Bad news: We’re biologically hardwired to procrastinate. Research shows we possess a limited amount of willpower that drains throughout the day, regardless of what we do.
We can’t avoid procrastination. Instead, embrace it as a necessary chance to recharge, restore your confidence, and generate new ideas.
To use procrastination to your advantage, you first need to understand what’s behind your excuses. For your procrastination to be functional, here are break activities that address–and counteract–the reasons you want to procrastinate in the first place.
Excuse One: You Don’t Know Where to Start
What’s the difference between procrastinating and taking a break? A plan for what to do next. When we waste time indefinitely without any concrete plan, we create a secondary anxiety about what to do next.
Write an extensively detailed to-do list . . . Before you switch over to your “time wasters,” write down all your outstanding tasks and their timeframe, preferably following the SMART model of articulating specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-bounded goals. Factor in any potential obstacles that might arise, like the client who requires three follow-up emails.
Once you’ve at least planned to complete your tasks, you’ll feel more relaxed during your downtime and fully reap the benefits of procrastination.
. . . Or a “done” list. Of course, “to-do” lists only work when you feel confident that you can actually check off some of the entries, or that completed task won’t be immediately replaced by a new one.
But if you’re not? Listing all your responsibilities will paralyze you and kickstart another round of procrastination. In that case, create a “done” list of everything you’ve accomplished during that day or week. On a losing streak? Even “did my laundry” counts.
Write down your own achievements, paying particular attention to times that you overcame overwhelming conditions to get things done. If you’ve done it before, you can do it again, right?
Excuse Two: You’re Totally Burned Out
After a week of working without a break, you can barely string two thoughts together, let alone produce anything worth presenting to others. Time to hit reset.
Add a side hustle. Your guitar jam sessions or personal blog serve a purpose beyond scratching your creative itch–it can help us withstand work stress and prepare us to solve problems in innovative ways.
To avoid your side hustle from being another thing to stress about, the Huit Denim Company recommends that you remember the following things:
- They don’t have to provide you with a living. You can still eat if they fail.
- They don’t have a deadline. And as there is no time pressure, you don’t revert to your usual formula. You try new things. You experiment. You take risks.
- This is a labor of love. You provide the “labor.” And you provide the “love.” So when you spend time on it, it is because you really want to. That keeps you coming back and pushing it on.
Self reflect. Career coaches recommend curing burnout with moderation and delegation. But if you knew how to moderate your efforts, you wouldn’t have overworked yourself to the point of burnout in the first place. To get there, you need to learn how to prioritize. Through a brief period of self-reflection, you can achieve this in the time it takes to get coffee.
Thirty-seven years after his future father-in-law tricked him into attending a spiritual retreat, former Baxter International CEO Harry Kraemer still reflects for 15 minutes every night. He credits that routine for helping him manage 52,000 employees–and the associated stress–without “running around like a chicken with his head cut off.”
When you’re feeling blitzed by busy work, separate yourself from your to-do list and remind yourself why you’re bothering to do them. Feeling stuck? Use Kraemer’s nightly self-reflection routine as your script.
- What did I say I was going to do today in all dimensions of my life?
- What did I actually do today?
- What am I proud of?
- What am I not proud of?
- How did I lead people?
- How did I follow people?
- If I lived today over again, what would I have done differently?
- Based on what I learned today, what will I do tomorrow in all dimensions of my life?
This exercise enables you to distinguish your “must haves” from your “nice to haves.” From there, you can delegate nonessentials to coworkers and strike a healthier work-life balance.
Excuse Three: You Don’t Have a Deadline
Because they lack accountability to other people, creative entrepreneurs executing projects under self-imposed deadlines–like a novel or a new company–are especially prone to procrastination. Author Phyllis Korki, in a New York Times article, attributes this mostly to the uniquely visceral fear of failure accompanying any deeply personal creative pursuit.
To overcome insecurity-driven procrastination, Korki recommends that creatives impose a false sense of accountability on themselves. Set a due date–even if it’s a fake one.
Create a coworking group. A fake date might not work, though. You’ll need encouragement to push through. For that, reach out to other creatives in networking groups–on social media or in person–and organize a weekly or monthly meeting to discuss your progress on your various projects.
Besides giving yourself a checkpoint, these sessions provide a space to bounce ideas off others. And connecting with other creatives who are likely struggling with the same self-doubt as you can help you accept your fears as normal, natural parts of the creative process.
Excuse Four: You’re Afraid Of Discomfort
Procrastination often stems from our tendency to avoid things that make us feel physically or psychologically uncomfortable, according to a Psychology Today article by Dr. Pamela Garcy.
Intellectually, you probably realize that putting off those projects doesn’t permanently relieve your discomfort–it just delays it. But through many more pleasurable activities, you can practice coping with discomfort before it impedes your performance on a huge project.
Try improv. For anyone who shuts down in awkward work situations, or stresses about every deviation to plan, improv classes for professionals provides a low-pressure, supportive, and more palatable opportunity to step outside their comfort zones.
During classes, performers role play various situations but don’t know they what will do or say onstage until they’re on stage. They start each scene with a prompt from their audience and need to make up the story as they go along. The one rule? Say “yes, and” to every situation that arises during the scene.
Saying “yes” forces performers to accept and adapt to their partner’s actions and contribute their own words and actions to the scene. This cultivates the kind of adaptability and open-mindedness that helps professionals overcome discomfort in the workplace, says Tim Yorton, the CEO of Second City Communications who operates the famed theater’s improv class for business executives.
Excuse Five: Procrastination Is Your Standard Operating Procedure
Like any other bad habit, our procrastination follows a pattern. We enter a project with the best intentions. Then . . . we encounter a roadblock. As the deadline draws closer, we continue making excuses and avoiding our work until the final hour, when we throw together some random thoughts, send it into the ether, and hope it works.
Though it takes between 18 and 254 days to create a lasting behavioral pattern, you can remotivate yourself in time for today’s big meeting with one last tip: Watching a sports movie.
Everyone loves the underdog stories in sports movies. We can apply that same narrative to our work. When we think we’re working to overcome a challenge outside of ourselves, we’re more motivated to put in the effort, according to author Nir Eyal.
So after watching your favorite underdog conquer their opponent, create your own imaginary opponent, which Eyal calls a “scapegoat.” Think of your own insecurities and doubts and assign them to that invisible, imaginary enemy. Are they telling you that you’re incompetent? By accomplishing your goals, you’ll prove your competence to that enemy–and yourself.
Your big project can–and probably should–wait until tomorrow. But don’t procrastinate on putting these tips to the test. Jot down your tasks before you take that next coffee break–or perhaps, watch a quick sports win on YouTube. It just might give you the willpower to fight on.