People love hacks, but they’re really only handy for treating procrastination as a symptom, the way small nudges—like hiding the cookie jar—can help people stick to a diet, without, arguably, changing their fundamental relationship with food. Not only did you click into this story, but you’ve also begun reading the first “tip,” rather than pinging the link to your Pocket or Evernote list to read later.
Our guide, therefore, combines hacks with suggested tactics for designing your own more holistic approach to beating procrastination, one that examines all the deeper dynamics at work—the fear, the automatic coping strategies, the self-deception—when you put things off. Making that oh-so-tiny first move is an evidence-backed strategy for beating procrastination; the trick is setting the threshold for completion low—so low that the hedonist in you, who would rather feel good and deal with real stuff later, won’t put up a fight.
The Atlantic once called it the “procrastination doom loop,” and described the stages: “I’ll do it later!
” becomes “Ugh, I’m being so unproductive,” which turns into “Maybe I should think about starting this task…,” leading directly to “but I’m in the wrong mood to do it well,” so “I’ll do it later! The truth is, tossing aside a task because you’re “not in the mood” is actually a way of externally regulating your emotions—perhaps a fear of failure, of disappointing others, of losing some self-esteem, of not being perfect, says Fuschia Sirois, a psychologist and lecturer at the University of Sheffield in the UK.
You may believe that procrastination is a time management issue, but really, “it’s just a way of coping with emotions that you’re ill-equipped to cope with,” she says.
The dark feelings can be off-putting enough to be paralyzing, to send you looking for else you can do besides the task at hand, a reaction that’s often knee-jerk and unexamined.
At work, for instance, chronic procrastination has been associated with lower salaries and lower rates of employment.
In 1996, John Perry, a Stanford University professor of philosophy, gave the procrastinators of the world a gift: a concept called “structured procrastination.” (He has since written a book on the topic.) To procrastinate with structure involves putting the task that’s most daunting and somewhat urgent near the top of your list, but keeping your list filled with other equally valuable tasks that are less daunting to you.
But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation.
The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important.