THE BLOG
01/23/2014 08:52 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

How to Stop Procrastinating

By Jan Bruce

You may not have broken your New Year's resolution yet -- but that's likely because you just haven't gotten around to doing it, period.

There's new research out on the science of procrastination that explains why we put off things we know we should do and actually might want to have done -- and yet which we cannot seem to do. A compelling piece in the Wall Street Journal cites the work of researchers Timothy Pychyl, of Carleton University and Joseph Ferrari at DePaul University, the latter of whom found that 20 percent of adults in this country consider themselves chronic procrastinators, and nearly 70 percent of college students (bad news, he says, since procrastination is considered a predictor of lower salaries and higher unemployment).

This all underscored what I've known for years: Negative emotions derail your ability to get things done, because faced with the thing you want to do (clean the garage, write the proposal, apply for the job), you are so daunted or intimidated or tired that you'll revert instead to tasks that feel good (check Facebook, watch TV, lie down), assuming you'll feel better later enough to tackle the hard thing. Except this doesn't happen. You feel worse after having put it off!

And this is also why all the time-management techniques in the world haven't done the most chronic procrastinators any good: Because the pain of doing the thing seems greater than doing, well, almost anything else. You know what does? Shifting your thinking and your mood so that you are less likely to put off the things you want to do -- which is what we teach people at meQuilibrium.

Fix Your Procrastination Habit

Here's how to start redirecting your energy from mood-fixing, goal-derailing activities -- and getting yourself back on track (which I also talked about on a recent Fox news segment).

  • Get to the root cause. First you have to understand and identify what you're trying to do and what is holding you back. What feelings crop up when you attempt to write the proposal or have a difficult conversation? What do you fear could happen if you actually do it? What's the worst-case scenario? For many, if not most, perfectionism is to blame -- because when held to such a high standard, anything you imagine you could do to accomplish the task will surely fall short. So, you don't do anything at all.
  • Reward instead of avoid. If your mood plummets at the prospect of taking action, your tendency, as Pychyl says in the Wall Street Journal article, is to heal your mood first. This is how you end up in the Facebook vortex. Instead, tell yourself that doing something, anything will yield a reward -- later. Think of it as procrastinating the fun stuff.
  • Watch for icebergs. You have a whole bunch of ideas about how the world works and should work that formed in your head when you were very young -- but you're barely aware of them since they're sunk below the surface of your consciousness. We call them iceberg beliefs, and they can be a problem because you're likely unaware of how they're affecting your thinking.

    One example of an iceberg belief at play with procrastination is "I should get everything perfect" (sound familiar?). This need to have things a certain way before you take any action will stunt your progress and keep you stuck. How to know you're dealing with an iceberg? It includes words like "I'll never" or "I should be."

  • Change your thinking. The way you perceive a situation will determine how you respond to it -- and ultimately, what you do. What happens to many of us is that we get stuck in thinking traps, or ways of thinking that leave us no way out or forward.

    If you think, "This project is too hard. I'll never get it done," you may be a magnifier and minimizer, making the more challenging aspects of a job way worse, and minimizing the benefits, both of which kill your motivation.

    Say this instead: "This is a challenge but doable, and the rewards of even getting started are well worth it."

    If you think, "I could never do this on my own," or "I'm just never good at this kind of thing," you're likely a personalizer or overgeneralizer, which points to low self-esteem. Because you don't believe you are capable of doing it, and you tell yourself that, well, you believe it and your fear becomes your reality.

    Say this instead: "What I'm attempting to do wouldn't be easy for anyone. Who better than me to take it on?"

    If you think, "Nothing ever works out for me," or "This is always what happens," then you have an explanatory style; you see situations as unchangeable and if you believed that, well, you can see why you wouldn't bother attempting to do anything!

    Say this instead: "I know what has happened in the past, but I have no way of knowing what will happen in the future. Nothing's predetermined. There's no telling what I am capable of!"

  • Reframe it. The pain of doing a tough thing now pales in comparison to the pain of regret later if you didn't even try. Ask yourself, what do you stand to lose by not doing it? How will your life, your career, your relationships suffer as a result of inaction? Remind yourself that it's not just about how hard this or that task is -- it's about putting real effort into a thing you care about. And I promise you, there's no better reward than that.

(Find out why I gave up resolutions this year -- and what I'm doing that's even more powerful.)

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