If this happens just once in awhile, it’s probably not an issue. But if procrastination is a way of managing stressful situations, it’s a real problem. When you procrastinate, things pile up. You end up with long hours and last minute crises. You feel exhausted and frazzled and stressed.
In case you were wondering, you’re not alone. A lot of smart people have the same problem.
People usually procrastinate when they’re not sure what to do next or how to do it. And you can’t move forward unless you can see a clear path in front of you. Trying to push through is like driving through fog. On the one hand you want to get where you’re going, and on the other you can barely see the road. In these conditions, traffic slows to a crawl.
There are several reasons your path might not be clear.
- You’re not sure what to do. Maybe you don’t have the knowledge. Or maybe you know what to do in a general sort of way, but you haven’t nailed down the specifics. Either way there’s a good chance you feel confused, and confusion leads to procrastination.
- You’re doing too much. Perhaps you’re distracted, disorganized, or trying to do too many things at once. When this happens you feel stressed, and stress makes it harder to think clearly. Procrastination might be your brain’s way of taking a break.
- You’re trying to do it all at once. Maybe the problem is that you’re aiming for perfection. You want your first draft to be a masterpiece, your first hit to be a home run. Perfection is not only daunting; it’s vague. What is a perfect novel, anyway? Which ideas are so good that they’re guaranteed to get you praise at a staff meeting? When the path is both difficult and unknowable, procrastination can be a way of keeping you on safe, solid ground.
The Zeigarnik Effect
The key to getting things done is to get started. Here’s why it works. Action builds momentum. Once you’ve started a task, you’ll feel an urge to finish it. This difficulty in letting go of an unfinished task is called the Zeigarnik effect,[i] named after Bluma Zeigarnik — the Russian psychologist who first suggested the phenomenon. She observed that people remember the details of incomplete tasks better than those of completed tasks, and that this creates an impulse to get back to the incomplete task. This is great news. Once you start something new, you’ll feel an urge to finish it – if it’s small enough to feel manageable.
- First, think of a specific, concrete action that you can complete in 5 minutes or less.
- Next, decide when you can make it happen.
- Take the action.
Getting More Done
Here’s how it looks in practice.
- One of my clients, Laura, had writer’s block. She started to write again with this action: “As soon as I finish my morning shower, I will write one bad sentence.”
- Another client, David, was having trouble getting motivated to exercise. His action looked like this: “Right after lunch, I will walk to the corner and back.”
- Miles was a college student who found it hard to stick to a study routine. He tried this: “When I finish my 3:00 pm snack, I will sit down at my desk and solve one chemistry problem.” (Note: for this action, he chose problems that could be solved in under 5 minutes.)
- Isabelle couldn’t get herself to clean the overflowing shelves in her garage. She decided that every day, right after breakfast, that she would head to the garage and put away three things.
Of course there’s more to writing, getting fit, school success, and staying organized. But overcoming procrastination is about getting started. “Powering through” doesn’t usually work. And if you do nothing, you’ll stay stuck in the fog.
When you notice yourself procrastinating, think small and strategically. Use the Zeigarnik effect to get started. Even when you don’t know what to do or how to do it, you can take action. As plans become more clear and specific, you’ll find a easier and more direct path to your goal.
[i] Baumeister, Roy F., and Brad J. Bushman. Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thomson Higher Education, 2008.