The habit of procrastination is really the habit of putting things that we have to do to the last possible moments or minutes, until we get really panicky that kickstarts the process of getting it done in the first place. It is primarily a major hiccup and problem in both your personal life and business or career. Side effects include missing opportunities, craze-panicky last minute efforts and hours, undue stress, massive overwhelm, resentment and finally, guilt. This article will look at procrastination, its root causes and offer some practical tools to overcome this problem.
Procrastination can be triggered by multiple factors, you may not procrastinate for the same reason always. Sometimes it’s because you have too much on your plate, and procrastination gives you a temporary shelter or escape. Sometimes it’s just because you feel tired and lazy, and just can’t start. Other times, you may rebel and just refuse to get things done. The list goes on.
Let’s address the multiple causes of procrastination and consider some practical ways to handle them.
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PROBLEM #1 – STRESS
When you feel stressed out, worried or anxious, it get pretty hard to work efficiently and effectively. In some situation, procrastination helps as a coping mechanism to help moderate and even keep your stress levels within normal/tolerable limit. A practical and wise solution is to consciously reduce the amount of stress as much as possible, so that you can spend more time working because you want to, and not because you have to…and one of the best and simplest ways to reduce stress in your life is to schedule some/more time to play. =)
Decide beforehand and schedule what blocks of time you would allocate each week to personal time (reading, blogging, praying etc), working, family, exercise, social activities and the like. By doing this, you reduce your urge to procrastinate because your work will not eat into your “you time”, so you don’t have to procrastinate on your work so that you can relax to enjoy life. There is a warning to this strategy, as you would want to take note against overusing and over-relying on this approach, as your work should be – on its own – be enjoyable enough that you’re motivated to do it. If you aren’t inspired by your daily work, then what you may actually require to do is to admit that you’ve made a mistake in choosing the wrong career/business path, then seek out a new direction that actually does inspire you.
Benjamin Franklin advised that the best and most optimal way for high productivity is to split one’s days into one-third play, one-third rest and one third work. It’s similar to what I’ve recommended, which is to guarantee an equal distribution of leisure, work and rest time. Prioritize work and play time as equally important, and one isn’t more important than the other.
I find that I’m most efficient and productive when I’ve rested sufficiently and played enough. I think that helps to ease off stress and allows me to enjoy life more, and that makes me work better when I’m happier. =)
At the same time I also create a more personal and relaxed work environment that reduces stress levels. My clinic and office at home plays my favourite lounge music (jazz, usually =p), large windows and an open concept whenever possible. This makes it rather relaxing (even my patients feels more relaxed too), and because I enjoy being there, I can work full days without feeling much stress or anxiety, even though I’ve lots to do (and trust me, I usually have lots to do).
PROBLEM #2 – THAT SENSE OF OVERWHELM
Sometimes you may a lot on your to-do list than you can complete. This often leads quickly to a sense of overwhelm and dread, because you feel that your list has become unreasonable to complete, and it’d ironically lead you to procrastinate more though you shouldn’t, given the fact that you have a long list. Take it as your brain rebelling and refuses to cooperate with a to-do-list or schedule that you know is unreasonable. Here the message is that you need to stop whatever you’re doing, reassess and re-establish true priorities, simplify and work on the important ones.
What are the options to reduce that overwhelming schedule? Eliminate, delegate and negotiate. First, go through your to-do-list and cut out whatever is not important. This may seem quite straightforward and somewhat “no-brainer”, but it’s actually interesting how many people can actually implement this poorly. People cut out things like exercise and eating well but leave lots of time for TV and junk food, though exercise increases stamina and prevents diseases and TV destroys brain cells and drains them. When you eliminate stuff out, be honest about remove the most worthless/useless/low value ones first, and keep those that provide real value. Then, you delegate tasks to others as much as possible. Ask for help. Lastly, speak and negotiate with others to free up time for things that are most important and valuable. If you happen to have a job or a business that overloads and overwhelm you with more work that you think is reasonable, it’s really up to you to decide if it’s worthwhile for you to continue in that situation. In my opinion, I personally won’t stay and tolerate a job that pushes me to overwork and overwhelm myself, as it’s inefficient and counterproductive both for the employee and the employer.
Take note: peak performers in any industry or field tends to take more vacation time and work shorter hours than the chronic workaholics – they get more done in less time by keeping themselves relaxed, refreshed and creative. If you treat your working hours as a limited resource more than an uncontrollable monster that can eat up all the other areas of your life, you’ll be more balanced, focused and effective in what you set out to do.
The optimal work week for most people is about 40, 45 hours max. Working longer hours than this has much negative and adverse effect on productivity, motivation and health that counters whatever we wish get done…this is especially so for creative work and information-based work.
