I can think of a thousand things I’d rather do than sit in front of a spreadsheet (scrubbing bathtub tile grout with an elderly toothbrush instantly comes to mind).
And I’m not alone—whether it’s a lunch with a particularly prickly client or counseling a well-liked colleague about poor performance, most of us are guilty of back-burnering our tedious or stressful on-the-job duties at some point.
While you may argue vigorously that an extra hour of Instagram doesn’t hurt a single soul, experts in the fields of productivity and procrastination beg to differ.
“Procrastination takes up real estate in the mind. Even if you’re not working on a project, you’re still energetically thinking about it. Your mind becomes cluttered and there is no room for the things that make you successful in business—like innovation, creativity, and intuition,” says Christine Hassler, life coach, entrepreneur, and author of 20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It.
Whether you predictably put off the monthly expense report or fall into a chronic category where just about everything can be done mañana, don’t worry—there’s hope. We have a few tried and true solutions to help when your motivation is playing a mean game of hide and seek.
Make Repetition a Daily Ritual
“Journalists don’t ever phone me and say, ‘You know, we’re writing an article to help people really commit to tooth brushing,’” says Hassler, “because this is a habit we’ve all had since we were little kids. Every morning we wake up and brush our teeth. We don’t procrastinate.”
With that in mind, Hassler suggests scheduling your procrastination-prone tasks at the same time daily, which will create habit-forming behavior.
“Set aside an hour a day for tasks you’ve been putting off. A productive time is between 10 and 11 AM—you’re awake, your breakfast has kicked in, and you’re not hungry for lunch. If you can commit to this for 40 days in a row—hopefully it will become [routine], like brushing your teeth.”
Look Past the Quick Fix of Instant Gratification
Let’s face it: When mundane or tension-causing to-dos are spilling out of your inbox, procrastination can provide an illusion of control (and an instant shot of happy when you can’t find it elsewhere in your workday).
“There is a sense of freedom and rebellion in procrastination,” says Hassler. “We shop online and talk with friends—we do something that makes us feel better in the moment.”
Instead, Hassler suggests a long-term solution—trade surreptitious tweets and texts to outside acquaintances for work-related activities that put a measure of (guilt-free) joy back in your day.
“Maybe you start a company newsletter or a recycling campaign,” she suggests. “Whatever it is, if you’re doing something gratifying on some level, doing the things that are not gratifying don’t feel as draining.”
Ask Yourself a Few Hard Questions
When Hassler sees a life-coaching client, she asks three questions:
- Where are you now?
- Where do you need to go?
- What is in the way?
She says this question set can also be applied to procrastination-prone tasks—but cautions against skipping ahead too quickly. “A lot of people jump right into ‘Where do you need to go?’ versus really looking at the obstacles and dealing with them directly.”
To start at the beginning, Hassler suggests a three-step approach:
Step 1: Identify What’s in the Way
In other words, face the obstacle, i.e., “Expense reports are boring and I’d rather talk to my cubicle mate about ordering pizza or Pad Thai.”
Step 2: Identify What Support Is Needed to Remove the Obstacle
If clicking away on an expense report is not your cup of tea—what can you do to add interest? Hassler says to shoot for simple fixes like color coding the spreadsheet, giving yourself a nice reward after finishing, or downloading the latest Bieber track and tackling the task with headphones on. (I won’t tell anyone, I promise).
Step 3: Choose One Obstacle-Removing Action for Starters
Some roadblocks can be removed with one sweeping gesture, while others require a little elbow grease. The goal of setting out with a just-one-step-at-a-time mantra is to feel you’re being gently pulled toward a not-so-fun task (instead of being forcefully pushed).
Employ the Buddy System
Christine Li, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in procrastination, warns that delaying deadlines can affect more than just your work—it can also undermine your self-esteem.
“When we create a distance between ourselves and what has to be completed, we open up a space for anxious questions like, ‘What if it’s my best work and they don’t like it?’ and ‘What if I don’t really understand what I’m supposed to be doing?’ or ‘What if the client calls me back and yells at me?’”
Li says spending time in this “what-if” space is dangerous, as it can move us out of the present and even further away getting the deed done. Although, she does emphasize that the escape route might not be that difficult—you could start by airing out your dirty to-do list with a co-worker or friend.
“Clients tell me all the time—they will hear right away that [their co-worker or friend] is going through the exact same thing and that immediately unlocks a part of the stress. You realize you’re in a community, and that can be very helpful.”
Know When to Say “When” With Negative Self-Talk
While Li reports telephone calls and difficult client interactions as procrastination “Top 10s”—she also adds tasks that require new skills or duties that you feel insecure about.
“It’s the idea of, ‘Can I really pull this off?’—there is a feeling that it’s not within them despite having a wide range of skills, talents, and potential,” Li explains. “I wish I didn’t have to say this about women in their 20s and 30s—but I do see them having a bit of difficulty with identifying themselves as being capable, confident and talented in the context of other people.”
If this sounds like your reason for procrastination, Li says that there’s no shame in getting a bit of professional help.
“Therapy is a great resource—it might just be a couple of visits. Sometimes a private meeting is required to really unload and unpack the real nature of your internal dialogue,” Li suggests. “We say things to ourselves without realizing the severity of the tone—and sometimes it’s really helpful to get another person’s opinion. I encourage anyone struggling with procrastination to develop a sense of kindness toward themselves.”