Your best-laid plans are useless if not put into action. Planning doesn’t count unless it is translated into actually doing something. Procrastination infiltrates many aspects of our daily life. Often, we’re able to put things off without any real consequence. Or we squeeze tasks in at the last minute and just barely get them done in time. As this is something that most (if not all) people fall prey to, I’ll share some of the challenges that I’ve encountered.

Distractability – In the course of a single afternoon of “dedicated” action, I’ve been pulled away by phone calls and e-mails. I’m also guilty of wanting to check something on Facebook quickly and getting sucked into a series of articles. Then there’s the “Oh wait, I forgot about my lunch that was sitting here.” What pulls you away from your plans? What are you allowing to take your attention?

Perfectionism – I must have thought about how I wanted to do this 100 times, but didn’t put a single idea into action. I thought about what I wanted to do but postponed the actual task until I felt I could do it the “right” way. Part of this procrastination was researching options, reading up on motivational ideas, and planning superfluous details. It came down to delaying action until tomorrow because I wasn’t confident that I could do it perfectly today. The champion of getting things done is adopting a “good enough” attitude.

Finality – As long as I’m working on this project, there’s a chance I’ll figure out the right way. Once it’s finished, I can’t go back and fix things. This closely relates to perfectionism and the fear of mistakes. Think of the conclusion of a project as the transition to your next chapter, not the end of the book. This is the opening for your next adventure.

If you think there might be elements of procrastination interfering with your plans, rest assured, there are ways to challenge them. Just be warned that you might be tempted to put off these challenges instead of embracing them.

First, recognize that you’re procrastinating. It’s not bad to put things off, it just isn’t helpful in your efforts to reach your goal. Awareness is not always easy. Sometimes the distractions and lures sound really important. They don’t come with a warning of how they’re going to eat into your time.

Once you know you’re procrastinating, ask yourself “Why?” This question is not as simplistic as it seems. Here are some ways to probe deeper:

  • Do I want to be doing this activity?
  • Am I scared to do this? Am I scared to finish it?
  • Do I think I have more wiggle room with this activity?
  • Am I having a hard time paying attention to the task at hand?
  • What is my inner voice saying when I try to do this?

As you answer these questions, try to adopt a non-judgmental attitude. Be matter-of-fact about the situation and the consequences of your procrastination, but don’t beat yourself up about it. What’s done is done and you can’t change that. But you can change what you do next.

Now for the problem solving. Instead of continuing to procrastinate, what actions can you take that will move you closer to your goal?

  • Schedule specific times for working toward your goal
  • Make these times short and regularly scheduled (1hr/day)
  • Find the fun in each activity. After all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down!
  • Delegate where possible. Don’t take on (and put off doing) tasks that belong to other people. If someone else can do it in a timely manner, let them.
  • Create external accountability. While not a guarantee, you may be more likely to stay on-task when someone else is dependent on your efforts.
  • Have a deadline. While this is sometimes artificial and may have some wiggle room, knowing that there’s a due date can help get you focused and moving. I know I would have continued to put off writing this article for “just one more day” without the structure of a deadline.

Pablo Picasso once said, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” While I generally agree with this sentiment, remember that not everything is important. Not everything has to be done. Not everything CAN be done today. Prioritize what is meaningful to you and work on those activities. Just make sure that you’re okay with the things that are being left undone.

– Elspeth N. Bell, Ph.D.