You don’t have to take my word for it, why don’t you test this concept and idea out? A couple of years back one of my lecturers commented about me when I tried to be in control of everything, and he said this:
“Nigel, you were everywhere but nowhere. Nothing got done.”
Talk about harsh truths. I then wanted to prove to him that he was wrong, so I went into details, looking back at what I did. I did a post-event analysis to see how efficient I was. I measured the efficiency as doing what matters divided number of hours I used. Guess what – I found out that I really only spent about 10 hours per week on important matters out of the sum total of 50-60 hours I work per week…and that is an efficiency ratio of about 16% to 20%…which is really appalling.
Over the next couple of weeks, I increased my productivity whilst spending less time in the clinic and office – I limited my working hours and actually got more done (this is measured in total number of patients seen – sales – and divided by total number of hours). In fact, Louise and myself work about 60% lesser than before but we earn about 250% more than before. And I do get time to write my personal development articles as well as build Urban-Rehab.org. By limiting our work hours, we actually got more done. Working long hours is a big mistake, and I think it’s good to challenge you to discover this for yourself.
PROBLEM #3 – WHEN LAZINESS RULES
We often procrastinate simply because we feel that we’re too tired physically, mentally and emotionally to do anything at all. Once you fall into this pattern/behaviour, it becomes very easy to get stuck at that kinds of situations as you can develop behavioural habit as well as the inertia has been lost. When we feel tired or lazy, even the simplest of tasks seems like asking for too much, as our energy is already very low compared to the energy required to start and finish the task. If we blame the task as being too tedious or difficult to do, then we’ll procrastinate to save/conserve energy. Thing is, the more often and longer we do this, the more de-conditioned we will get, our willpower and resolve will melt, and our procrastination habit will become strengthened. Many develop depression this way.
Feeling tired, de-motivated and weak should not be your baseline norm, that’s why it’s important to disrupt-interrupt this pattern as soon as you can.
The solution is very straightforward – just get up, get off your bum and move around physically. Movement and exercise helps you to raise your brain activity (from the RAS segment of your brain, which in geek terms means the reticular activating system), which really activates the whole part of your brain-body and you will feel immediately more alert, awake and powered. As your energy and alertness increases, tasks will seem easier and you will be less resistant to take action. A fit and energetic person can handle more activities and tasks than an unfit person, even though the tasks are the same.
Through personal trial and error, in my case, I found that three things are crucial to keep my energy at a peak/consistent high – adequate sleep, proper diet, regular exercise and mental/spiritual stimulation. Once I started sleeping well, adopted the paleo diet which dropped much of my carbs and grain-based food, exercises about 3-5 times per week, read a new book, have deep conversations and prayed – I find that I am more alert, more responsive and able to deliver more in terms of value creation and delivery. I am more clear on how to manage new or old tasks.
It’s rare for me to procrastinate because of laziness because I have more mental alertness and clarity as well as physical energy to help whatever comes my way, scheduled or not. Things just seems easier, as compared to when my diet/sleep/exercise/mental/spiritual was poor. The tasks are the same, but I’ve grown stronger. And wiser. Another thing to add to the benefit of good diet, sleep, exercise and mental/spiritual stimulation is that I can function better but with less sleep. In the past, I used to sleep at least 10-12 hours per night to feel rested, but nowadays, about 6-8 hours is more than enough.
Also, the most energy-boosting foods are raw fruits and vegetables. Ensure that your diet has lots of these and you’d likely see a gain in your energy levels. Well, the first couple of weeks as your body undergoes detox you’d likely to feel bad, tired and worse, but once you’ve gone through the detox, you’ll find that your alertness, clarity and energy levels will be quite interestingly good =)
You will have to determine and decide on your own as to how far would you like to take the five things that I do to increase my energy (which is sleeping adequately, proper nutrition, exercising regularly, mental stimulation and spiritual pursuits). I’ll recommend that you try different and several dietary/nutrition changes for about 30 days and see where that brings you. In each of the challenge I tried, I expect to revert back to the original at the end of 30 days, but if I like the results I will decide to stay. Experiment on your own and discover what works for you.
PROBLEM #4 – DE-MOTIVATED
It’s normal to feel lazy once in a while (or is it just me? =P), but if you think you have chronic low levels of motivation and it seems like you cant get anything going at all, then it’s time for you to consider if you’re holding or have immature thought patterns that you hadn’t outgrown. You may need to consider embracing life as a mature adult, and to discover your true potential in life.
Until you discover your purpose in life, you will never be able to achieve your full and best potential and your motivation and energy levels will always be poor and weak.
I have been practicing hand therapy and rehabilitation since 2005, and to me, starting the private practice was a fun thing to do with my wife to up our income and work together, but it was only in 2009 when I truly discovered that one of the things that I really enjoyed was to help people regain their hand function again, as our hands are strongly pegged to our sense of ability, participation in life, and even personality – it was then when we started to truly grow and thrive, though I have a more inspiring career path in NigelChua.com.
