Guess what? There is actually a research speciality on unlocking procrastination! Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D is an expert on the subject. I recently was inspired by one of his podcasts, "Giving in to Feel Good."
The study Dr. Pychyl summarized concluded that we put off doing things because we don't "feel" like doing it. It's called "negative reinforcement." Procrastination works because it temporarily reduces our anxiety about whatever we are putting off. We all know that, right? And I know I've heard the argument that a person works best under pressure. However, research shows this simply isn't true and that the cost of the stress caused by the pressure is far greater than the cost of the anxiety that initally led to the procrastination. In fact, it leads to what the researchers call, "self-regulatory failure" and damaging behaviors like drinking, gambling, excessive shopping, overeating and smoking. (You may also want to check out Dr. Pychyl's blog, Don't Delay.)
So how do we stop procrastinating? Obviously there is no easy or simple answer or Dr. Pychyl would be out of a job! But there are tools you can use, many of which we utilize in coaching:
- Start paying attention to what your physical sensations are when you are procrastinating so you can catch the behavior more quickly. For instance, you may have a tight jaw, or notice an uncomfortable sensation in your belly. Then you can stop and say, "what am I avoiding right now?"
- Get support in place. Find someone who will hold you accountable for what you say you will do. Set up small (obviously healthful) rewards for completing the task.
- Set a timer; agree with yourself to work on the task for at least 15 minutes.
- Take time after doing the thing you've been avoiding to notice and reflect on your feelings (which are different from your thoughts). This is the positive reinforcement step. Journaling can help you remember that it was worth stepping through the anxiety.