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7 strategies to manage your procrastination

Alice Boyes

Author Bio

May 07, 2024

A precis of an article in Harvard Business Review (May-June 2022) by Alice Boyes

Why do we procrastinate? Because of at least three factors: the absence of good habits and systems (poor discipline), intolerance for particular emotions (like anxiety or boredom), and our flawed thinking patterns. 

Here are some strategies to tackle procrastination.

Schedule your deep work consistently

Deep work is defined as focusing on your most important long-term project. It might entail, say, crafting a business strategy, doing complex data analysis, or writing a book. Deep work is generally challenging, but doing it consistently each day, in a regular pattern, will make it less so.

Habits make sequences of behaviour more automatic. You shouldn’t attempt to do deep work at 11:00 in the morning one day and 3:00 in the afternoon the next. Even if the exact time you settle into it isn’t the same, your deep work should fit into your day in the same pattern.

Create a system for starting new tasks

What about responsibilities you’re handling for the first time that feel outside your wheelhouse? You’ll be less likely to put novel tasks off if you have a master system for approaching them. The steps you take when you encounter something new will become their own type of habit, which will reduce decision fatigue about how to start.

Disentangle your feelings

Accurately identifying your emotions – something psychological researchers term emotional granularity – will help you manage them. When it comes to procrastination, it’s also useful to analyse how much each emotion is affecting your attitude toward a task. For example, you might find that writing a presentation for your boss provokes anxiety at a level of 8 on a scale of one to 10, resentment at a level of 6, and boredom at a level of 4. Once you’ve determined that, you can then address the emotions individually. The rating system will help you evaluate how effective you are at minimizing them. 

When a task bores you, schedule a reward for completing it or do it in a more fun way—for example, with teammates you like.

Use self-compassion to overcome strong negative memories

Sometimes the emotions we have about a task are driven by a prior experience. A lot of compelling research shows that you can heal these emotional wounds with compassionate self-talk. Find and then reuse self-talk that works for you.

Reverse brainstorm

When applied to procrastination, it involves considering what you would do to make your task impossibly hard or something you’d really want to avoid doing. Once you have those answers, you then come up with their opposites, which will make you feel less blocked.

Another quick reframing technique is to think about all the ways that a task you’re putting off is similar to one you can do easily and well. The key here is to define the parallels very specifically.

Learn to accept friction-filled work

Familiar, moderately productive tasks tend to be accomplished smoothly and thus feel more satisfying than novel ones that are more difficult but offer greater potential value. That’s why we often choose to check minor items off our to-do lists rather than tackle projects that will have more impact. 

Don’t mistake frictionless work for productivity. Diverse teams, for example, often generate better ideas but can experience more tension. Novel work is often full of friction, which inherently slows progress and can cause stress. That leads to a common cognitive error called emotional reasoning, which happens when you over-extrapolate from how you feel. When you feel tense and challenged, for instance, you might conclude that you’re moving in the wrong direction or not making enough progress. It’s important to understand this phenomenon and recognize when it’s happening to you. Metacognition, or awareness of your thinking processes, can help you counteract mental errors. 

If you show up to do important work and approach it as strategically as you can, you will make progress, even if it doesn’t feel that way. The more tolerant you are of friction-filled work, the less you’ll procrastinate. Commit to doing the task that has the most potential for some period each day, even when it results in tumultuous feelings and thoughts.

Limit yourself to short work periods

When a task is important or we’ve been putting it off, we often believe we need marathon work sessions to get it done. In most cases this thinking stems from self-criticism sparked by guilt over lost productivity. But the prospect of slogging away on a challenging task all day tends to trigger more procrastination. You can adapt this principle. For example, you might try a strategy like adding an extra 10 minutes each workday to the time you spend on the task until you get to two hours total. It’s like training yourself for an endurance race.

In summary

Boyes points out that it’s important to acknowledge the limits of the advice given. If a persistent mental-health problem like depression or anxiety is contributing to your procrastination, then you should pursue an evidence-based treatment, ideally with the help of a professional, not struggle along on your own. As your mood and anxiety improve, you’ll be less prone to feeling overwhelmed and frozen.

Your behaviour (habits and systems), emotions, and thoughts are all connected. So no matter what the primary reason is for your tendency to put off certain tasks, any of the strategies here should help you more consistently attend to work that you have trouble mustering the energy or focus to complete. Think of it as a menu for combating procrastination, experiment with several options, and find the ones that work best for you.

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