I launched NigelChua.com as a platform to share personal development insights to help people and readers to live a life that is conscious, courageous, and progressive, and this passion in helping people grow was so rejuvenating, energizing, that no matter what happened in my life, I would always come back to write more to share more – I didn’t need to use any motivation-boosting techniques to get into the momentum of writing. I am naturally inspired to write. Everywhere I go, I would go “hey, that’s a good idea to share on NigelChua.com – it’d teach on…” and so on and so forth.
I still feel inspired and motivated, though it started since 2008. I think what’s great too is that I don’t procrastinate so much on non-work tasks too – my passion spilled-over into the other areas of my life, and all of a sudden, I’ve a “permanent upgrade” to my CPU. Hehs. =)
Try to centre your life and work around one or two inspiring purposes that tugs on your heartstrings, and you will find that your habit or tendency to procrastinate will naturally fade away. Finding your purpose is a very powerful and great way to uproot procrastination-related issues because – I assure you – you won’t procrastinate on doing what you love to do! Long term procrastination is really a signboard that shines: “Hey you’re going down the wrong path – go back, take a different path!”
Only after you’ve determined the inspiring purposes that moves you can you centre your life around it, then only you can use some motivational techniques to keep or bolster your motivational level.
PROBLEM #5 – LACKING DISCIPLINE
Even though you may have high levels of motivation or energy, you may still come across stuff that you don’t want to do, either you don’t enjoy doing them or you don’t want to do them. In such situations, it’s self-discipline that kicks in like a motivational-failure-backup-system. When you do feel motivated, you don’t really need much discipline…but when you don’t feel motivated, discipline will surely come in really handy when you need to get something done but don’t want to do it. But if your self-discipline is poor or weak…procrastination will be quite a tough opponent.
But it’s not that easy to say “I need more discipline”, as we all know that we can do more and better with more discipline. What we actually want to know more is really how to become more disciplined. I’ll share more in depth in a later article – for now, make do with:
Self-discipline is really your ability to get yourself to take action that helps you to move forward regardless of what you feel about it.
PROBLEM #6 – POOR TIME MANAGEMENT
Ever had the experience of falling behind in class/work/life because you overslept, because you were too disorganized or just because you misplaced/missed certain stuff that you needed to do?
These are bad habits that leads to procrastination, intentional or not.
Taking a medical approach, the quickest solution to this is to accurately diagnose the bad habit that’s causing you to flounder and replace it with a good habit. An example is if you have a problem with tendency to sleep in or oversleep, why not take the challenge of becoming an early riser. To de-condition the old habit and to install the new one, I’ll recommend that you do the 30-days trial method. Many readers including myself find this method quite effective because its immersive approach makes permanent changes easier to transition.
If you find that you’ve been putting off tasks, I’ll recommend that you use the timeboxing approach and/or batching to get started. How does that work? Here’s how timeboxing work: choose a relatively small/simple task that can be done in 30 minutes. Then choose a reward for post-completion of that task. This reward is guaranteed just by putting in the time, and you can choose whatever kinds of rewards you like – a snack, watching a show, whatever you enjoy. How it works is that you will reason that the amount of time you’ll be working on the task is so short that you will look forward to the post-completion reward instead of focusing on the difficulty of the task, no matter how unpleasant the task may be.
Batching on the other hand, is to group together ‘similar-type’ activities for the purpose of efficiency. An example is instead of spending 10 minutes every weekday opening the letterbox, clearing it out and opening/processing letters for 5 days for a total of 50 minutes per week, I do it once a week, every Friday at the end of the day at about 8 pm. Louise and myself will go past the letter box on the way home, clear the letter box within 5 minutes, bring all the letters upstairs, and take 10 minutes to sort/clear/process everything, totalling it to 15 minute tops. That saves us 35 minutes per week, time 52 weeks per year, that’s a total time saving of 1820 minutes, or 30.3 hours, which is close to 4 work days of work.
That’s time saving for me.
But that’s “clustering” or “batching”, which increases efficiency because we do similar, grouped tasks – think cutting different types of vegetables at a go as opposed to cutting one, washing another and so on.
Timeboxing is to actually set aside a minimal, set time to complete or perform a task. Set aside a short time, maybe 30 minutes – interestingly, usually you’d find that you’d usually continue working more than 30 minutes once you start building a momentum of work. Before you know it, you may have put in an hour or maybe even a couple of solid work hours. The certainty of reward is still there, but because you know the reward is yours whenever you want to, that doesn’t distract you, and you then focus on completing the task.
