When I first went off to college, I had some fairly serious procrastination issues. If I had a paper or presentation coming due soon, my routine became something like this:
- Open Microsoft Word or PowerPoint, my books and notes. Stare at the screen for a few seconds.
- Open Firefox.
- Check e-mail.
- Check my favorite blogs/websites.
- Click back to Word/PowerPoint and stare at the blank page for a few seconds. Get discouraged.
- Check e-mail.
- Check my favorite blogs/websites (again, even if I knew they wouldn't have been updated in the last 10 minutes.)
- Run a random google search on something I just thought of...completely unrelated to paper/presentation.
- Click back to Word/PowerPoint and stare blankly at the screen.
Basically, I could do this until, oh, about 8 hours before my paper was due (usually in the middle of the night), at which point I would stay up all night to crank out what often ended up being an A paper, thanks to the effortless genius that comes with sleep-deprived delirium...or TA's who had too many papers to grade to really pay attention to the fact that I couldn't put together complete sentences half the time. Whichever.
Needless to say, I had a bad case of procrastination, one that I didn't cure myself of until I started grad school and realized that 25-page papers wouldn't write themselves in a night. And that the professors actually paid attention to what I wrote in my papers now.
LiveScience says that 15-20% of people are chronic procrastinators, and 90% of college students procrastinate. That means there are a lot of us sitting around procrastinating at any given time, on any given day. And there are a lot of reasons why people procrastinate. Sometimes we procrastinate because we feel overwhelmed. Sometimes we procrastinate because we feel we don't know enough to complete a project, or we think failure is inevitable. Sometimes we even procrastinate because we feel guilty about procrastinating, and so we keep procrastinating in order to avoid dealing with our guilt. Sometimes we procrastinate because we just don't want to do the work: we aren't invested in it, we don't care about it, it really doesn't matter to us if it gets done or not. Then, of course, there are the people who have procrastinated so often, it's become a part of their every day work process—a habit.
Regardless of why we procrastinate, it's a behavior that drains us of energy, increases stress, and, in the end, usually just means we rush to get everything done and end up not doing any of it very well.
So what do you do to overcome procrastination?
In college, I became a huge fan of to do lists. I would write down everything that needed to get done, when I needed to be finished with it, and tackle the list as quickly as possible. For some reason, seeing all those items crossed off the list made me feel like I had accomplished something, which gave me a boost of confidence to go after checking off even more items on the list. Of course, sometimes I would use writing to do lists as a way of procrastinating, too, so this wasn't always a useful strategy. But on the whole, it helped keep me focused, helped me to make sure I met all deadlines, and definitely gave me something to feel happy about at the end of the day—a feeling procrastination can rob you of completely.
Another thing I did to crush procrastination was break down larger tasks into smaller ones. Because I would sometimes procrastinate because I became so overwhelmed by the amount of work I needed to do (especially in grad school!), it really helped to break up the work into smaller, more manageable pieces. All those 25-page papers were broken down into 5-page increments over a span of 5 days, and I'd give myself an extra day or two to proofread and make edits. A 25-page paper might make my brain fizzle out just thinking about it, but a 5-page paper was kid's stuff. This strategy was crucial when I was cranking out my 130-page master's thesis.
One of the biggest reasons why I procrastinated in college, though, was that I am a complete perfectionist. I like things to be perfect, and I like my product to be, well, better than everyone else's. A couple of days ago, I talked about how failure, or even the prospect of failure, can really get me down. So as you can imagine, if I thought I was going to fail to meet my expectations, or anyone else's, I would get discouraged and not even try. I think that's why waiting until the night before to do my work tended to be my strategy as an undergrad: I was too tired to care whether or not the work was perfect.
In grad school, I had to learn to let go of my desire to be perfect, to be the best. Sometimes, I had to settle for doing work that was just okay. There were not enough hours in the day to be the best at everything, and sometimes, if it was a project I wasn't as interested in or didn't see inherent value in, it just wasn't worth beating myself up over. I think this is what really helped me overcome my procrastination problem in college. Giving myself more realistic expectations meant that expectations were easier to meet, and I was more likely to try to meet them.
Now that I'm in the workforce, I still sometimes have problems with procrastination, particularly if it's a project or task I don't want to work on at all. It's almost like a subconscious passive-aggressive behavior: I don't like this project, so I'll do (or won't do) whatever I can to make sure it doesn't go well. However, even with this kind of mental block going on, there are still ways I can trick myself into doing the work. I give myself short-term rewards. If I do this, I can browse the internet for 15 minutes. If I finish this, I can get a soda from the vending machines. For some of the truly mind-numbing tasks I have at work (and let's face it, we all have them), I think giving myself short-term rewards is the only way I manage to get any of them done without losing my sanity.
And when all else fails, I remind myself of something Kellen's mom (a psychologist) told him back when we were both in college: "The best way to get motivated is to get started." Truer words were never spoken. If I can't find some way to trick myself into doing the work, I just tell myself I will get started on it, and the motivation usually comes shortly thereafter.
Whatever the reasons you procrastinate, one of the best things you can do to overcome procrastination is to do what I've been doing here: identify why you procrastinate. If you know why you procrastinate, you can take steps to overcome those barriers to being more productive. Whether it's lack of confidence, lack of passion, or lack of motivation, there are many steps you can take to leave your desire to put off until tomorrow in the dust.
And you should really get started on this, you know, today. ;)