Just. Do. It. Overcoming procrastination in 2020

Recently, as I was reviewing my 19 for 2019, I couldn’t help but feel a measure of disappointment in my failure to progress some of the items on my ‘jug list’. Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, but if I’m honest, I was also guilty of procrastination.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination is a strange phenomenon. Humans have struggled with habitual hesitation ‘since Cocky was an egg’; that is to say, since the dawn of civilisation. As far back as 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod cautioned not to ‘… put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.’

Nowadays, experts recognise there’s a bit more to procrastination than simply putting things off. They define it as the voluntary delay of something we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result – the gap between intention and action; the absence of progress. Often accompanied by feelings of frustration, guilt, shame and anxiety.

Poor time-management may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions or self-regulate seems to be at its core. When demotivating and hindering factors outweigh our self-control and motivation, we end up procrastinating, either indefinitely, or until we reach a point in time when the balance between them shifts in our favour. [1]

Why procrastinate?

Often, when I ask Ty* to do something, he responds with ‘Mañana!’ 🤦‍♀️ After all, what’s the point in doing a thing today when you can put it off until tomorrow? 🙄 While I’m quick to chalk that up to laziness, I do realise that’s a simplistic (and convenient) view. In truth, procrastination is a far more complex problem.

Let’s face it. We’re all guilty of procrastinating from time to time and in varying degrees. In the moment, delaying unpleasant or difficult tasks can seem like the perfect solution for providing temporary relief and making life more enjoyable. But when we allow self-deceptive justifications to divert or distract us from our goals, it can trigger a downward spiral of negative emotions that further deters future effort.

According to Joseph Ferrari, Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), professor of psychology at DePaul University, Chicago and pioneer of modern research on the subject, as many as 20% of us are chronic procrastinators – people for whom the behaviour permeates all aspects of their life. For the rest of us, it’s situational – we procrastinate in specific situations.

To get a better handle on my own procrastinating tendencies, I took a Procrastination Test. And it seems I fall into the situational category. I’m not a hardcore, habitual offender, but I am more likely to:

  • postpone or sacrifice my own goals or inner expectations to meet outer expectations; for example, deadlines, work-related or family demands, household chores. (Hello to all the Obligers out there!)
  • delay or avoid tasks and situations that make me uncomfortable or uneasy, such as making timely decisions, stepping out of my comfort zone or falling short of my very high and exacting standards.

In recent years, I’ve become more attuned to the feelings of discomfort and unease, frustration and guilt. More aware of the actions or inactions that trigger them. Certainly, when I reflect on what I didn’t achieve in 2019 and why, the red flags of procrastination are evident in my self-talk:

‘I can’t do that now, because this is more important/urgent.’

‘I won’t do that now, because it’ll be easier/more convenient/less costly to do it later.’

‘I‘m not in the right frame of mind/don’t have the energy right now.’

‘It doesn’t matter when that gets done, so long as it’s eventually finished.’

Excuses! Excuses!

Having the self-awareness to recognise these as excuses doesn’t yet mean that I throw myself headlong into the thing I’m avoiding – it depends on the situation. But I am a work in progress. And in the spirit of progress, my theme for this year is:

Just. Do. It.

No. I haven’t suddenly become a world-beating professional athlete sponsored by Nike, but I am drawn to their campaign slogan and the possibilities for its application in my day-to-day life.

Joseph Ferrari argues that telling a procrastinator to ‘just do it’ is like saying ‘cheer up’ to a clinically depressed person. Useless! And I’m sure for many it would be.

But I like a challenge and I plan to use it as a motivator to do 20 things to make me happier in 2020. It’s a catchy, emphatic mantra. Whether you repeat it in your head or say it aloud, it has a firm yet encouraging tone. Gives you a subliminal kick in the butt, if you will. It’s easy to remember and, thanks to Nike, conveniently omnipresent. As always though, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

5 ways to ensure I Just. Do. It. in 2020

  1. Make myself accountable by publicising my intentions. That’s what this post and the previous one are all about.
  1. Focus on my future regret. When putting off a task, think about how much I’ll regret the delay in the future. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but will I eventually wish I had just started sooner? so I could be proud of myself instead of contrite?
  1. Adopt the tough love approach in my personal relationships. Prepare to prioritise my own goals ahead of what others need from me. Not all the time, but more of the time.
  1. Embrace the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. Try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Learn to accept the inevitability of flaws and mistakes. See them as opportunities for growth. Appreciate the beauty in imperfection.
  1. Practice self-compassion and forgiveness … for past procrastination, mistakes and imperfections. Figure out what went wrong, how I can fix it or prevent it from happening again, then get back on the horse, so to speak.

There are, of course, many other anti-procrastination techniques I could adopt, but I think these are likely to give me the biggest bang for my buck in 2020.

Timothy A. Pychyl Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, Ottawa, likens procrastination to a self-inflicted wound that gradually chips away at the most valuable resource in the world: time.

‘It’s an existentially relevant problem because it’s not getting on with life itself … You only get a certain number of years. What are you doing?’

Well, this year, I’m going to Just. Do. It. What are you doing?

* name has been changed

[1] Itamar Shatz 2018, How to Stop Procrastinating: A Guide for People Who Want to Overcome Procrastination and Start Getting Things Done, Solving Procrastination

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