8 ways to beat procrastination

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? It isn’t that we don’t know what we have to do — but something always seems to get in the way.

Previously, we talked about the ways procrastination can hurt your finances — everything from getting stuck in a career rut to delaying retirement planning. However, the consequences hit more than our wallets. We put off doing things with friends and family and our relationships suffer. We put off eating right and exercising — and our health suffers. We give in to the urge to watch TV or play games and hours fly by without us accomplishing any of our goals.

We all procrastinate about something, says author Piers Steel in The Procrastination Equation. Sometimes fatigue and hunger zap our drive to stay on track. Sometimes we give in to distraction — and sometimes we just don’t want to deal with an unpleasant task.

While you can’t banish it from your life, here are some ways you can overcome procrastination.

Tips to get things done

Add challenge or novelty to the task. Not surprisingly, Steel notes the tasks we hate are the ones that we tend to postpone. (After all, who really wants to clear out the garage or tackle routine paperwork?) What makes us hate tasks isn’t the physical efforts — it’s the boredom. If we can add an element of fun or challenge to a mundane task, we’re less likely to put it off.

For instance, Steel suggests setting records or standards for yourself. For example, can you do the task in a shorter amount of time? Could you do it with one hand, or your non-dominant hand? Could you compete with a co-worker? When we turn “leaden tasks” into “golden tasks”, they’re less of a drain on our time and energy.

Make tasks relevant. Good news for boomers: Steels notes that procrastination decreases with age, and with good reason. The more life experience we have, the more we understand how those seemingly meaningless tasks are important in the “the big picture.”

To boost our motivation, Steel suggests connecting tasks to long-term goals that are meaningful to us. For example, if you love to entertain, then cleaning the house becomes a step to create an inviting and relaxing atmosphere. If you want a promotion at work, then promptly dealing with responsibilities shows your reliability.

Make goals manageable. The idea of this long-term context works in reverse too: if you find yourself put off by a large or distant goal, experts recommend breaking the process down into smaller steps or “mini-goals”.

Also, since getting started is half the battle, a mini-goal is often enough to get you over that initial hurdle. For instance, you make it a goal to walk for 10 minutes — once you get going, chances are you’ll continue.

Think in terms of success. Ever had someone warn you “don’t fall!” and nearly take a tumble? Steel warns that when we think in terms of avoiding something, we’re more likely to fall victim to it. For instance, the effort it takes to not think about that piece of chocolate cake in the fridge is keeping the treat top of mind — and eventually you’ll give in.

However, we can put that thinking to good use by setting “approach” goals rather than “avoidance” ones. In other words, think about what you want to happen rather than what you don’t want to happen. Instead of saying “I’m not going to start this project late”, say “I’m going to start this project early.” Instead of avoiding unhealthy treats, focus on healthy eating.

Get enough sleep, good food and exercise. It takes willpower to get started on a task or goal, but willpower isn’t in limitless supply. When we’re tired or hungry, our ability to resist temptation wanes and our decision making abilities seem to abandon us. Steel notes that being “too tired” is one of the top reasons we procrastinate.

Likewise, when we’re hungry we look for a quick way to satisfy the urge — which can sabotage anyone’s efforts to eat well or spend smart.

What can we do? In addition to not letting ourselves get too hungry or too tired, we can work with our energy levels. For instance, if you’re a morning person, that’s when you should tackle your most difficult tasks. Avoid leaving big jobs and big decisions for the end of the day when you’re tired. On the other hand, “night owls” have more success with goals they need to address when the work day is done.

And because exercise helps boosts our energy levels, it can help us beat fatigue too.

Harness productive procrastination. We’ve all done it — cleaned the house instead of studying or checked our email instead of tackling a big report. We justify procrastinating by doing something useful — so should we avoid these delay tactics?

Not so fast, says Steel. Tackling these small tasks can give us a sense of accomplishment that builds momentum — especially if they’re relevant to our target task. Remember what we said about mini-goals? Steel recommends finding “tangent” tasks that you find more pleasurable or less intimidating then your target task to get you on the right track. (Think of it as a way to get your feet wet.)

Limit distractions. If your foot causes you to stumble, should you cut it off? No, but you can turn off your email notifications, delete the short cuts to computer games and hide your TV remote. Long before procrastination experts came on the scene, religion had the right idea — if something is standing in your way, find a way to limit it or get rid of it.

Cues in our environment can hurt — or help — when it comes to meeting our goals. For instance, Steel notes we’ll be more productive at our jobs if we keep our workspace for work only. If you want to update your social networking accounts, watch a video or place a personal call, you’ll have to go elsewhere.

However, you can also use external cues to your advantage — a visual can be a strong reminder to get something done. For example, keep a bill on your fridge until you pay it or make a to-do list. Inspirational quotes and images can help you tune into that long-term, big picture thinking. A photo of your family can remind you why you work hard, and a picture in your wallet of a house can you pause before you crack out that credit card.

Find your calling. If work is where you find you procrastinate most, it could be your job and not your personality at fault. Steel isn’t the only one who advocates doing something you love. Experts have long known the power of intrinsic motivation — the drive that comes from within, rather than from external rewards.

Of course, we know it’s not that easy and the advice isn’t just for the young. Steel notes that finding the perfect job can be as elusive as finding the perfect mate, and, for most people, it’s an ongoing struggle. He encourages readers to think about the possibilities as they build their careers, and pursue their passion to avoid getting stuck in a rut.

Reward yourself. A reward for completing a task can be a powerful motivator — but it’s a tactic procrastinators tend to skip. Steel notes that people who procrastinate don’t seem to appreciate their own efforts. If you’re looking for some extra motivation, think about a reward you can enjoy when you accomplish your goal — be it a glass of wine, a good book or a vacation.

However, these self-administered rewards aren’t a one-off deal. When you get in the habit of rewarding yourself, you’ll find you enjoy the work too — a quality known as “learned industriousness”.

Sometimes rewarding yourself during the task can help too — like combining something you like to do with something you’re not so enthusiastic about. For example, exercise with a friend or treat yourself to a hot beverage while you tackle your budget.

So can you beat procrastination? You don’t have to aim for perfection: start small instead. Overcoming procrastination gets easier because we develop good habits that help alleviate the drain on our willpower. The more we use our willpower, the more willpower reserves we have to draw on.

That is, if we can get started in the first place…

To learn more about why we procrastinate and how to overcome it, check out Piers Steel’s The Procrastination Equation.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Joe Potato Photo

Curb your food cravings
Boost your willpower
Fight decision fatigue
Land a job you love
8 steps to get financially organized