In our modern, corporate-minded, high productivity culture, it’s a four letter word. When we think about procrastination we immediately conjure powerful and uncomfortable images:
- A red-eyed student at 4am in the morning typing furiously at his laptop, his desk covered in a pile of coffee cups
- A man sleeping in a hammock while his yard is overrun with weeds, rusted car parts and forgotten tools
- A woman squeezing her way through a house filled from top to bottom with boxes, clothes, broken furniture and piles of garbage
- An overweight, unemployed guy living in his parents basement playing video games all day
To call someone a procrastinator implies they are lazy, weak-willed and ineffective. It is an insult of the first order. We know procrastinating is bad for us. We know it deep in our bones. Does that stop us from waiting until the last minute to accomplish our tasks?
Not in the slightest.
It’s An Epidemic
Every year taxpayers spend hundreds of millions of dollars in fees by filing their taxes late. Close to half of patients with glaucoma do not take their eye drops and risk blindness as a result. Employees regularly give up huge amounts of money in 401(k) matching contributions because they never get around to signing up. And the number of student procrastinators, according to one study, is close to 100% (a number that’s not surprising to anybody).
Writers (this author included) are among the worst at putting off their work until they literally can’t wait another minute – sometimes even longer. Douglas Adams, creator of the classic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, said it best:
“I love deadlines. I love the wooshing sound they make as they go by.”~ Douglas Adams
Why We Wait
In 700 BC, Greek poet Hesiod cautioned not to “put your work off until tomorrow or the day after.” Close to 3,000 years later you’d think humans would be better at finishing their tasks on time. Instead, the reverse appears to be true. Since 1978, more than four times as many people are now chronic procrastinators. But why?
It Feels Good Right Now
Given the choice between pleasure now and pain later or pain now and pleasure later, most people prefer the quick fix. It’s the same concept as Saving vs Using Credit: It’s easier, faster and hey, life’s short. If you go on that golfing trip now rather than finishing your dissertation, when a giant meteor hits wouldn’t you rather have spent those last few days having fun?
It Provides a Rush
The terror of a last-minute project is often necessary to finally complete the task. In fact, there’s even some evidence that chronic procrastinators enjoy waiting until the last minute. It turns out that the adrenalin rush provided by a looming deadline can give a similar experience to various extreme sports. In a few cases the fear-based energy boost has even helped improve performance over non-procrastinators!
We Need a Break
The older you get, the more balls you have to juggle. You have the work ball, the kids ball, the school ball, the family ball and of course spending time with your woman. Then there’s shopping, sports, parties, finances… the number of balls can seem almost infinite.
With all that juggling you don’t have either the time or the energy to fix that broken fence, repaint the bedroom or stop the leak in the kitchen sink. Sometimes you just need to drop all the balls, drink a glass of tea (long island or otherwise) and take a breather.
We Push Too Hard
If you have to juggle too much for too long it can start to mess with your head. Even CEOs and MVPs can fall apart if they don’t take enough time off. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, nervous breakdowns and various addictions are all by-products of pushing beyond what the body and brain can handle.
How To Manage Procrastination
The key, like most things, is to compromise. Laziness is a bad habit but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take time off. Learn what your body and brain needs and make sure you’re staying balanced. Below are several excellent techniques to help you increase your productivity, improve your peace of mind and maybe even turn procrastination to your advantage.
1. Use the “Live Frog” technique
Nicolas Chamfort, an 18th century French satirist, came up with an absolutely shocking and brilliant way to start your day:
“Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”– Nicolas Chamfort
Obviously Chamfort isn’t referring to an actual frog but rather the concept of doing the most difficult things first. Gary Keller echoes that point in his best-selling book ‘The One Thing.’ After you’ve finished that hard thing, Keller says, “you’ll have the opportunity to be totally focused on the most important tasks at hand.”
In other words, once you’ve eaten that frog the rest of the day will be cake in comparison!
2. Use the 2-Minute Rule
Are you feeling totally swamped? Is it impossible to carve out even ten minutes of free time? In that case, try using the ‘2-Minute Rule.’ Originally created by David Allen, author of ‘Getting Things Done,’ the idea is both simple and powerful: If a task can be completed in less than 2 minutes, do it now.
Two minutes may not seem like much but it’s surprising how much can be accomplished in a short, concentrated burst of action. Sweeping the kitchen. Cleaning the counters. Making the bed. Washing one window. Setting out clothes for tomorrow. Moving the dishes out of the sink into the dishwasher. If you move quickly, each of them can be done in two minutes. Chain a few two-minute activities together and you can make significant progress in your day.
3. Take Hourly Breaks…
We work hard but unfortunately because of our modern chair-based environment we often don’t move very much. One of the coolest features of the new wearables like FitBit, Apple Watch and Samsung Gear is that they can remind you when you’re sedentary and prompt you to stand up, stretch and get the blood flowing. If you don’t have a FitBit, you can still program your phone to give gentle alarms throughout the day.
In addition to reducing pain and stiffness, hourly breaks can raise your concentration, efficiency and problem-solving and reduce stress levels. In other words, a little bit of procrastination isn’t always a bad thing.
4. …Weekly Rest Days…
The phrase ‘24/7/365’ has a bold, poetic feel but in reality it doesn’t exist. Nothing keeps going all the time. Every business, every family, every individual – indeed, every thing on the earth has periods of activity and inactivity. Wax and wane. Light and dark. Work and rest. The same is true not just for daily cycles but weekly, monthly and seasonal cycles as well. Studies have shown that working 7 days without stopping is not only unproductive, it’s dangerous. For maximum energy, schedule at least one day every week to goof off, play, spend time with family and relax.
5. …and Regular Vacations
Let’s say you’re a successful, hard-working businessman but you haven’t taken a real vacation in years. You’ve spent thousands of hours putting together the people and the system that you have. You’d love to take a break but if you leave, even for a few days, the results could be disastrous. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, if you want yourself and your business to perform at maximum capacity, you must take regular vacations.
It may take some time to coordinate and there will be an initial investment but the long-term benefits of your vacation are scientifically irrefutable: You will be healthier, your employees will be happier, your productivity will increase and your bottom line will improve. So go ahead. Take that fishing trip guilt free. Science shows it is actually a legitimate business expense!
Bonus Tip: Procrastinate Later!
And hey, if your chronic need to wait until later is so deeply ingrained that you can’t stop no matter what, just go with it. Simply tell yourself that you’d love to procrastinate on that paper…but you’ll procrastinate tomorrow!
Photos courtesy of raincarnation40 and Lionello DelPiccolo
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