Always putting off till the eleventh hour?

Three powerful ways to move past procrastination [Read this article now, don't push it for later!]

Man keeping his legs on the computer table during office hours

What would happen if a train, scheduled to leave in the nick of time for you to make it to your sister’s wedding, decided it just wasn’t going to leave that day. The sun was shining, its tracks had just been cleaned, but it was tired of hauling ungrateful people who filled its trash cans with fouling banana peels. It knew it should get going, get you there on time, and do its duty. But its own sense of feeling overwhelmed and its fear of not getting it right kept it from moving even an inch. You forgo your ticket money. You don’t get there on time. Welcome to procrastination station.

In the real world, procrastination costs us more than just money, time, and productivity. It costs us health and happiness, too. Guilt, regret, and a feeling of low self-worth often accompany the act of procrastination. Our very inaction is an act. It’s deciding not to decide, which can often lead us down a treacherous road. If you’re a breathing human being, you’ve been affected by procrastination to some degree: the late fee at the library for overdue books, the surcharge for overnight delivery because you pushed off sending that birthday gift for too long after you bought it, the sour look on your editor’s face when you’re past deadline—again. Despite our bad experiences, we continue to push the envelope, addressed to no one other than ourselves.

Students are particularly notorious for waiting until the last minute to accomplish their work. If you have ever pulled an all-nighter in college, you will know the feeling of getting things done at the eleventh-hour. The average person reaches a plateau of effort over a longer period of time than the procrastinating student.

Our very inaction is an act. It’s deciding not to decide, which can often lead us down a treacherous road

If it really is uncomfortable to procrastinate, why do so many of us put off things to the last minute? Is it the thrill of the adrenaline rush? Is it our desire to test our limits? Or are we simply too stymied by our daily demands to distinguish what’s most important? Could it possibly have something to do with our relationship with time?

The answer is: sort of. Being chronically late is a form of procrastination. Burning the midnight oil is another one. All types of procrastination lead to time-sucking activities.

While some level of procrastination may always be present in our lives, we can learn to work through our blockage and time-sucking activities in simple ways.

Principle #1
Mastering your own ship

Staring at the starlit sky is a humbling experience. You begin to realise how many more energy forms exist beyond Earth, not to mention outside our galaxy. It is easy to feel insignificant when you realise how immeasurably large the universe is. What does it matter if you pay that bill today or tomorrow? The truth is, inside your very own Universe, you are the star. You are the master of your own ship.

You can observe how little control people feel they have over themselves when they come up with excuses as to why, for instance, they simply cannot be on time for appointments. These little white lies become the person’s truth, overshadowing their own power and ability to change. Most people resist change because it involves actually thinking about the self-destructive behaviours that got them in the situation in the first place.

It’s the little voice inside that nudges you in the wrong direction. In German that voice is called der innere Schweinebund, literally the ‘inner pig-dog’. It symbolises the weaker self that gives in to the temptation of procrastination and inaction. We all have a pig-dog just crying to be fed. Some of us nurture our pig-dog more than others. It feeds off our doubt, our fear and, most importantly, our time.

Most people resist change because it involves actually thinking about the self-destructive behaviours that got them in the situation in the first place

Lauren Zander, chairman of the Handel Group, a leading corporate consulting and private coaching company, advises people to take charge of their lives by first tackling the withheld and hidden thoughts that are running the show. For instance, regarding our relationships, we often have tacit agreements with our partners. You won’t say anything about my inability to resist my daily doughnut, and I won’t say anything about your getting fall-down drunk at parties. Enabling others, instead of empowering them to rise up to their higher serves, leads to co-dependency and remaining stuck in a rut.

Principle #2
Create your pockets of win

Lack of motivation is a primary cause of procrastination. Sometimes we have to trick ourselves into moving forward. To keep on track, create pockets of win to coincide with particularly challenging moments in your life. This helps offset the temptation to fall back into your old ways again, by offering you a yin-and-yang perspective.

If you know you’re going to have a tough week, creating pockets of win can be especially helpful to level out the stress you may be experiencing in the moment. For instance, you have a huge project deadline at work, which stresses you out every quarter. Designate a time when you will do something you love, such as watching your favourite movie, to offset the negative feelings you may experience during the big push at the office. These rewards are not designed to aid your procrastination, but to actually motivate you to continue on even when you’d rather not. There’s nothing wrong with rewarding yourself when the going gets tough. The point is to keep going once you’ve gotten started and to not use your rewards to distract, but to congratulate yourself when you’ve reached your goal.

Celebrating milestones is something Kimberly Richey, a senior sales director for a cosmetics firm, understands well. Working from home, she sees procrastination as her biggest barrier to productivity because there is always something infinitely more interesting to do. She has developed a system of naming each hour so she can readily identify what she will do next. Family hour, spiritual hour, prospects hour, booking appointments hour, and so on are all mapped out for her to help her avoid falling into a black hole of inaction. When she’s reached a milestone, she rewards herself by engaging in a fun activity commensurate to the work she has completed. It might be as simple as an ice cream cone with the kids, or a massage after a particularly gruelling task. “It is my belief that everyone works better with a carrot dangling before them,” she says.

Find your carrot. Create your pockets of win and fill them with rewards. The next thing you’ll know, you’re moving forward without even realising it.

The point is to not use your rewards to distract, but to congratulate yourself when you’ve reached your goal

Principle #3
Five-minute commitment

Experts say making a promise to yourself to focus for five minutes on a somewhat undesirable task will help you break through your own hesitation. After five more minutes, make another promise to spend an additional five minutes. Oftentimes it’s merely finding a place to start that causes the most concern.

Business development expert Sian Lindemann used to be what she terms the “world’s worst procrastinator” until she realised it was costing her money to not finish what she started.

She took baby steps toward her commitment to end her procrastinating ways by telling herself to make the bed the minute she got up, place the cap back on the toothpaste tube, and rinse out the sink after every usage. “Done over the long term, these basic steps set me in motion. Now I experience an actual discomfort if I don’t finish what I’ve started.”

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In this exercise, ask yourself what small things you could do differently to have your day run more smoothly. Perhaps it’s making a cup of coffee instead of standing in line at the coffee shop. Or you vow to limit your YouTube viewing to one video per day. These changes should not take more than five minutes each. Changing your habits takes commitment and time, so you need to engage in some goal-setting. Plan out on your calendar what you will do differently starting today, not tomorrow. You will start to see a measurable difference in the way you feel when you accomplish tasks based on your new commitment to bringing things to completion. Miraculously, you will also find you suddenly have more time to spend on the things you love doing.

List five simple things that take five minutes or less that you will do differently for thirty days. Record them on your wall calendar to remind you of your five-minute commitment. It might not take an entire month for you to expand your activities into other realms of your life. Celebrate your tiny successes with a gold star on your calendar. If that sounds too childish for you, reward yourself by dedicating your saved time to an activity you truly enjoy.

Excerpted with permission from The Power of Slow by Christine Louise Hohlbaum. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

A version of this was first published in the November 2013 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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