Recently I asked my fourth-year students what academic skill they struggle with and how they might work on it throughout the semester. In past years, students have said “sharing ideas in class,” or “keeping up with the readings.” This year, the big one was procrastination. No surprises there. Unfortunately, their solutions boiled down to one claim: I will stop procrastinating. In other words, I’ll attempt to become a totally different person in the last semester of my last year of university.
Bless their earnest little hearts. What to tell them? First, I suggested they stop beating themselves up about a habit that’s incredibly common and not indicative of some shameful character flaw. Second, I gave them some practical tips on how to work with their procrastination tendencies, rather than fighting them (and failing). Although undergraduate projects are usually on a smaller scale, I think we can all use some workarounds for when we’re in procrastination mode.
How to stop wasting time: Four steps
Many people equate procrastination (in themselves and others) with laziness or lack of willpower. Others suggest it’s born out of anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, and even shame. Either way, it doesn’t seem like something you can just stop doing through sheer force of will. But what about all the time you’re wasting by putting off your work? My thinking is: you’re wasting your time attempting to overcome procrastination when you could be figuring out how to be a procrastination boss.
Step 1: Acknowledge your procrastination.
Don’t deny it. Don’t make believe that this project or deadline will be different. If you always leave things to the last minute, own it. Look at the deadline and tell yourself truthfully when you’ll probably get started.
Step 2: Rethink the direct attack.
I do think most procrastination is a result of anxiety. The only thing that seems to outweigh the anxiety is the last-minute surge of fear-based adrenaline that kicks in and kicks you in the ass. That anxiety grows, however, when we let the project (or the idea of the project) assume monstrous proportions. Nothing is scarier than facing a blinking cursor on a blank page with the clock ticking. That’s because you’re trying to launch a direct, face-to-face attack on the monster. You freeze and panic! You flee to the couch! Rinse and repeat.
Step 3: Sneak up on it.
Demystifying and even minimizing the process is a powerful tool. Here’s what I told my students. Instead of saying to yourself, “I should be working on my paper right now,” try this: “I’m just gonna make a new folder on my computer for this project.” Low, low stakes. Minimal anxiety. What about: “I’m just gonna open a document and call it Outline.” Or, “I’m just gonna type in the subheadings.” “I’m just gonna copy and paste all the article pdfs into my folder.” “I’m just gonna type up some cool quotes.”
And here’s the thing: you can do these mini-tasks well in advance of your deadline. They’re so low stakes that you don’t need the adrenaline push to get you over the wall. You can do them while watching Netflix, waiting for the kettle to boil, in a few minutes between classes or meetings.
This trick can work for any kind of project, of any size. The key is to find the “chunk” of work that you can accomplish without getting overwhelmed by anxiety. It could be “I’m just gonna type 50 words.” “I’m just gonna colour code my references.” Any level of work is fine, even if it’s so minimal you can barely even call it “work.”
Wait a minute here. Am I just suggesting sneaky ways of not procrastinating? What about working with procrastination?? I promise, we’re getting there.
Step 4: Maximize the adrenaline rush
The point here is not that you’re going to avoid the last-minute rush all together. It’s about knowing that rush is coming and making the best possible use of that time and energy. Your precious adrenaline should not be wasted typing up a bibliography. Those critical post-midnight hours of wide-eyed productivity shouldn’t be squandered formatting your document. In other words, if you know you’re going to leave a big chunk of writing until the deadline looms, make sure you can spend those days actually writing.
This is where the sneak attack really pays off. By doing a whole bunch of little, fiddly, almost mindless tasks in the weeks ahead, you can concentrate your energy on the core work.
I’ll probably lose my credentials as a professor if I don’t say that the most crucial part of a writing project is the revision process, so you MUST leave time for adequate revising.
Gradual change is possible
If you came here looking for advice on how to stop procrastinating completely, you might be feeling disappointed. However, there is hope over time! The more you can train yourself to build the habit of addressing those “mindless” little chunks of work ahead of schedule, the less anxiety you’ll experience about the whole process. Once some of that anxiety fades, you might find you can gradually tackle bigger chunks at an earlier stage.
Lots of successful people are procrastinators. With time, they learn to find the point on their timeline where there’s just enough pressure to launch them into action but not so much that they freeze up in fear. In other words, they manage their procrastination. It doesn’t control them or loom large like some force they’re powerless against. Perhaps most importantly, don’t get stuck feeling shame about procrastination. Not only is it normal, but it might be something that can work for you, if you learn to tame it bit by bit.
Interested in learning more about how a coach can help you manage your time in realistic, sustainable ways? Check out my services, reach out here or over Facebook messenger, or jump right into booking a free call! It’s ok if you procrastinate a little… I’ll be waiting! 😉