Happiness by Design

Increasing Personal Happiness by Changing What You Do, Not How You Think

I Finally Got Around to Doing This

How to decide, design and do your way out of procrastination

It’s there at the back of your mind, looming over you as you press play on your third episode of House of Cards in a row: that uncomfortable conversation you need to have with a colleague; that tax return you need to file – or that first blog post you have been meaning to write for a while. We procrastinate when we avoid paying attention to a task we know we should complete. There are many reasons why we put off until tomorrow what we know we should do today but most involve us making mistakes e.g. about having more time tomorrow (you won’t) or about working better under pressure (you don’t). Procrastination has been shown to make us less happy, strain our relationships and diminish our performance at work.

Are you procrastinating by reading this blog that I procrastinated over writing? If so, you’re not alone – most people admit to procrastinating. But don’t worry: on this occasion, your procrastination will pay off! Here are a few tips on how you can Decide, Design, and Do your way to greater productivity and happiness (for more detailed tips take a look at Happiness by Design).

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“Decide” to get on with it – or not

Decide why you want to do the task you are procrastinating over, and what the benefits will be. You might come to the conclusion that it really does matter – or that the task simply isn’t worth bothering with. Understanding how what you do makes you feel is the key to making good decisions about procrastinating and everything else. Okay, now let’s assume you have decided to do the task.

“Design” deadlines

Make it as easy as possible to complete the task. Set yourself up in an area with the no distractions. You could give your phone to a friend rather than phone a friend. And set yourself ‘bite-sized’ deadlines. In one study, proofreaders were given the exhausting task of correcting three long post-modern texts. They procrastinated less and found more errors if they were randomly assigned to submit one text every week over the course of three weeks than if asked to submit all three texts at the end of the time period. A third group in the experiment was told to set themselves their own deadlines and, amongst these people, those who opted for weekly deadlines also performed the best.

“Do” pay attention to the experience

We procrastinate more over purposeful activities, such as work and study, compared to pleasurable ones, such as going for a drink with a friend. If you are prone to putting off purposeful activities, when you do get around to them, make sure you pay attention to the experiences of purpose you get from engaging with the task. Or you can remember how worthwhile it felt the last time you got around to doing something similar. Experiencing purpose feels good – and probably better than the pleasure you get from the 60th cat video. You can always enhance the good feelings by getting someone else to give you feedback on the task. In one study, employees who received feedback from others about their performance at work were more likely to say they experienced meaningfulness in their jobs.

What do you think? What have you been procrastinating over, and what has helped you to solve it?

Paul Dolan Ph.D., is a Professor of Behavioral Science at the London School of Economics and an international expert in happiness and human behavior.

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