How many times have you told yourself that tomorrow you’re really going to start working on that looming project – just like you told yourself yesterday? For most of us, this has happened more than we’d like. It’s easy to get derailed from important plans by drinking one more cup of coffee, reading articles on the internet, doing mundane household chores, or pretty much anything else. Days go by, and still no progress is made. This kind of chronic procrastination can lead to cycles of stress and anxiety that eat away at your happiness.
How can you overcome the soul-sucking inertia of procrastination? Tips for quitting procrastination abound – everything from using timers to making to-do lists will supposedly jump-start your productivity. But tips of this kind work best when you’re already in motion. They can help you work more efficiently, but if you’re stuck in a rut of not working at all, it’s all too easy to make a to-do list and then ignore it.
The real solution for procrastination is simpler than any of these tricks, though not necessarily easier. To change your actions, you’ve got to change the way you think by getting into the habit of prioritizing your long-term happiness over short-term satisfaction. The satisfaction of finishing a task has to become more important to you than the fleeting reward of avoiding the task.
No matter what form it takes, procrastination is essentially an avoidance mechanism
rooted in a mindset of short-term gratification.
To get some insight into how to rewire your thinking, it’s important to recognize why procrastination happens in the first place. No matter what form it takes, procrastination is essentially an avoidance mechanism rooted in a mindset of short-term gratification. We put things off because our thinking is stuck in right-now mode: it’s temporarily more pleasant to do something inconsequential than it is to dig into an overwhelming job we don’t want to do. As the deadline for finishing the job looms nearer, avoidance creates a buildup of stress, making the thing we’re procrastinating on seem bigger and scarier every day.
As the deadline advances, though, there comes a point when stress finally makes our short-term mentality kick us into gear. When time is running out, it’s no longer possible to ignore the possible consequences of not getting the task done. The unpleasantness of the consequences – failing a class, losing a job, letting someone down – outweighs our dread of doing the work, and we finally rush through the task at the last minute, bringing relief. Until next time, anyways. The job gets done, but at the cost of our happiness, sanity, and possibly a night of sleep.
Another common thought pattern that keeps people stuck in the cycle of procrastination is assuming that they will make better decisions in the future than they do in the present. Most of us tend, consciously or not, to imagine that in the future we will make rational, long-term-oriented choices, even if in reality we are rooted in the habit of making short-term choices. It’s easy to justify putting off a big, intimidating task when we can imagine the disciplined future version of ourselves doing it without breaking a sweat tomorrow or next week. The problem with this way of thinking is, of course, that the future version of you doesn’t exist, to the chagrin of everyone who finds themselves needing to pull an all-nighter.
The good news? Once you’re aware of the thought patterns that are derailing you from being productive, you can catch them and replace them with different thoughts. Mindfulness is an effective way to do this. Whenever you start engaging in typical procrastination behaviors, pause. Become aware of what you’re doing without judging yourself. Are you avoiding something? Is this action in your best long-term interest? If you’re avoiding a task, remind yourself that you’ll have to do it sooner or later. Think ahead and visualize the future consequences of pushing off the task versus getting started on it. If you choose to procrastinate anyway, own it and make it a conscious decision instead of falling back into an automatic habit.
It’s possible to break the cycle of chronic procrastination by consciously switching your mind’s focus from immediate gratification to long-term satisfaction. This is a simple shift, but not necessarily an easy one to make, so cut yourself some slack if you slip up during the process. By strengthening the habit of prioritizing your future, you decrease your day-to-day stress and gain an increased sense of control over your life.