As a psychological scientist who has been studying procrastination for over 20 years, I have earned a reputation as a productivity expert. Procrastination and productivity may seem like strange bedfellows, but our research has taught us a great deal about successful goal pursuit.
The link between understanding procrastination and how to reach our highest potential in life is not as indirect as might first seem. As Brené Brown wrote in The Gifts of Imperfection, “we have to talk about the things that get in the way of doing what is best for us.” My research has taught me that one of the key things that gets in the way of our motivation and energy is procrastination.
Interesting, isn’t it? We often think about it as the other way around, that we procrastinate because we lack motivation and energy. It’s a two-way street.
I don’t feel like. I don’t want to. I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.
These are common feelings and thoughts that reflect our unwillingness to engage in our tasks – an unwillingness to engage in our lives. The thing is, where did we ever get this belief that we have to feel like it to do it, that we have to be in the mood? And even if we were to believe that we need to be in the mood, why do we believe that tomorrow will be different, that we’ll feel more like it tomorrow?
These are some of the questions that have fascinated me and driven the research agenda in the Procrastination Research Group (procrastination.ca).
To help kick off the new blog for the HPI, I want to focus on what I think is one of the key things that gets in the way of reaching our potential – not being able to get started. Of course, not getting started is the harbinger of a downward spiral of procrastination. The good news is, we can get past this initial inertia.
I think most of us know the experience of feeling immobilized in the face of a task. We make an intention to do something, but when the time for action is upon us, we’d prefer to do just about anything else, or nothing at all for that matter. We’re on the doorstep of procrastination. It’s a pivotal moment, and one we need to address if we want to be more successful.
From some of our earliest research using an experience-sampling technique (where we page people throughout the day and get their perspective in the here-and-now), we learned something important about task avoidance. When we face a task that we find aversive – typically a task that we find boring or difficult and a task which we may be frustrated by or resent doing – we experience strong negative emotions.
How can we cope with these emotions? Avoid the task, right? If we put off the task, the negative emotions associated with the task are avoided too. At least for the moment.
This is a key point. Procrastination isn’t a time-management issue (time management is necessary, but not sufficient). Procrastination is an emotion-management issue. We use task avoidance (the negative form of delay we call procrastination) to cope with emotions. When we’re feeling overwhelmed by a task, uncertain, fearful, resentful, frustrated (add your own favorite task-related negative emotion here), we “give in to feel good.” We do something else instead, leaving this now dreaded task for future self.
I will have much more to say about future self in a future post (that seems appropriate, doesn’t it ☺). For now, I want to focus on what else our research taught us about this task avoidance and our emotions. Specifically, I want to focus on some evidenced-based coaching advice to get us started.
Just get started.
Yes, this was the main message from our experience-sampling study, just get started. Early in the week, when our participants were avoiding their tasks – when they were procrastinating – they perceived their tasks as very stressful and difficult, and they rated them very low on enjoyment as well. Later in the week, when they finally got down to the task . . . yes, most people finally do make the effort, but only after time pressure and more stress builds . . . later in the week, when they were working on the task, the task appraisals changed significantly. The task was perceived as not nearly as stressful or difficult. And, although the task wasn’t exactly “enjoyable,” even these ratings went up significantly. In fact, a typical comment from participants was, “I wish I had started sooner, because I could do a much better job if I had more time.” This contrasts strongly with things they said earlier in the week to justify their procrastination. They said things like, “There’s lots of time left.” “I’ll feel more like this tomorrow.” Or, simply, “I don’t want to; I don’t feel like it.”
Of course we don’t feel like it, or at least we often don’t feel like doing the task at hand. However, the message from our research was clear. Once we get started, even our perceptions of the task change.
So, how do we make the magic of “just getting started” happen? You may be thinking, if I could do that, I wouldn’t procrastinate at all. This is simple and true; and the solution is just a simple.
When you face the task at hand, your intended task, ask yourself the question, “What’s the next action?” What’s the next action you could take on this task to move forward?
Keep this action very concrete. A direct next step. Maybe even something as simple as “open my laptop and open the email that outlines my assignment/task/project.” When the action is concrete, research shows that we think of it as belonging to today with a sense of urgency. When the threshold for action is low, when it’s a simple next step, we’re also more likely to engage. How couldn’t we do something as simple as that? Finally, psychological science has also shown us that when we make progress on a goal, it fuels our well-being and our motivation.
Ah, that’s the point, isn’t it? Motivation doesn’t always precede our action. Just as often, our action fuels our motivation. We need to find a low threshold for our action so we can get started.
What’s the next action? This is a key strategy to “just get started.” It can apply first thing in the morning as we start the day. It can apply mid-day when we’re tackling a difficult job. It can apply late in the day when the willpower muscle seems exhausted. It’s certainly my go-to strategy to prime the pump and move me forward toward my goals.
About the Author
Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl (Tim) is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Initiatives in Education at Carleton University (Ottawa, Ontario). In addition to scholarly writing, Tim produces a podcast and blog that you can access at procrastination.ca.
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