Procrastination is more than simply “not doing something” – it’s “not doing something and feeling bad about it”, typically through a mixture of guilt, fear and laziness.
Take control: Meryl Streep as the ruthlessly efficient editor in The Devil Wears Prada. Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe
New Year’s resolutions can be a rollercoaster of emotions. There are the highs when you set them, imagining with excitement the new life you’re going to be leading, but often also the lows of frustration and procrastination when things don’t go exactly to plan.
Procrastination is more than simply “not doing something” – it’s “not doing something and feeling bad about it”, typically through a mixture of guilt, fear and laziness. As soon as you realise you’re procrastinating, it’s important to diagnose why and take action. You can use the acronym DUST to help with the diagnosis…
D stands for Difficult. If you fear that the change you’re trying to make is beyond your capability, it’s usually a confidence issue or a skills issue – or both. So create an action point to address it that gets you to the starting line feeling good. Perhaps the action you need to take is about training or getting knowledge and skills; if it’s a confidence issue, perhaps it’s about making friends with a fellow traveller or just making a start.
U is for Unclear. When we make nebulous resolutions or write to-do lists full of one-word worries rather than tangible actions, it’s hard to know where to start. When you scan a to-do list full of things that are unclear and lack obvious starting points, you can feel that sense of action paralysis. Make sure you’re articulating a clear outcome and then define one or more “next physical actions”. “Clear out the garage” could leave you procrastinating for months, but “have a clear garage so I can get my car in by 1 February” is a much clearer outcome. And the next physical action might be “buy boxes” or “sell the old fridge” or “call my friend Richard to get his recommendation for skip hire companies”. Planning the next physical action develops momentum.
The S stands for Scared. There are things we’d love to change or accomplish that feel outside our comfort zone: borrowing that money to start a business, going to the gym for the first time, politely saying no to that toxic friend, or launching a high-stakes new project at work. All of these things feel risky because we fear failure and looking foolish. The deep psychology of this goes against our survival instincts, so it is very powerful. One way to deal with it is to create a bigger fear – create a deadline or another way for someone else to hold you to account, and you’ll worry more about letting them down than the thing you originally feared (think about why at school your procrastination about essays vanished when the deadline got close).
T stands for Tedious. Some things just need some added joy to make them worthwhile. Can you do your tedious exercise in front of the TV? Can you rock out to your favourite tunes while doing your tax return? Can you set some targets for tidiness or getting your finances in order that reward your successes with prizes? When it comes to tackling the mundane, carrot beats stick.
Developing awareness of the emotional side of habits and productivity takes time and requires getting beyond everyday busyness in order to reflect and be mindful. Be ruthless in protecting your attention to make this happen. Minimise interruptions by turning off email, social media and phone notifications. Use a bit of ninja stealth, too: make yourself unavailable to give you time to think and manage yourself – even half an hour of quiet at work can make a difference. Write your to-do list and decide what’s important that day before you check email – that way you’re reacting to your own priorities, not everyone else’s.
Finally, be reassured that all of your heroes procrastinate. Instead of feeling guilty about it, treat procrastination as a wonderful reminder that you’re human after all – which makes all that good stuff you do even more remarkable.
Graham Allcott is the author of How To Be a Productivity Ninja (Icon, £8.99, or £7.19 from bookshop.theguardian.com) and founder of global training business Think Productive
A weekly bulletin of the 5 most recommended articles, challenging ideas and interesting new things in Psychology from
NIKOS MARINOS CONSULTANCY delivered straight to your inbox, every Monday.