Here’s the bottom line: once you start to take action, you start to focus on the task at hand and not focus on the worry of the difficulty and work towards finishing the current task which has your full attention.
When you decide to stop working, stop and enjoy your reward. The schedule another 30 minutes period to continue on the same task if it’s unfinished, or proceed with another task. By doing so, you will start to associate with pleasure and tasks, knowing that you will be rewarded for your efforts. Working towards super long-term goals is not always as motivating as immediate short-termed rewards, I know it motivates most of us. Doing so keeps the momentum up and motivation high, and sooner than later, we will pick up speed and do more.
PROBLEM #7 – LACK OF SKILL
If you find that you’re unskilled or lack sufficient technical know-how and knowledge, that too will tend to cause you to procrastinate, as we would like to avoid a failure experience. You then have three viable options to overcome this type of pattern: educate, delegate or eliminate.
Firstly, you can acquire the skill level you need by training. Eventhough you can’t do something today doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. In 2000 creating a website and a business had never crossed my mine, and even if it did, I don’t think I’d be able to do so. But in 2008, I did. I didn’t know how to do it then simply because I hadn’t had the experience nor the knowledge how – all the people I know were full time workers and spoke harshly against starting a business…and certainly none knew how to start a website. Someday I may even master business and websites – and likewise, certainly one day, you too may become a master at what you cannot do today. I took the time to seek understanding on business start-ups, runnings and websites. I read. I spoke to people. I experimented.
It didn’t take long before I launched my own functional website and business thereafter. In the years after, I continue to apply and upgrade and add on to the business and website building skill. If you can’t do something as of now, don’t just complain or whine about it. Seek education and understanding and experiment to gain skill, then practice until you become proficient at it.
Another option is to delegate the tasks you lack the skill to do. In this world, there are far too many interesting things and skills for you to learn and master, so you must be able to rely and ask others for help. Though you may not realize it at this point in time, but you’re already pretty good at delegation. Do you make your own clothes? Do you grow your own fruits and vegetables? Did you build your own house? It’s highly likely that you depend on many people for your own ability to survive and thrive. If you want a certain result but don’t want or don’t have the time to acquire the skills to get that result, you can delegate and recruit others to help you. An example is that I don’t really think I’d love to spend my days trying to fully understand the details of Singapore tax and business laws, so I delegate that task to my accountant, which frees me to spend more time working on my strengths and passions.
Thirdly, you can evaluate that the result that you wanted initially isn’t as important as you thought initially. If that is the cause, then a smart move would be to remove or eliminate the task entirely. In some situations, procrastination is a sign that that task may not be important in the first place.
PROBLEM #8 – PERFECTIONISM
Perfectionism is a common thinking error that leads to procrastination. Thinking and believing that you must do something perfect is a great recipe for stress, and you will associate the task with stress and thereafter you’ll seek to avoid it as the mere thought of it will bring the realization of stress. So what you’d do is to put off the task to the last minute until you don’t have a way out and force yourself to complete it at the very last minute. What happens is that you realize that there isn’t a realistic enough time to do the job perfectly, so you “let yourself off the hook” because you can now tell yourself that you could have done a better job if you had more time.
The best solution to perfectionism is…to give yourself the permission to be fully human. Have you ever experienced perfect moments? Perfect solutions? Perfect days? Likely not. It’s best to understand and realize that imperfect jobs and solutions completed today is always better and superior to the perfect job/answer/solution that was never delivered.
Perfectionism also happens when you see a project as a “massive whole”, and it overwhelms you. What I would suggest is for you to replace that “massive whole project that must be perfect” idea with taking the first (though imperfect) step. Your first step is allowed to be very, very, very unrefined, rough, even. You can always revise and fine-tune it as you go along. An example if you need to write a book (can be about 10,000 – 50,000 words), you can always start with the first chapter. If that’s too tough, start with the frame. If that’s too tough, start with the first line. Just start.
Some of these “cures” may be difficult, but they’re practical and effective. If you really want to manage the procrastination problems, you’d need something better and stronger than the common “quick-fix” motivational and inspirational affirmations. You need to work it. The problems won’t disappear simply because you feel more affirmed or motivated. You need to be proactive, and take the initiative. The good part about tackling this challenge is that it will bring and start the massive upward spiral of personal development and growth.
You will become stronger.
You will become smarter.
In fact, there’s more. You’ll become braver, more disciplined, more driven and more focused – these will become huge benefits and traits in your lifetime, so recognize that the challenge of overcoming procrastination is really a blessing in disguise.
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I’m the founder and writer here at NigelChua.com; as well as serial entrepreneur, therapy business entrepreneur, digital entrepreneur, investor and also happy husband, father and Christian.
Started and sold off a business for 7-figures; built another 7-figure one and growing it further, plus building/investing into other businesses and investments as well as advisory works.
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