There is a beast living inside all of us. I like to call him “procrastination.” But he gets a lot of bad press. I think he is just misunderstood. He isn’t a monster at all, he is willing to work with us, we just need to know how to coax him into cooperation.
How do you know if he is a part of your life? Just answer a few of these simple questions.
- Have you ever sat and watched a whole season of How I Met Your Mother on Netflix before finishing your big project, due the next day? (And you’re not even a fan of the show?)
- Do you put off filing your taxes until the last minute? (You always say in February that you will file on time, but April 14th comes and you’re surrounded by paperwork, sweating bullets and feeling nauseated.)
- Have you angered a loved one by putting off that big household chore, like mowing the lawn, until the city gets called by your exasperated neighbors? (That’s the last time you will offer Ralph and his wife your Aunt’s famous fruitcake.)
We have all been there at least once in our lives, while some of us live there on a permanent basis. My parents, teachers, and loved ones have struggled to control my behavior, to get me to do the right thing. I didn’t want to be difficult or cause problems. I wanted to be just as successful as the next person, but I would always wait until the last possible minute before I started working on a task that took a lot of time or that would have a large impact on my future. You would think that my rational side would take over; knowing that the project is crucial or time consuming should make me want to start early. But the fear that lived inside my deeper self did not allow me to make a rational decision. I knew I had to make a change. I had to motivate myself and stay on task. This is what I learned.
First, I am not a bad person, and neither are you. We procrastinate for many reasons. I have analyzed my behavior and I have concluded that I am a perfectionist who fears being inadequate, helpless, or doing a poor job. When I wait to pay my bills it is because I fear not having the money to do so. When I wait to file my taxes it is because I fear making a mistake and getting the IRS on my case. When I wait to write a term paper it is because I fear getting a poor grade. This fear controls many of our lives. I work with people all the time who struggle with these same fears, so let me tell you—you are not alone.
Get your act together! Straighten up and fly right!
One of the worst voices we can have in our head is the voice of the authority figure. It is the parent, teacher, coach, or boss who thought that shouting and acts of intimidation would get better results. Even popular culture believes that by being “hard” on someone you will get them to “shape up.” We think that we will tame the beast of procrastination through words that lash out against our slothful nature. At the core of this belief is the paradigm that we are lazy by birthright and that we need to be fixed. But the truth is, there is no such thing as lazy. That’s right, you are not lazy. You may not be motivated to complete a task, but it is not a part of your personality and there are ways of overcoming your challenges to job completion.
I want you to think back to when you were a child. There were so many things you wanted to do and to learn, but you didn’t need someone yelling at you to stop being “lazy” and to “just do it.” You actively sought out new challenges and kept growing and learning. No one had to force you to learn how to color or tie your shoe, they simply had to give you crayons or shoe laces and enough free time to master them. You may have received some instruction—but no one believed you wouldn’t learn because you were naturally “lazy.” Most work can be like that too.
So how can we handle procrastination and its harmful influence? We must become the “Procrastination Whisperer.” As a child, I trained horses and dogs for show. I quickly learned if I made training sessions feel like a battle between wills the animal would always win. I had to find a kinder, gentler approach because they were bigger and stronger than I. The same is true for your deeper self. If you must complete a project there are ways to get it done in a timely manner and no whips are needed.
- Stop Blaming and Shaming: Recognize that you are not lazy, but that you have other obligations or fears that are keeping you from staying on task. Shame will stop you from moving forward. So, silence your inner “jerk” because you don’t need him and he keeps you from getting things done by creating an even stronger fear response to these types of situations. Fear will keep you from doing your work and it also impairs cognition (the ability to think).
- Take Ten: Take ten minutes to pull back from the fear that is gripping you and release it. I like to begin with listing past successes when I completed big projects. It is important to remind yourself that you will get through this too. Then, you should take time to meditate or sit quietly listening to soft music while emptying your mind. You need to be calm before you can really start to use your brain for complicated thinking.
- Check Your Motivation: You need to ask yourself why completing the task is important to you. I know that no one really loves filing their taxes (ok, maybe some weirdo does, but they aren’t reading this article right now) but we do it so that we don’t go to jail. We finish our term paper so that we don’t fail the class. But there is another way to look at it that isn’t soaked in a fear response. Maybe you know that the type of person that files their taxes early is the type of person who is more likely to enjoy a spring vacation because they are not tied to a desk with a ton of paperwork. Or maybe the student who finishes their term paper early gets a better grade and a good night’s sleep. For just a little work in the present you can get a big reward in the future and you can be the kind of person you want to be.
- Sack Yourself Out: Now that you are no longer blaming yourself, you are calmer, and you have your priorities straight, you need to practice the gentle technique of “sacking out.” An untrained horse can spook easily, just like your deeper self, the part that procrastinates. A kind horse trainer will slowly and methodically build up a horse’s ability to handle scary situations by “sacking” them out. In the old days they would take a flour sack and show it to the horse, letting it sniff the object. Once the horse is calm and can see the sack and smell it without fear, then the trainer will lightly rub the horse with it. During this whole process the trainer is giving positive feedback. After the horse is relaxed with that challenge the trainer begins to place the sack on the horse’s back. The objective is to keep the horse calm and to allow it to adjust to each new frightening experience with an inner confidence. Each step must be done with measured, deliberate care. Treat yourself the same way.
- When you begin with a large task it is important to break it down into smaller pieces. The smaller the tasks are in the beginning, the more likely you are to complete them. Top research in the field shows that breaking tasks down, even into five minute chunks of time, can greatly increase your likelihood of following through. Setting an egg timer and coaxing yourself to write a simple outline in three minutes will help you move on to the next step. As a part of this process, just like with the horse, do not expect perfection. Just getting words on the page or pulling the lawnmower out is a great start!
- After each task is completed give yourself a small reward. Positive reinforcement works best for both animals and humans. Just make sure the reward is small and does not interfere with your long-term goal. You can’t reward yourself for a three minute writing session with a full thirty minute TV show, but a quick five minute walk to the corner store to pick up a magazine is just fine. Then you can take another break after you finish the outline.
- Register Your Success: Keep a register or a journal to record your successes. These are a list of times you completed a task using the gentle approach. This record is proof that you have accomplished big tasks in the past and it is a reminder that you are becoming the kind of person you want to be. Evidence shows that each completed project will make you more likely to complete the next. It is crucial that you recognize that success is getting your work done in a timely manner, not doing something perfectly, or doing it to someone else’s standard. The amazing thing about controlling your tendency to procrastinate is that you will find you are less stressed out and that you can achieve better results.
Your deeper self is not a monster you need to whip into shape; it is a strong willed creature that you can coax into cooperation. Remember that any new habit you want to implement will take time to establish. It is hard to be consistent. You will make mistakes and sometimes even take a step backward. Don’t let your inner “jerk” show up and call you lazy or tell you that you are a loser. Gently remind yourself that you are a work in progress. You need to take a step back, calm yourself, find the positive rewards associated with finishing your work, break your task down into smaller pieces, and reward yourself for each step you complete. You need to believe that you are capable of taking this challenge on, and be confident that it will soon be on your register of success! With these simple steps you can harness your full potential.