Is there something else you ought to be doing right now? Chances are, yes. According to a new study, 95% of us procrastinate, and 20% of us have made it a habit.
And no wonder. The Internet, e-mail, video games, cellphones and TVs in every room make it easy to put off tasks we know we should be doing now, says Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary who spent 10 years analyzing procrastination research to determine why we postpone and what we can do about it. “Temptations that are close at hand are difficult to resist.”
The trouble is all this stalling can cost you and your wallet. “People who procrastinate tend to be less healthy, less wealthy and less happy,” says Steel. Shirking exercise or putting off scheduling a doctor’s appointment, for example, can negatively impact your health. File your taxes late and you’ll pay stiff penalties. Dawdle on saving for retirement and you are likely to find yourself short of cash in your golden years. The bottom line: procrastinators perform poorly overall and are miserable in the longterm. That’s not the end most entrepreneurs have in mind when they take the risk of starting a business.
So, why do we delay? Procrastinators have little self-control, says Steel, are impulsive and have difficulty making choices. Fear of failure (or success) and lack of confidence are also causes of procrastination, says Norma Reid, president of From Dreams to Reality Success Coaching in Qualicum Beach, B.C. “Sometimes we set goals that aren’t really ours — we think we should be doing it.”
But take heart. While you can’t eliminate procrastination entirely, says Steel, “You can make it a smaller issue so it’s not such a life-defining characteristic.” Here are eight strategies to get you started:
Break the email habit. You have to attend to e-mail, but don’t let it run your life. “People check email every 10 minutes because it gives them a rush, because it’s instantly available,” says Steel. Instead, set a certain amount of time you’re going to attend to email — say, 10 minutes, three times a day. To help you stick to it, Steel suggests turning off the “ding” that alerts you to new messages: “You’ll instantly improve productivity by 5%.”
Make it mini. If a task seems particularly daunting or distasteful, break it into smaller steps. “You’ll know when they’re small enough because you’ll feel some energy,” says Steel.
Schedule it.Be realistic about what you can accomplish and make time for it. “It’s great to say you’re going to exercise three times a week,” says Reid. “But if you haven’t put it in your day planner, how will you fit it in?” Scheduling the time is the first step toward doing it.
Worst things first. “Procrastinators often say they’re too tired to do something, but they’re probably scheduling it for the end of a long day when they are too tired,” says Steel. Try asking yourself each morning, “What is the one thing I don’t want to do today?” suggests Reid. Then, make that the first thing you do.
Embrace mono-tasking. “Study after study confirms that uninterrupted blocks of time are the most productive,” says Steel. Although multi-tasking makes you feel busy, you’re probably not getting as much done as you would concentrating on one thing at a time.
Figure out your motivational triggers. “For some people, it’s as simple as writing a list,” says Reid. “Others write affirmations or wear an elastic around their wrist and twang themselves with it to stop negative thoughts.” In an effort to get motivated to complete a task, one of Reid’s clients wrote a cheque for $1,000 to an organization he didn’t agree with. He gave it to someone to hang on to, with instructions to put the cheque in the mail if the task wasn’t done on time.
Reward yourself. As you reach milestones, acknowledge what you’ve accomplished and give yourself small rewards. “Each morning, I write down one step I’m going to take that day to reach my goals for health, wealth and happiness,” says Reid. “In the evening, I celebrate what I’ve done by writing down my successes.”
Bring in reinforcements. “If we’re accountable only to ourselves, it’s easy to not to do something,” says Reid. Gather a small group of like-minded friends or colleagues together and set a date on which you’re all going to finish something that’s been languishing on your to-do lists. Check in with each other to report your progress, says Reid: “It’s quite amazing how much you get accomplished.”