Procrastination is something that for many of us prevents us getting as much work done as we could. At the same time, even when we achieve what we set out to do, procrastination often means that we end up taking more time to do so and ending up having less time to actually relax and enjoy ourselves. This is ironic as we often procrastinate because there’s something we want to be doing other than work, but if we spend time on it while we are working it will ruin our enjoyment of it and actually leave us less time to do the thing we want to later. What would you rather? That you read a book while your computer loaded and whenever you got distracted while stressed and guilty, or set aside some private time to read on your own while relaxing later? The problem is that how ever much we know we should focus on the work and not procrastinate it still tends to creep in to our lives when we subtly open YouTube or Facebook in the background, or pick up an old magazine.
The reasons for this are multiple, but it is largely to do with the two halves of the brain – the analytical half that is great for handling maths and other such problem – and the creative side which is more useful for doing things such as writing stories or drawing works of art. The problem is, according to one theory, that when you are using just the analytical side of your brain, the creative side keeps going and distracts you which results in your engaging in more fanciful activities. This could partly be the reason that autistic individuals are so good at focussing rigidly on a single task.
Another reason is that we simply can not concentrate on one thing for that long. All of us have a finite attention span and if we are focussed on the same job or task for a long period of time we are always going to eventually struggle to stay fixated on that. This is particularly the case where we are particularly tired, or the subject is particularly dry.
Finally, sometimes on a conscious level, our not wanting to do something means we put it off by finding excuses. Students often talk about how they suddenly have very tidy rooms when it is creeping up to deadlines, which is because they can tell themselves the room needs to be tidy before they can work, and they would even rather be doing that than doing coursework. The longer we put it off though, the longer the task will take and this then makes us even more likely to put it off. This happens both in the short term with things like exercise or work, but also in the long term when we make commitments to getting into shape or starting a new diet or giving up smoking, and we suddenly find ourselves inventing ‘excuses’ that make it take longer (I will start by New Year, I will wait until I can find someone to quit with me, etc…).
These are the main reasons we procrastinate, but fortunately there are some ways we can combat their negative effects. For example, many studies and theories suggest that having music on in the background (the right music) can help us to distract the creative side of our brain so that we can get on with work on more ‘boring’ topics. The music that is said to work in this role is things like Mozart, as well as other classical music. Repetitive music works well in order to get your mind into a kind of ‘rhythm’. Avoid things that have lyrics or unusual, obvious melodies as these can distract from your work, particularly if you are working with words.
Another way to help save yourself from procrastination is with desk toys. This might sound counter-intuitive as the actual purpose of a desk toy (such as a cat’s cradle, solitaire etc etc) is to distract the person using them. However why these work is because they serve to distract only a certain amount. In other words by using these minor distractions you can prevent yourself from becoming far more distracted by something else. What would be better – that you start browsing Facebook or that you spin a floating pen? Surround your desk with things that will not grab your attention for long but give you something else to look at while you are working.
Of course you also need to give yourself mental focus in order work well and there are some easy ways to do this. For example make sure you get at least an adequate amount of sleep before you start your work as this will give you more ability to focus. At the same time keep yourself fuelled on high energy foods – your brain uses up a lot of calories when working in big stints and you would be surprised what a big difference it can make to ensure it always has enough calories for the task. Complex carbs and fruit such as bananas are a great option. Of course here you can also use mild stimulants such as caffeine which is designed to help focus and wakefulness, or something like Guarana which is used in a lot of the energy supplements.
Another trick is to make your work more fun and more efficient. Writing computer programmes that can handle the boring parts for you for example is a great way to take some of the pressure off of your brain. At the same time even the more creative parts of your work might not be as interesting as they could be. For example if you are writing a novel and you find you keep putting off writing the next chapter you have planned, then this might be a sign that the next chapter is not interesting enough. If it is not interesting enough for you to write, then chances are it is not interesting enough for your audience to read. This then might be a sign that you need to change the chapter. Alternatively if you are writing an essay you could try and make it into a challenge, for example force yourself to finish writing it within an hour. Similarly you can motivate yourself to work better by using that distraction – for example if you do have a book you want to read, then tell yourself you can only read it after you have written 2,000 words.
When a good patch of work does come though, when you manage to get over your procrastinations and distractions long enough, then you need to make sure that you do not interrupt it. Once you settle into a rhythm to work you should find your productivity goes up in a big way. If you achieve this focus then, make sure you do not break it by getting up to get a cup of tea or making a phone call.
The only way to put off the urge to distract ourselves and thereby put off work meanwhile is to teach ourselves more mental focus. This is of course easier said than done, but it will help us both with short term procrastination and long term ‘putting-off’. Here we have to remember to think about what will benefit us in the future rather than necessary what we would rather do in the moment. Remember why it is you are doing what you are doing, and remember that if you do it now you will be free later. Listen to yourself making excuses and give yourself a zero tolerance policy on them.
At the end of the day though you are probably always going to procrastinate a bit, it is just human nature. One final tip then is to try to make your procrastination at least useful. That is, if you are going to procrastinate, then at least try to make yourself do something kind of useful. The book you pick up for example could be research, or even the room tidying could be seen as a boon in a way.