My girl gang was once discussing life and we thought of doing a strength/weakness analysis of ourselves. One of my friends wasn’t sure if one of her traits was a strength or a weakness. Funny as it sounded, it warranted some help from us and hence we asked her to elaborate.
So she took us down the memory lane to her childhood.
“As a child I never got along with my mom. Our differences were so serious that, often, I was suicidal. But I was too lazy to really ‘plan out a suicide’ and kept pushing it to a later date. In some days, the hurt and the anger would ebb and the thought of ending my life would perish…until the next fight after which I would think a lot but never act, yet again, because of this habit of pushing things.
“Well, I admit that I am a champ of procrastination and it adversely affects me in many ways. But hey! I am alive because of the habit. So is it my strength or my weakness?” she asked, finishing her story.
The question is indeed interesting and open to debate, but for now, the issue at hand is ‘the trait’ itself. This habit of postponing things, pushing them till the very last minute sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? While only few of us excel at the art of procrastination, we all resort to it at some time or the other. Whatever the reason, the bigger issue at hand is—what do we do about this? How to stop procrastinating?
The first step would be to take a peep into the reasons why you procrastinate. This will help you understand yourself and identify a pattern. For example, one of my friends is an exceptional painter. She is aware of her talent and has extremely high expectations of herself. Every work of hers has to be a masterpiece.
This unrealistic expectation becomes a stumbling block because the very thought of splashing colour on canvas stresses her out and she cites all kinds of excuses for not painting. If she becomes aware of this idiosyncrasy, she can actively work on lowering the bar of expectations so that she doesn’t avoid doing something she loves and is good at.
Similarly, all of us first need to look inside and identify our quirks before we can get rid of them. There can be many simple yet effective tips for overcoming procrastination. But the top three on my list would be:
1. Show yourself a carrot
Just like you reward kids for good behaviour, you can promise yourself a gift if you finish some long-pending task without any delay. The reward, of course, has to be big and attractive enough to make you spring into action, but it also must be proportionate to effort or difficulty level of the task. For example, you cannot promise yourself a car for cleaning a closet but you can certainly gift yourself a nice hair spa for updating all bank records and organising all financial documents. Some may argue that this is bribery and you can get into the habit of bribing yourself for every small action. Well, since it’s your need to get things done, you better not get addicted to bribing yourself.
2. Announce a deadline
Nothing works like a deadline in getting things done. But what is it about a deadline that gets things done? It is the pressure, which makes us restless and uncomfortable. However, since you are the one who decides the deadline, you can always keep changing it. Right? So you need to deny yourself this luxury. How? Simply by announcing it to the world. Now you know that people are watching. You better not falter or fail. Tell your family and friends that you will complete a specific activity by this date. Then, put post-its on the mirror, fridge or work-station—they not only act as reminders but also keep that positive pressure on you all the time.
I once was struggling reading a book. I knew it was important for me to finish it, but just couldn’t get myself to read enough every day. The perceptive husband saw this and pointedly asked me how many chapters today, how many tomorrow and so on. He then noted down my response on a paper under the heading ‘My commitment to myself’ and put it on my wardrobe. I was under so much pressure not to let myself down that I stuck to the plan and finished the book in three days flat.
3. Make a to-do list
A daily to-do list is the most critical planning tool whether you are a professional or a home-maker. It helps in organising your thoughts, planning the day, prioritising things and even getting the most unpalatable jobs done. However, once you start making such lists every day, you will realise that items like cleaning wardrobes, destroying old documents, getting suitcases repaired and giving out unwanted clothes never get scratched off the list and keep appearing day after day. These are things you always wanted to avoid and you continue avoiding them despite the to-do list. In such a situation, some ground rules need to be in place. Any carry forward from today becomes the top priority item tomorrow. It has to be finished first thing in the morning when the energy and ability to do things is much higher. If you still manage to avoid it and the item doesn’t get struck off in a week, you pay a penalty. Something like, you burn 100 extra calories in the gym till the time it gets done.
Having run you through my top three tips, let me admit that tips and techniques to overcome procrastination are quite peripheral. The fundamental issue is the realisation that procrastination is like a self-inflicted punishment—it gnaws at us, burdens us with guilt, self-doubt and disappointment, robs us of time and ultimately pulls us down in our own minds. Why should we live with this disease when the cure is within each one of us?
Tales behind ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’
People find it difficult to dump the habit of procrastinating because they have learnt to justify it. Just ask people why they procrastinate, and you’ll get genuine-sounding responses. Such as:
I hate doing it: My uncle hates to manage the paper-work required for medical insurance. Unfortunately, in the last few years, there has been some illness or the other in the family and he has had to grudgingly handle the task, which he absolutely abhors. Year after year we have seen him express his displeasure at having to shoulder this responsibility, make himself miserable because of the burden and the mounting pressure and yet avoid touching the file for as long as possible. Last year, he started gathering the papers just a couple of days before the expiry date and couldn’t manage to complete the formalities in time. The claim was not accepted and his pocket suffered a dent of a couple of lakh rupees!
I am scared: The visit to a doctor, medical investigations, stepping on the weighing scale and the like typically get pushed for this reason. Even though people are aware that the problem will only multiply and can even result in serious consequences, the fear of finding out paralyses them into inaction.
It’s too complicated: Issues that require a lot of emotional stamina are best avoided. I wonder if this is more prevalent among men than women, but for lack of empirical evidence, I’d rather let this pass. But typically, a lot of us avoid confrontations and disagreements because we do not want to invest our emotional energy in such issues at that point in time. “I will tell him that this behaviour is unacceptable, but at the right time!” is often how we think. Unfortunately, ‘now’ is seldom the right time in such matters.
It’s too difficult: I believe a weight loss campaign can be the best example for this category. “I’ll go on a diet from Monday” is as much a cliché as “I will maintain a daily budget”. The sheer complexity of calorie-calculation, the mental strength to not eat your favourite foods and the fortitude to survive on salads and soups for dinner has numbed many. A nagging spouse who will forever comment on your girth and monitor every morsel going into your system can actually be a blessing for this category of people.
I don’t know how to do it: Even though most of us want to advance in life by learning new things, developing new skills and improving on the ones we already have, our learning orientation may not be high all the time. For example, I may want to learn driving and take lessons for it, but at the same time, I may avoid learning how to use an Excel spreadsheet even though it may be more vital for my growth than driving. Developing expertise in a complex area like technology can be a daunting task for some of us who may choose to avoid it till it becomes a survival issue.
Apart from these, there might be several other reasons like sheer laziness, inertia or unwillingness to break the status-quo, poor planning and fear of failure that may be the real reason behind your tendency to procrastinate. Find out what it is and get to work, as soon as possible.
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