I used to be a terrible procrastinator in college. You could typically find me awake until dawn the night before a paper was due, steadily putting words to page. It wasn’t that I didn’t care about my schoolwork; I did, deeply. It was more that I had trouble denying myself the everyday pleasures of college life in favor of work until a looming deadline convinced me I must.
My senior thesis and then graduate school gradually broke me of my procrastinating ways. You can’t really put a major paper off until the last minute and still expect to produce something worthwhile. Gradually I learned tricks to help myself be more proactive about work, and today I rarely procrastinate–typically only when something doesn’t interest me or I truly don’t have a good idea how to tackle it.
As a social/organizational psychologist, I tend toward environmental reasons to explain procrastination, as you can see from my own story. But there may be more going on that just the situations in which we work. It turns out there may be a genetic basis to procrastination.
Procrastination’s in my genes. What do I do?
There are lots of ways to combat procrastination. One tip, based in research, is to make deadlines that seem sooner than they are. For example, if a task has to be done for a meeting next week, set a deadline that falls on Friday instead of Monday. Friday is this week while Monday is next week; you’re more likely to get the Friday task done sooner even though in terms of workdays, the two deadlines are fairly equivalent.
Another trick that works for me is breaking big tasks into milestones and assigning each milestone its own deadline, creating an artificial sense of urgency. At work, my project manager colleagues do this task for me, one of the many reasons I like working in industry. A benefit of chunking a big task into smaller ones is that difficulties are caught earlier, which means fewer crises and fire drills down the line.
One trick that I’ve written about before is thinking about your future self and how he or she will react to your having done something today. This tip works well for me with running. I have to do a long run every weekend as part of marathon training, and thinking about my Sunday self cozy and grateful on the couch does wonders to get my reluctant Saturday self out the door.
Finally, a tip that hearkens back to a focus on environmental factors: Minimize your exposure to the things that distract you. Some researchers recommend software tools that limit your access to distractors like games during the work day (some examples are listed here). I do okay just not opening distracting websites in the first place. For me, a better way to limit distractions is changing scenery frequently. For some reason, I do well working in an office one day, at home the next, and in a coffeeshop the next afternoon.