Procrastination is the enemy of productivity, racking up costs in terms of time, money and even happiness. The good news is, there are ways to manage it and get back on track.
The Greek poet Hesiod wrote “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn”. That was around two and half thousand years ago, long before the invention of the internet, social media and a hundred other distractions.
These days, approximately one in five adults and half of students are procrastinators. Defined as the voluntary delay of work or activity despite a negative outcome, procrastination costs the average British person 24 days a year.
Is procrastination really a problem?
It would be reassuring to hear ‘no’, but the answer’s a fairly emphatic ‘yes’. While some studies have found procrastination increases creativity or overall productiveness, most find it has a negative impact overall. Alongside wasting considerable amounts of our limited time, procrastination is linked with stress, shame and poor mental health. Students who procrastinate end up becoming more ill and less successful than their peers.
So why do we do it?
People are, as a rule, rubbish at relating to our future selves: whether it’s saving enough money for our retirement or holding back on those drinks to avoid a hangover, we treat these problems as if they belong to someone else. If a task seems difficult or dull, we avoid it and seek instant reward elsewhere, even when we know that any reward we get from delaying will pale in comparison to the punishment of an all-nighter.
The type of person you are can influence your likelihood of procrastination. Anxious and self-critical people are more likely to put off work, while one study even found procrastination is heritable. It’s also linked tightly with emotion: you’re more likely to procrastinate when you’re in a bad mood.
But there are plenty of ways to manage your daily dilly-dallying. So, without further delay (apart from a quick cup of tea and a few rounds of minesweeper) let’s look at how to find your focus.
Get on with it!
One of the hardest parts of a task can be the beginning. Just getting started can take the most mental effort, so a recommended ‘productivity hack’ is the 10-minute rule. Set a timer on your phone for ten minutes and knuckle down until the alarm goes off. Ten minutes of work seems much less daunting than three hours, so the mental barrier to starting gets lowered. Once you reach the end of the timer, you might find you’ve found your rhythm and, boom, the novel is written or the report prepared. Or you simply take a quick break and set another ten-minute timer.
Break it down
Writing a dissertation seems like a terrifying and nebulous concept. Writing one paragraph about a specific idea, less so. Breaking down a large task into much smaller, manageable goals has been shown to significantly reduce procrastination. The smaller and more specific a task, the less likely you are to bury yourself under a duvet rereading Harry Potter.
Take a break
The longer we spend doing something, the worse our focus gets. This might seem counterintuitive, because surely procrastination is taking a break! But forgoing brief rests or a decent lunch break will lead to lower productivity and higher stress-levels down the line. Just make sure that once you’ve stopped, you remember to start again.
Manage your emotions
Procrastination is tightly linked with negative emotions, such as anxiety and self-doubt. Studies show that becoming better at recognising, managing and modifying negative emotions can reduce procrastination. Exercises such as intentionally allowing the negative feelings to remain, and reminding yourself of your ability to cope, can help renew your commitment to a task. Alternatively, try a small calming exercise like meditation, then re-evaluate the situation before deciding whether to begin the task. Online cognitive behavioural therapy courses have been shown to be effective in this regard.
As furious as you may be with yourself for another hour wasted watching Love Island, beating yourself up about it won’t help. It has been shown that forgiving yourself for procrastination means it’s less likely to happen in the future. If your concentration slips, don’t flagellate yourself, just try again. Remember: if the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci and Margaret Atwood aren’t immune from procrastination, you can probably cut yourself some slack.
What about SMART drugs?
In an online poll by the journal Nature, one in five respondents reported they were using cognitive-enhancing drugs to improve their focus, concentration or memory. Use of so-called “smart drugs” like Ritalin and modafinil are on the rise in both businesses and academia, but whilst there is evidence that modafinil can improve memory, concentration and focus, we don’t currently have robust, long-term safety studies. It’s particularly unclear what these drugs can do to adolescent brains. Moreover, buying prescription drugs from the internet is inherently dangerous, as they could be contaminated or a different substance entirely.
Practice makes perfect
While there are thousands of self-help guides out there, the number of studies demonstrating effective procrastination banishers is relatively low. That said, anything that works for you is worth keeping up with. Brains are flexible, and the more you practice finding your flow, the easier it will be in future. And as always, eat well, exercise and get enough sleep and you won’t go far wrong.
By Georgia Mills.
Georgia Mills is a freelance science writer and podcast producer. She likes good wine, bad films and ugly dogs. Follow her on Twitter at @georgiamills2.