Discover the root of your procrastination so you can finally tackle that dreaded task
You’ll make that eye doctor appointment... tomorrow? Call your daughter’s teacher… next week? Organize the bathroom... one day?
Most of us find that for some reason, we just don’t get to certain tasks on our to-do list. A host of theories claim to resolve this universal procrastination problem, but is there one method that really works for everyone?
“No,” was the consensus among the experts I spoke with — there isn’t one system that works for everyone, and most people only struggle with procrastination in certain areas of their lives.
If there isn’t one surefire method to solve the issue, what can we do to get a grip on our ever-growing not-today-maybe-tomorrow list?
“The first step to solving the issue,” says life coach and NLP Leah Hass, “is defining the problem. No matter how busy we are, we make time for what we want. If something on your to-do list is constantly falling to the wayside, ask yourself: Why am I not making time for this?”
If you’re having trouble figuring out why a task is not getting done, Leah suggests thinking it through by sitting in a quiet, relaxed setting, taking a walk, listening to music, or writing — whatever personally helps you focus.
Is the source of procrastination more intellectual or emotional? Do you have a trouble with focus, time management, or organization? Maybe you’re just missing an important piece of information it takes to complete a task? “Once you realize the motivation behind the procrastination, you’ve already tackled half the problem,” says Leah.
Here are some common reasons why you might procrastinate — and what you can do about it:
1. The task is too time-consuming
If you know you’ll have to set aside two-and-a-half hours to sort out a two-foot pile of papers, you’ll probably just let it sit. Life coach Helen Abelesz says that when the problem is work overload, focus on doing a part of the job instead of completing it.
“Break the task down into doable increments and then schedule it into your day,” says Helen. “For example, set aside 20 minutes on Sunday for organizing the papers, or commit to sorting the top quarter of the pile. Using a timer can also help increase your focus and optimize your performance level.” If you set aside a longer amount of time, Helen suggests breaking up the workload by scheduling in breaks.
2. You’re anxious or lacking confidence
Are you pushing off that dentist appointment because the thought of getting your teeth pulled makes you feel squeamish? Or delaying that phone call because the person on the other end of the line makes your stomach tighten? If you get anxious or apprehensive, nerves might be your biggest productivity killer.
“We so often avoid doing what we should be doing because it arouses fear of failure, fear of pain, or fear of the unknown,” says Bracha, accomplished kollel wife, business manager, and mother of nine. There are techniques you can use to overcome anxiety and prevent it from interfering with your productivity. See the sidebar for ways to keep those stomach butterflies in check.
3. Someone asked you to do it
You probably have one or two things that keep on creeping back on your to-do list because your boss, coworker, neighbor, or spouse asked you to do it. Even if you verbally agree to do something, you’re less likely to tackle it if it’s not within your realm of responsibility and you never internally committed to it.
Instead of resenting and procrastinating a job that was imposed on you, Leah suggests making a self-initiated choice and deciding whether or not this is something you want to do. Once the decision to undertake a job comes from you, you’ll be more motivated to complete it.
Your coworker asked you to do a project that was really assigned to her? Tick it off your list by deciding that you don’t want to take it on and then let your coworker know that it’s not something you’re able to do. Or you might decide it’s worth giving a shot because it’ll look good for your portfolio or because you really want to help your coworker out.
4. You don’t enjoy it
Sometimes even simple, manageable jobs become less manageable when you find them unstimulating or unrewarding. Helen suggests pairing up the less stimulating activity with something you enjoy. “If laundry tends to pile up because you hate folding, try listening to music or a shiur or schmoozing with your friend on the phone while you fold,” says Helen.
For those who work better single-tasking, setting a 15 to 20 minute timer might be a better option. “Promising yourself a little treat once you’ve completed the chore can also keep you motivated,” says Helen.
If you’re tardy about a specific household or work-related job because you don’t enjoy it, see if you can delegate that type of activity to another party. You don’t like throwing loads in the wash and it’s always the last thing to get done? Your teenage daughter might be able to do that for you. Your work-related Excel sheets are always blank? Maybe a coworker can swap that responsibility with you for one of hers.
5. You don’t have clarity
If you’re putting something on the back burner for a long time, you might not be clear enough about the goal or process of what you want to accomplish. When lack of clarity is the source of the problem, Bracha suggests trying to answer the why, what, when, where, and how to work through what you’re not clear about.
For example, if you’ve been pushing off speaking to your daughter’s teacher for a long time, it might be because you’re not sure what the focus of the conversation should be or what to say. Instead of relegating the job to the back of your mind, ask yourself: What’s your goal in speaking to the teacher? How are you going to accomplish that? What will you say?
