Hi there, great to have you with us once again. I’m Jeff, JR is the producer, and this is the audio portion of Lesson 254 of Plain English. As always, you can find the full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/254.
Coming up today: the second half of our two-part lesson on procrastination. Last time, we told you what it is; today, we’re talking about strategies to overcome it. The English expression is to have something on your plate. Two-for-one today in the quote of the week section. I have a quote, and then a snarky rejoinder. And of course the video lesson and exercises online at PlainEnglish.com/254.
Before we start, I want to tell you that the new site is looking really, really good. I’ve mentioned before that I’m redesigning the web site. The existing site is good, but it’s getting a little long in the tooth. Meaning, getting a little old. So I’ve been testing the new one and practicing with it and really just putting the finishing touches on it. This is not official, but I’m planning to have the new site up and running on June 1. If you’d like to learn more about the new site, including sneak previews, special offers, and the chance to vote for features, then go to PlainEnglish.com/new. PlainEnglish.com/new – that’s going to be up until we re-launch the site.
Strategies for dealing with procrastination
In Lesson 253, we talked about procrastination—specifically, why it’s more than just delaying an unpleasant task. Procrastination is when you delay something—but invent time-wasting activities to do in its place. If you substitute something fun for something unpleasant—that’s not procrastination. But if you mindlessly scroll through the internet or otherwise waste time just to avoid the unpleasantness of something—that’s procrastination.
For most people, this is an occasional problem. But for about twenty percent of the population, it’s more than that: it’s something more serious.
Today we’re going to talk about what to do if you find yourself repeatedly procrastinating. The first thing to do is to start recognizing when you’re procrastinating. You generally know that you’re procrastinating when you get that feeling that you don’t want to do something, and you just substitute a filler activity. It’s important to recognize what’s going on. To say to yourself, “If I do this, then I’m just procrastinating.” Being more aware of what you’re doing is enough to help you begin to cut down on it.
But take a step further. When you know you’re tempted to procrastinate, ask yourself: What is the activity I’m running away from, or trying to delay? And why don’t I want to do it? This will be different for every person and for every situation. But this is helpful because often the “unpleasant activity”—I’m putting that in air quotes—is often not as bad as we think. People who procrastinate often over-estimate how painful a certain activity is. If you think about why you’re avoiding something, and think about the steps to accomplish that task, you may discover that it’s not quite as scary as you thought. You might also look to the future and say to yourself, “Think about how good I’ll feel when this is over and off my plate.” Imagine the feeling of having the task completed and you’ll feel more comfortable starting.
Speaking of which, here’s another strategy: just start. Take the first, small step. When we’re deciding whether to do the painful activity, we often worry about how long it’s going to take and how hard it is. But if you take just the first step, then you might get the momentum you need to continue and get halfway or even all the way through it. Some people say it helps to break a big, scary project down into tiny steps. I find that sometimes works—but other times, writing out 50 small steps makes it seem more, not less, overwhelming. Find the strategy that works for you.
Starting is important, but it’s not enough to only start. Once you’ve got some momentum, it’s important not to lose it. Experts always say, minimize distractions. Try not to multi-task. This is especially important if you’re prone to procrastination. Every time your concentration on a difficult task is broken, you need to decide again to resume. Deciding to start is your roadblock, as a procrastinator—so every time you’re doing something that you know is hard, that you know you’ve put off before, you need to minimize distractions more than ever.
Studies have shown lately that each person has a limited amount of concentration and self-discipline available during the day. Some people tend to have more; some, less; but we all have a limited amount of self-discipline. The more times we have to resist temptation, the less we’re able to concentrate in the future, when it counts. Notifications on our phone, distractions around us—these are all temptations that we must resist throughout the day. If you have lots of those distractions, then you’re handicapping your ability to buckle down and do what you have to do.
Decision-making can be a stressor. This can be the catalyst for getting off-track. Let’s say you’ve been putting off going to exercise after work, but you finally decided to go today. Then, at lunch, a friend calls and invites you to dinner. Yikes—now you have a decision to make; an opportunity to get off track. Here’s one way to deal with that: anticipate these types of choices and make your choices ahead of time. Think through a few scenarios and decide what you’ll do in advance.
Let’s continue with the example of putting off exercise. What are some of the decisions that could possibly come up? Number one, you get invited to do something social in the evening. Number two, you feel tired and you’re not sure if you have the energy. And number three, you have to work late. Before you leave for work, decide what you’re going to do if any of those three things happens. If I get invited to go out to dinner, you might say to yourself, then today I’ll say no, but I’ll suggest we do something on Saturday.
There you go: you’ve decided. When the moment comes, you have your decision. You can even tell your friends, “Hey, I promised myself that I would go exercise even if I were invited to go out.” Next, you might decide, if I’m feeling really tired and I don’t want to exercise, I’ll just go and do a half-hour of light movement and re-evaluate how I feel. And finally, you might decide, if I have to work late, I’ll work as late as I need to—but I’ll get up early and go before work the next day.
The thing about procrastination is, it’s so easy to delay what you know you need to do. It’s so easy to give in to the temptation to delay and feel good in the short run. So if you’re one of the people who struggles with procrastination, then try putting some of these tips to work. First, work on recognizing when you’re procrastinating. Ask yourself, why am I doing this? What exactly am I dreading? Picture how good you’ll feel when it’s over. Get started—just take the first step. Once you have some momentum, don’t torture yourself with distractions. And practice making your hardest decisions in advance.
Part of the 20 percent
In case you couldn’t tell, I am one of the twenty percent. This is something that I’ve struggled with in my career for a long time. I have a good job; I do well. But I put things off. I know I could be doing a lot better, professionally, if I didn’t procrastinate so much. I’ve been working, post-university, for about 15 years. And I just think of all the time I’ve lost simply due to procrastination. So this is something I’ve been working on personally.