By Timothy Pychyl, published on September 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 6, 2012
It takes deliberate strategies to avoid becoming our own worst enemy by procrastinating on our intended actions. Here are some tips, all based on research, that will keep you one step ahead of procrastination. Each tip follows on its predecessor, so you can use them in sequence to build your own tactical defense against procrastination.
As Piers Steel makes clear in temporal motivation theory and Dan Gilbert shows in his work on affective forecasting, we are not merely irrational but predictably so. We discount future rewards as less important than a task at hand, particularly if it's a more pleasant activity, and we really aren't very good at predicting how we'll feel in the future.
"Time travel" can help here. That is, we need to use concrete mental images of the future more often and more accurately, to represent the future as though it were happening in the present. For example, a person who is procrastinating on saving for retirement might imagine as vividly as possible living on his or her potential retirement savings. To make a future image like this more concrete and accurate, it may be important to set out some numbers for a budget and take into account the reality of the need for and increasing expense of health care in old age. Planning shouldn't be an abstract notion of "doing it tomorrow." Think about the task in the real context of the day, and think carefully about how these tasks make you feel. This strategy will help you prepare for tip #2.
When self-regulation fails, it's often because short-term emotional repair takes precedence over our long-term goals. For example, a task at hand makes us feel anxious or overwhelmed, so we "give in to feel good," seeking immediate emotional relief, and we walk away, leaving the task for tomorrow.
Here's where emotional intelligence is so important to procrastinating less. Learn to recognize that we can have negative emotions without acting on them. Stay put for a minute—don't walk away. Don't give in to "I'll feel more like it tomorrow." Acknowledge the negative emotions, but get started anyway. Progress on a goal provides the motivation for another step forward. Just get started; the negative emotions will pass.
Planning is one thing; action is another. In fact, what can make a task aversive to us when we're simply making an intention or planning is how meaningful a goal is. The less meaningful the goal, the less likely we'll want to do the task. However, when it's time to act, aversive tasks—those we're most likely to procrastinate on—are those for which we're uncertain how to proceed. We're most likely to procrastinate on tasks that lack structure.
This means that in addition to making your task concrete (see tip #1), it's important to reduce the uncertainty about how to proceed—and, when it's time to act, to reduce available distractions as well. Shut off your e-mail, isolate yourself as much as you can, and make sure the environment around you is working to strengthen your willpower and focus, not to undermine your efforts. Speaking of willpower…
A great deal of recent research clearly indicates that willpower is like a muscle. You can exhaust it more quickly than you might imagine and, when you do, you lose your ability to self-regulate your behavior. One immediate method to strengthen your resolve in order to keep you on task is to remind yourself of your values. This process of self-affirmation bolsters our flagging reserves of willpower.
Another self-regulatory boost can come from mindfulness meditation. Attention is the first step in self-regulation, so learning to keep focused attention will help you procrastinate less by strengthening self-regulation.
Want to know more? See Dr. Pychyl's Don't Delay blog.