveness across stages of personal projects. Personality and Individual Differences, 28, 153–167.
Forsyth, D. K., & Burt, C. D. D. (2008). Allocating time to future tasks: The effect of task segmentation on planning fallacy bias. Memory and Cognition, 36 (4), 791-198.
Gerwick, J. (2014). Cramming for exams? Join the crowd. The Hawkeye Online. Retrieved from: https://thehawkeyeonlinenews.wordpress.com/2014/06/04/cramming-for-exams-join-the-crowd/
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Intuitive prediction: biases and corrective procedures. TIMS Studies in Management Science, 12, 313–327.
Solomon, L. J., & Rothblum, E. D. (1984). Academic procrastination: Frequency and cognitive-behavioral correlates. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 31 (4), 503-509.
Taylor, A. (2013). Zeigarnik effect. In Encyclopedia of Human Memory (pp. 1197-1198). eBook: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Wohl, M. J. A., Pychyl, T.A., & Bennett, S.H. (2010) I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Personality and Individual Differences