If you are reading this you’re probably like me, a high achieving perfectionist, juggling multiple balls and wearing many hats. If that’s true, then there is also a decent chance that you struggle with procrastination. Over the years, I’ve tried all types of tips and tricks to overcome this unhelpful habit. I have found however, that following all the latest productivity “hacks” is not a sustainable approach. During my time in grad school at the University of Pennsylvania, I shifted my focus from trying out the latest trends to adopting evidence-based approaches to conquering procrastination.
Studying the scientific literature about productivity taught me two important things: 1) Conquering procrastination has as much to do with our beliefs as it does our strategies, and 2) Not all strategies are created equal. To save you the thousand-plus hours it took me to learn this stuff in grad school, I’ve made a list of the four most impactful ideas that have helped me overcome procrastination. The first two are related to your beliefs. The last two relate to your strategies. Each of them can help you get out of “overwhelm” and into productivity.
1. Recognize the difference between good and bad procrastination.
I’ve got some good news... putting things off isn’t always a bad thing. Adam Grant, Professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, found that procrastination yields higher creativity. It turns out that putting off a project until you’ve had time to think about it cultivates divergent thinking or new ways to solve problems and possible solutions. Does this mean that we should put off all our projects until the last minute? Definitely not. It just means that we can benefit from knowing the right times to put things off. I’ve had to be careful to strike a balance between creatively generating ideas and avoiding projects until right before they are due. What I’ve experienced, and what the research shows, is that if you are in a last minute dash to complete a project, you take the easy route over the more novel one. Knowing that I need ample time to generate ideas, I make sure to include a buffer for projects that require some deep thinking.
2. Reframe how you think about time.
“There’s never enough time to do it all!” Is that what you’re saying to yourself? Yikes! Then there certainly is not enough time--not if you talk to yourself like that. Our language creates our reality. Be aware of what Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, calls, “a pessimistic explanatory style.” You can know if you’re thinking pessimistically if your thoughts fall under the 3 P’s: Permanent, Pervasive or Personalized. ( Seligman, M. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. New York: Random House.)
Do you say:
“I am always last minute! I never have enough time.” (You are thinking about your problem as permanent. The situation is not going anywhere.)
“The amount of work I have to finish on my to-do list is ruining everything.” (You are treating your problem as if it’s pervasive. You see it as affecting all areas of your life.)
“I’m such a screw up.” (You’re making the problem personal. It’s all your fault.)
Not only does talking this way put you on a path to helplessness, it also causes you to waste mental energy that could be expended on work.
Instead use language such as…
“I have enough time.”
“I create time for my priorities.”
“I choose to spend my time doing (fill in the blank).
Managing our self-talk is a crucial piece to becoming more productive. It’s helpful to have mottos that help you take action now. I try to live by this piece of advice:, “action kills anxiety.” When in doubt, I choose to do the hardest, most daunting task first. This strategy can help you, too! When you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t think, DO!
3. Get accountable.
One of the most effective ways to get yourself to follow through on things is to find an “accountability partner.” Take a minute right now to look at your list of tasks. Is there something on that list that could be accomplished faster or with more ease and engagement if you had a colleague or friend pushing you? How can you help each other? Maybe you could email them before you sit down to write that looming chapter in your book. That is what Margaret Greenberg and Senia Maymin did when they co-authored Profit from the Positive. Each day, Margaret wrote an email to Senia that detailed exactly what she would write about before she wrote it. It kept her focused and accountable.
The way I “get accountable” is by grabbing coffee with my colleague and flushing out my ideas and for a new curriculum before I go to write. Drawing on support from those around me helps me stay in alignment with goals and helps me deliver my end product with confidence.
We only have so much willpower to deal with temptation. Having an accountability partner helps us to “outsource” our willpower to people who care. There are many ways to do this. For example, I used to love being on Facebook so much that it would distract me from important tasks, like writing my master’s thesis. So what did I do? I outsourced my willpower to my boyfriend. I had my him change my password for my Facebook account so I could only log in when he was around. It’s been a year since and I still don’t know my own Facebook password! It has saved hours of my time. Do you have something that distracts you? Enlist a friend to help keep you accountable and away from the distractors. Try it for a week. You might not want to go back.
4. Know thyself.
Just this morning my friend texted me about a brand new journal she discovered that was going to change how she takes notes and gets work done. Great! I looked at it, and I knew immediately that it wouldn’t work for me. It’s easy to get caught up in the latest trend or what the top self-help guru says will change your life. The truth is, only you can determine if an approach will work for you.
There are two things I would recommend to help you figure out the approaches that work best for you. First, do an inventory of how you spend your time. What time of the day are you most productive? Does it help your focus when you turn off your phone? What about taking a break from checking email for a bit? Think about a time you had a super productive day. What were the root causes of success? What specifically did you do? Pay close attention to your natural flow. It might help to know that men operate in a 24-hour cycle, where women operate within a 28-day cycle. Ladies, this is why what men suggest works for them, might not work for you. Women work most effectively when in sync with the phases of their menstrual flow. (Vitti, A. (2013). Womancode: Perfect Your Cycle Amplify Your Fertility Supercharge. Harper Collins Books.)
Second, sample a few (not a hundred!) productivity tools to see what works best for you. Maybe you’ll work best with like task organizing apps, like Asana or Trello. Or maybe you’ll prefer a good old fashioned to-do list. Whatever you choose, a visual way to organize your tasks and priorities and stick with it. Endlessly going from one productivity app to another usually just another form of procrastination. Check in with yourself. Are you sampling latest productivity hacks as a way to avoid doing the actual work?
Changing your beliefs about procrastination, adopting strategies that hold you accountable and fit into your lifestyle can help you become a far more productive person. That newfound productivity will sweep away the guilt and stress you currently feel from the overdue projects that hang over your head. But nothing will change unless you act. So, whatever project or task that you’ve been putting off most—whatever is eating away at you because it isn’t done—stop deliberating and do it now! You’ll thank yourself later.
About the Author
Leora Viega Rifkin, MAPP. In 2016, Leora earned a Master of Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP) from the University of Pennsylvania. She is co-founder and Chief of Possibility of Boston's Racial & Economic Activated Dialogue (BREAD). She also coordinates Accelerate Boston, Boston's most successful urban accelerator. In her free time you can find her writing, speaking and consulting about her life's work, "Defining a Positive Citizenship; Wellbeing for Emancipation."
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