“Let him who would move the world first move himself”
Procrastination is a terrible feeling. It hinders our ability to do anything productive, haunts us from having fun, and takes away our free will. It may sound like a hyperbole, but it’s not! Every procrastinator knows the feeling intimately well. You feel incapable of doing the task, so you may want to take advantage of that time by hanging out with friends, only… you’re not really hanging out with your friends. You’re thinking, in the back of your mind, that you need to get that project finished, or start that reading, or buckle down and write that paper.
Even when you’re trying to have fun, you can’t. What’s worse, this is not a disease that merely plagues students, it plagues humankind and unfortunately, the “solution” from any non-procrastinators’ perspective tends to be, “Just do the task,” but procrastinators know it’s not a simple matter of willpower. Willpower is great and all, but the fact is, you may clear your desk, turn off your phone, unplug your internet and throw on noise cancelling headphones with nothing more than the sound of silence – literally, not the Simon and Garfunkel song – and yet… you still cannot write a single sentence.
Why? You’re seemingly doing everything right; you’re seemingly “doing it” as non-procrastinators would say, but you’re not getting anything done. That’s the rub of procrastination right there because other people will view that behavior as “lazy,” but you’re not lazy, you’re trying to get the task done, your brain feels like it’s not working. You’re frozen; you’re paralyzed. So you spend your thoughts on worrying how this task will ever get done since you’ve done nothing. How do you overcome that?
“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”
Don’t blame yourself or your willpower, it will just bring you down and you don’t need that. Self-discipline is great and, like any muscle, it can be learned, exercised, and improved upon, but it’s not dependable. So much of your willpower to do a task is dependent on your motivation which fluctuates based on your mood and daily circumstances. As a result, how can you rely solely on self-discipline to get the job done for you? The reality is, you can’t.
Make it Easier
“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard. Putting off a hard thing makes it impossible.”
-George Claude Lorimer
Often, the biggest cause for procrastination is the volume of work that’s needed. It’s not simply that you don’t want to do it or even that you’d rather be doing something else, it’s that you need to read 200 pages by tomorrow, or get a 20-page paper done tonight.
These tasks are daunting because of how big they seem. So ultimately, you need to trick your mind into letting you do them. How do you trick your mind into scaling the Mount Everest of tasks? Let’s insert another shameless quote:
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
-Martin Luther King, Jr.
Convince your mind that the task isn’t this monolithic thing you’re scaling. Instead, tell yourself that you’ll write 1-page of your 20-page paper tonight. Odds are, you’re going to write more than that, but don’t think about that. You’ve made a commitment to write one page, anything more than that is just a fortunate consequence, but it’s not what you’re setting out to achieve. Similarly, you have 200 pages of reading, choose to read 10 pages, that’s doable; maybe you’ll find a rhythm and do more, but you’ve mentally prepared for ten, that’s all you need to do.
This is the key to overcoming procrastination. It’s doing a little at a time, frequently. This sounds infinitely easier than waiting until “crunch time” and powering through, making your well of willpower run dry – that’s not helping, in fact, it’s literally doing the opposite. There’s an interesting parallel between procrastination and anxiety attacks that reinforces this point.
Anxiety attacks make people feel like their world is crumbling around them and their body reacts accordingly. Their body gets icy cold, trying to keep their primary organs functioning optimally because the anxiety is making the brain believe that it’s in real danger. The unfortunate thing is, when the anxiety attack passes, the brain thinks it’s because it reacted this way, so it reinforces the anxiety attack to happen again! That’s a cycle. In order to prevent that cycle from happening, one of the best things you can do is talk yourself through your anxiety attack, surveying your environment and telling yourself that you’re not in real danger. It’s hard, it’s not easy, but it helps to ward off reinforcing your anxiety.
Similarly, most procrastinators only “feel” procrastination when the task is due within 24 hours. As a result, that crunch time stress is reinforced rather than abated. Unconsciously, you’re reaffirming procrastination by procrastinating because you’re showing your brain that you can complete a task with 90 minutes to spare. That reinforces procrastination. As a result, you should almost treat this as a disease. It’s not something that happens once in a while, but rather, procrastination is perpetual and by waiting until the last minute, you’re treating the symptom, not the disease.
Tackling your tasks a little at a time, frequently, is how you cure the disease. It’s constantly warding off procrastination and reinforcing positive habits. The more often you do this, the more your brain is retrained. It stops thinking about this Everest of a task, and starts thinking, “You’ve been reading 10 pages a day in no more than 10 minutes. So you have, 90 more pages of reading to do, that’s an hour and a half, you can do that.” The tasks eventually “look” less daunting, making you feel more capable of tackling them. A 20-page paper is nothing if you have two weeks to do it because your brain is accustomed to doing a page a day.