6. You’re missing information or resources
You might procrastinate doing an errand because you’re missing a small piece of the how — the process. Perhaps you’re not dealing with your taxes because you don’t have an accountant whom you trust. In that case, make it your goal to call several friends and get accountant recommendations from them.
7. It compromises your values
We sometimes subconsciously put things off because it makes us uncomfortable from a moral or religious perspective. Instead of just delaying it, Leah suggest that we knock it off our list by facing the issue and deciding whether or not to go ahead with it.
You’re pushing off a phone call because you’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings? “If you give it enough thought, you might be able to come up with a way to navigate the phone call without hurting feelings,” says Leah. “Or you may decide that the necessity to make the phone call overrides your misgivings or decide that it’s not something you’ll ever be able to do,” says Leah. Turning to a rav or mentor might also be a necessary step to clarifying the issue.
8. You’re the last-minute type
People who work best during the last-minute adrenaline surge might chew their insides for never getting things done until the last minute. But Leah cautions these types to consider if it’s really a problem. Is everything getting done, despite the last-minute rush? Does it bother your spouse or kids? Is it affecting your shalom bayis? If it isn’t broken, there may be no need to fix it.
If you do have a legitimate reason to change your habits, you’ll have the motivation it needs to work through it. Leah suggests setting an earlier deadline for yourself. “Get yourself an accountability partner and tell your husband or friend your deadline,” says Leah. “You can also mark it on your calendar or paste the deadline on your fridge as a reminder.”
9.You’re a perfectionist
Very high standards can also get in the way of starting a difficult or overwhelming job. For busy mothers, demanding perfection of ourselves can also be unrealistic and harmful. Helen says that the best approach for dealing with perfectionism is realizing that you need to lower the bar. “Only Hashem is perfect and we just have to do our best,” she reminds us.
10. You struggle with organization, executive function, or have ADHD
People who struggle with focus issues, organizational issues, and ADHD will likely have a hard time successfully completing multiple tasks. Leah advises people who struggle in this area to keep an organized planner — and have a set place for it. “It’s especially important for people with ADHD or focus issues to keep a clutter-free environment,” says Leah. “Clutter in the home means clutter in the brain.”
There are many other techniques to help people with focus issues or ADHD live productive, accomplished lives. Learning time management skills, single tasking, breaking down jobs into small, manageable tasks, scheduling breaks, and setting timers are some of the things you can do to help better manage your workload. Leah suggests seeking outside help if necessary.
Like most other challenges, we can manage procrastination when we approach it on a personal level. When you discover an underlying issue behind your productivity slack, Leah reminds us to be accepting of our personal struggles. “Recognize that there’s a positive flip side to every negative trait,” says Leah. “Hashem gave each person the challenges he needs to grow — and the necessary tools to work with them.”
When Anxiety Interferes with Productivity
Sometimes, it’s fear that’s keeping us from showing up and getting the job done. There are a number of ways to confront your fears:
“When emotions kick in, moderate discomfort and unrealistic fears are ballooned out of proportion,” says Bracha. “When you think that fear is holding you back, ask yourself what will be the worst consequence, and whether that justifies postponing a responsibility.” For example, ask: what’s going to be the worst outcome of getting your tooth pulled? (Moderate pain). What will be the negative consequence of not getting your tooth pulled? (Complications and more severe pain down the line.)
You keep on putting off making that phone call because you’re phone shy? Helen suggests having personal positive affirmations at the ready to calm yourself down. “Give yourself a pep talk and remind yourself that you can do this. Take a deep breath and ask Hashem to help you,” she says.
Leah is also a believer in confidence-boosting mantras. “Find a personal quote that really talks to you, decorate it, and hang it in a place where you can see it when you need it,” she says. When worry interferes with productivity, Leah suggests telling yourself: “My goal is just to do Hashem’s ratzon. By doing X, Y, or Z, I’m trying my best to serve Hashem.”
Use your imagination
Leah also harnesses the power of imagination to help her clients conquer anxiety. “If you’re anxious about an interview, imagine yourself confidently sailing through it. Visualize even the little details: What does the interviewee look like? What does the meeting room smell like? How do you feel?
“The more vividly you envision it, the more realistic power you’re giving it,” she explains. “Once you walk through something in your mind, you’ll feel as though you’ve already accomplished it.”
Think about past successes
Reminding yourself about other times you’ve accomplished an equally challenging task can also boost your confidence. What motivated you then? How did you succeed? By thinking about your past successes, you’ll rediscover latent tools you have to overcome a challenge.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 679)
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