Can’t Stop Procrastinating? Here’s How to Break the Cycle

Procrastination can feel like a bad habit. Dr. Piers Steel, one of the foremost researchers on the science of motivation and procrastination, shares what it takes to break your procrastination habit and the role our emotions play in getting the job done.

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Time runs out on a task you’ve been putting on the back burner and you begin to feel the pressure that could easily have been avoided. Situations like these typically bring on a slew of difficult emotions. Blame. Anger. Frustration. Anxiety.

As you scramble to complete the task, you might find yourself asking, “Why do I do this?”

Well, you’re not alone.

The term procrastinate was adapted in the 16th century from the Latin word, procrastinatus which means, to put off until tomorrow. So as a word that pre-dates the invention of smartphones and Netflix, it seems a more accurate question would be, “Why have we always procrastinated?

“At the core of it, we are an impulsive species, and we value the now so much more than the latter,” explains Dr. Piers Steel, professor in the Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources department at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. “Typically, what you’re putting off is the opposite. It’s hard now and it’s giving its rewards later and that’s what we don’t like. We like to be given the rewards as soon as possible.”

According to Dr. Steel, when we procrastinate we often find ourselves sacrificing our spare time in order to complete a task on time. Time is one of the most precious commodities that we have. And when we procrastinate, it’s difficult to be fully present in a moment. We typically have the task nudging us at the back of our minds.

The Procrastination Equation

Once a debilitating procrastinator himself, Dr. Steel explains procrastinating comes down to a matter of motivation. Whether you’re asking yourself, “Should I tackle that work assignment or watch another episode of my favorite TV show?”—you tend to choose the action you’re most motivated for.

In his book, The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Steel explains the motivation to complete a task relies on four elements:

1. Expectancy: If you expect to succeed at a task, you’re more motivated to complete a task before it’s due date. If you approach a task with the belief that you’re going to fail, you’re more likely to put it off for as long as you can. Oftentimes, we’re held back by the stories we tell ourselves and when they seem to appear as reality, it can put up a wall that prevents us from forging ahead. In the wise words of Babe Ruth, “Don’t let the fear of striking out, keep you from playing the game.”

2. Value: If you don’t value the task, you’re more likely to put it off. Perhaps if you’re constantly putting off a work-related task, you might be skeptical about your contribution to your company. It might be helpful to reflect on the tasks that are taking up your time and energy and ensure that they are aligned with your core values. Tapping into what you value can fuel your motivation and push you to keep ticking items off your to-do list.  

3. Impulsiveness: It’s common to feel anxious about the unknown. However, when we act on these emotions it can distract us from the things we need to accomplish. One way of describing impulsivity is making permanent decisions on temporary emotions. When we focus on the present moment and look at what we need to accomplish, we are more likely to make decisions that our future selves will thank us for.

4. Delay: In plain terms, the longer you have to wait to be rewarded for a task, the less motivated you are to complete said task. While this one might seem to be out of your hands, especially in the context of work, mindfulness can help you remember that there’s no rush and show you how you can savor the experience of waiting.

4 Ways to Hack your Procrastination Cycle

While the journey to curbing a bad habit is one that happens over a period of time, here are a few daily tips from Dr. Steel on how you can combat procrastination one day at a time.

1. Get rest when you need it: Your body is the most important tool for getting things done and if you don’t feel your best, you’re more likely to put things off until you feel well enough to tackle it. This means we need to prioritize our well-being. Ensuring that you’re managing your energy throughout the day, eating healthy, going on nature walks, and perhaps even taking a nap when you have a chance to slow down.

2. Take control of your environment: Dr. Steel highlights our environment as one of the key factors to productivity. Working in a cluttered space, or even on a cluttered computer allows for our attention to become disrupted by the smallest things. And at this time when a lot of us are working from home, it’s crucial to maintain a line between our work life and home life. As Dr. Steel recommends, it can be something as simple as creating different user profiles (one for personal use and one for work use) or even dedicating one end of your table for work. Maintaining those boundaries can help stabilize your focus and allow you to complete your tasks on time.

3. Combine your vices and virtues: If you find it difficult to get started on a task, it might help to combine it with something you enjoy doing. Whether it’s listening to your favorite playlist while you’re doing the laundry or enjoying a nice cup of tea while going through budgets, placing tasks you enjoy on your to-do list can make a daunting task a little more pleasurable. When this happens, you’re less likely to procrastinate.  

4. Tackle your difficult tasks first, early in the morning: Due to our circadian rhythm, our bodies begin to wind down in the afternoon and according to Dr. Steel, by 3 p.m. it becomes difficult to effectively complete a task. Tackling your most difficult tasks early in the morning when you’re at your most alert and energized allows you to get them out of the way so by the time that afternoon slump rolls around, you don’t push it over to the next day…and the next day.

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