How to deal with procrastination?

Linda Blaesing

During the Covid-19 pandemic, probably many of you still have to work from home. While for some especially in the beginning, this might have been a blessing, for others it might be quite challenging. Distractions might be more frequent in your home environment, something university students confirmed during our online group trainings to reduce procrastination. For those of you who are experiencing problems motivating yourself to keep working efficiently, I want to share the knowledge from my research on the efficacy of the procrastination group training based on cognitive behavioural therapy principles by dr. Alexander Rozental and his colleagues (2018). As some of the strategies were and still are useful to fight my own procrastination, they might help you overcome your procrastination, as well. But let’s start by getting a better understanding of what procrastination is.

 

What is procrastination?

According to Steel (2007), procrastination is defined as ‘to deliberately choose to delay a planned course of action despite the knowledge that it can lead to negative consequences’. As you can imagine, this behaviour is particularly common in university and PhD students. But also, freelancers and basically anyone can struggle with procrastination from time to time. It is not necessarily work-related behaviour. Procrastination can also affect the achievement of our short- and long-term life goals.

 

Check out the TED talk by Tim Urban to learn more about procrastination:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arj7oStGLkU

 

Steel (2012) designed the ‘procrastination equation’ to explain this behaviour. According to this equation, people will engage in a task by considering its utility or benefits based on these four variables:

  1. Expectancy: whether you think you have the ability to do the task or achieve an outcome
  2. Value of the outcome: the external or internal reward of completing the task
  3. Delay of the outcome: how long it takes between doing the task and getting a reward
  4. Impulsiveness: the vulnerability to distraction by environmental factors or thoughts

Together these four factors determine the levels of motivation to do a task, which can be seen as the opposite of procrastination. The lower the expectation and value are, the more time lies between a task and the reward, and the higher the impulsivity, the higher the likelihood of engaging in procrastination and the lower the motivation to work efficiently on a task. Before we discuss strategies you can implement to reduce your procrastination behaviour, it is important to become aware of the factor(s) of the equation most relevant for  your own procrastination behaviour.

 

This is the procrastination equation:

 

How to tackle these factors? – methods and strategies

 

While motivation is something we cannot change on its own. We can influence the four other factors of the procrastination equation. You might want to start with the factor you identified as most relevant for keeping you from doing your task. If you implemented the strategies related to this factor you can consider tackling the next factor in the procrastination equation, which is relevant for you.

 How to deal with a low expectancy? – challenge your thoughts!

 

Expectancy is mostly related to the thoughts you have concerning the task you planned to do. This task can be any behaviour you are procrastinating on, work- or leisure time related. These thoughts can relate to yourself (e.g. ‘I don’t have the necessary skills to do the task’), the task (e.g. ‘The task is boring’), or your way of working (e.g. ‘I have to do it perfectly’). There can be several themes, or common thought patterns you experience when struggling with procrastination. These common thought patterns are groups of thoughts you encounter frequently and in various situations. Identifying these thought patterns is the first step in challenging and finally overcoming them. Related to procrastination a common thought pattern could be ‘I work best under pressure’ or ‘It has to be done perfectly’. For more information on how to challenge negative automatic thoughts, see my previous article ‘Mentally healthy despite Corona stress’.

 How to deal with a low value? – reward yourself!

 

The value of the anticipated outcome relates to external and internal rewards and goal setting. Internal rewards relate to intrinsic motivation. If you are intrinsically motivated you enjoy doing the task itself and you see doing the task as a rewarding activity. Of course, it is unlikely that you are intrinsically motivated for all the things you want to get done; think of doing the dishes, your tax declaration, or your statistics homework, for example. If you cannot find intrinsic motivation in a task, focusing on what you aim to achieve on the long-term might help you to find the necessary motivation to work. For example, if your dream is to become a psychologist, doing the statistics homework could be a step closer towards your long-term goal. If that does not help you either, you can try and reward yourself externally. Reward yourself not only for reaching your final goal, but also for smaller subgoals, which lead you to reaching your final goal (more on subgoals in the next paragraph). When you have a hard time even getting started you can try to combine your work with something rewarding. This could be working with a friend, working while having a coffee, or working while listening to music.

 

 How to deal with a delay between the task and the outcome? – set your goals wisely!

 

While long-term goals, such as becoming a teacher, for example, help us to stay intrinsically motivated, they can also feel too abstract and far away. So, what can we do to reduce that level of abstraction? One method is to break them down into smaller pieces and to make subgoals leading to the final goal. This is called ‘chunking’ and is part of the SMART-goal method. SMART goals are goals that are specific, measurable, accepted, realistic, and time-bound. An example of such a goal is ‘On Monday between 11:00 and 12:00 I will finish the introduction of my essay.’ Related to SMART goals, an easy strategy, which helped me personally through my motivational struggles during the Covid-19 social isolation was setting a clear intention in the form of a few specific to-do-points for the day. I did that every morning before I started working and I noticed that the more specific and the more realistic this intention was the more likely it was that I would get it done. If you struggle starting with your work you might benefit from setting a minimum goal, a goal which is small enough to help you getting started. If you are struggling to read a book chapter a minimum goal could be to read the first paragraph, for example.

 

 How to deal with high impulsiveness? – create remote workspaces and healthy routines!

 

Most likely, there are many distractors in your home environment, such as housemates, family members, your phone, your messy desk, or the association of your room with leisure time or sleep. So, what to do about this? While we might not have the opportunity to separate the physical spaces for work and leisure time, there are still things we can do.

 

  1. Tidy up your working space and eliminate distractors.

Remove everything which does not serve the task you are working on right now from your visual field. This can also be useful when your phone is distracting you. Just turn it off, or put it behind your laptop or in another room, whatever works for you – out of sight, out of mind. The same is true for websites you do not need to get your task done. Just close them for the time you are working on your task and try to keep your virtual working space as structured as possible, too.

 

  1. Tell your housemates or family not to disturb you during your working time.
  2. Try to work in a different room than the room you sleep in.
  3. Imagine ‘going to work’ within your own house.

Do the ritual things you would do on a normal working day, get dressed, have breakfast, pack your things and ‘go to work’ (in the living room, for example). Just getting into this mindset can already help you to work more focused.

  1. Keep virtual contact with your colleagues.

Not just about work related stuff, but also try to plan coffee chats like you would do when working in the office. This will help you getting more into a working mindset.

 

Related to these strategies, it is important to manage your energy levels wisely and take regular breaks when you need them. If you take breaks it is important to do something you get energy from, preferably something which is not related to your work. This can be going for a walk, a coffee, reading a book, playing or listening to music or whatever recharges your energy. The strategies mentioned in this article are not exclusive. If they are not sufficient for you or you feel you could use help with implementing them, you could consider taking part in a more elaborate procrastination group training or individual counseling with a professional. Also, not every strategy might be equally relevant for you. Try to experiment with this and see what works best for you.

 

 Suggested readings:

Rozental, A., Forsström, D., Lindner, P., Nilsson, S., Martensson, L., Rizzo, A., Andersson,

G., & Carlbring, P. (2018). Treating Procrastination Using Cognitive Behavior Therapy: A Pragmatic Randomized Controlled Trial Comparing Treatment Delivered via the Internet or in Groups. Behavavior Therapy, 49, 180–197. Doi: 10.1016/j.beth.2017.08.002

Steel, P. (2007). The nature of procrastination: A meta-analytic and theoretical review of

quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 133, 65–94. Doi: 10. 1037/0033-2909.133.1.65

Steel, P. (2012). The Procrastination Equation. Edinburgh: Pearson Education Ltd.

 

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