I have been asked several times this week to help people who feel that their procrastination and lack of motivation is out of control. Most of us will have experienced times when we are highly motivated and then inevitable times when we feel that motivation waning. However, this should not be too surprising; we are impulsive creatures and we value and appreciate the now so much more than something that might be great in the future. "If I finish this paper now, I will have time to eat pizza with my friends tomorrow", sounds good but tomorrow is a far off concept to a naturally impulsive mind and the pizza could be here in 15 minutes ....
Dr. Piers Steel is one of the foremost specialists on procrastination and motivation and I think his explanation and exploration of the subject is so extensive I will bow to his expertise!
Once a debilitating procrastinator himself, Dr. Steel explains procrastinating comes down to a matter of motivation. Whether you’re asking yourself, “Should I tackle that work assignment or watch another episode of my favourite TV show?”— you tend to choose the action you’re most motivated for (Lagungu, 2021).
In his book, The Procrastination Equation, Dr. Steel explains the motivation to complete a task relies on four elements:
1. Expectancy: If you expect to succeed at a task, you’re more motivated to complete a task before it’s due date. If you approach a task with the belief that you’re going to fail, you’re more likely to put it off for as long as you can. Oftentimes, we’re held back by the stories we tell ourselves and when they seem to appear as reality, it can put up a wall that prevents us from forging ahead.
2. Value: If you don’t value the task, you’re more likely to put it off. Perhaps if you’re constantly putting off a work-related task, you might be sceptical about your contribution to your company. It might be helpful to reflect on the tasks that are taking up your time and energy and ensure that they are aligned with your core values. Tapping into what you value can fuel your motivation and push you to keep ticking items off your to-do list.
3. Impulsiveness: It’s common to feel anxious about the unknown. However, when we act on these emotions it can distract us from the things we need to accomplish. One way of describing impulsivity is making permanent decisions on temporary emotions. When we focus on the present moment and look at what we need to accomplish, we are more likely to make decisions that our future selves will thank us for.
4. Delay: In plain terms, the longer you have to wait to be rewarded for a task, the less motivated you are to complete said task. While this one might seem to be out of your hands, especially in the context of work, mindfulness can help you remember that there’s no rush and show you how you can savour the experience of waiting.
4 Ways to Hack your Procrastination Cycle
While the journey to curbing a bad habit is one that happens over a period of time, here are a few daily tips from Dr. Steel on how you can combat procrastination one day at a time.
1. Get rest when you need it: Your body is the most important tool for getting things done and if you don’t feel your best, you’re more likely to put things off until you feel well enough to tackle it. This means we need to prioritize our well-being. Ensuring that you’re managing your energy throughout the day, eating healthy, going on nature walks, and perhaps even taking a nap when you have a chance to slow down.
2. Take control of your environment: Dr. Steel highlights our environment as one of the key factors to productivity. Working in a cluttered space, or even on a cluttered computer allows for our attention to become disrupted by the smallest things. And at this time when a lot of us are working from home, it’s crucial to maintain a line between our work life and home life. As Dr. Steel recommends, it can be something as simple as creating different user profiles (one for personal use and one for work use) or even dedicating one end of your table for work. Maintaining those boundaries can help stabilize your focus and allow you to complete your tasks on time.
3. Combine your vices and virtues: If you find it difficult to get started on a task, it might help to combine it with something you enjoy doing. Whether it’s listening to your favourite playlist while you’re doing the laundry or enjoying a nice cup of tea while going through budgets, placing tasks you enjoy on your to-do list can make a daunting task a little more pleasurable. When this happens, you’re less likely to procrastinate.
4. Tackle your difficult tasks first, early in the morning: Due to our circadian rhythms our bodies begin to wind down in the afternoon and according to Dr. Steel, by 3 p.m. it becoming difficult to effectively complete a task. Tackling your most difficult tasks early in the morning when you’re at your most alert and energized allows you to get them out of the way so by the time that afternoon slump rolls around, you don’t push it over to the next day…and the next day.
(Adapted from an article by Oyinda Lagunju, 2021).
Learning to manage your levels of motivation and procrastination can really help to lessen your feelings of blame, anger, frustration, low mood and anxiety. Understanding what role our emotions play in our actions and the thoughts that we have about ourselves when we complete a task or do not complete a task is vital to knowing how to best motivate yourself out of a state of chronic procrastination.