With the arrival of the new year, millions of us made resolutions and set goals: finally start that healthy diet, go to the gym, get our finances in order. But if you're prone to procrastination, you may have already pushed off those plans. Procrastination can be a killer of productivity and lead to missed opportunities, financial losses and feelings of regret.
Full disclosure: this interview was conducted way back in September, and I've managed to procrastinate for months on putting the story together. So, this one is just as much for me as it is for you.
There are a few predictable reasons why so many of us put off tasks we know are important but not particularly enjoyable. The authors of the book "Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently," Sebastian Bailey and Octavius Black, say complacency and emotional barriers top the list.
"We use our mood as an excuse. We say, 'I'm happy to go to the doctor or do my tax returns, but I don't really feel like it at the moment.' When you hear yourself saying that, that is the time to take notice," says Black.
Becoming aware of your procrastination habit and taking action to overcome it can save you from paying much higher costs down the road. Putting off that doctor's visit may take a toll on your health; ignoring your to-do list at work could hurt your career or leave you pulling an all-nighter to meet the deadline; and the longer you delay saving for retirement, the less value you're able to build. Doing these things right away would save time, money, and sanity, but we've become such a nation of procrastinators that many of us have simply come to accept these higher costs as part of life.
Black and Bailey say it doesn't have to be this way. They say we can reclaim our peace of mind avoid the temptation to procrastinate by training our brains to think differently. "When we get into autopilot, we need to shake ourselves out of it," says Black.
They offer a series of different strategies to help us shake ourselves out of complacency.
One of these tactics is called 'negative consequences,' or upping the stakes. Bailey explains that when the cost of not doing the task right away is too low, it's easy to procrastinate. You can overcome this and motivate yourself to act by increasing the cost.
Let's say you know you should get to the doctor but keep neglecting to make an appointment. Get out your checkbook, Bailey said, and write a check "for an amount of money that would be painful to lose, maybe a couple of hundred dollars.... You write it to an organization that you really, really don't like." If you're a committed Democrat, make the check out to the GOP, or vice versa; or pick a rival college sports team you truly hope will lose. Then give that check to a trusted friend to hold. "And here's the deal," Bailey said. "If you haven't made it to the doctor within the month, I'm going to mail that check."
The idea is that the threat of having to financially support an organization you truly dislike may be enough to inspire you to action.
"You're shaking yourself out of complacency because you've increased the cost of not doing the task," Bailey explains.
If you're a chronic procrastinator, enlisting friends to help encourage you on your path to achieving your goals can be helpful, but you'll still need to do the work. "Social support is really powerful. But don't kid yourself that creating that social support is progress," he says
Another mind game procrastinators play is something the authors call 'action illusion' -- busying yourself with activities that don't actually help you get the job done.
Bailey admits he's guilty of procrastinating in this way: "When I've got a big task to do, my house is the tidiest place in the world. I do all the filing, I make sure all my emails are done... but I never get around to the tax returns. You're doing lots of stuff that makes you feel like you're progressing but you're not really solving the problem."
One way to avoid this common procrastination pitfall and to get going on the task you've been avoiding is something that Black calls 'the five minute start.' This tactic involves committing just five minutes to working on a task, and then letting yourself off the hook. You don't have to finish the job; this is all about getting started. After five minutes of work, you get up and take a break. Then you can decide to commit five more minutes, and see how that goes.
"What I find is that once I stop the process I see it's not as bad and painful as I thought, and then I get into it and I start to build momentum, and then I get over the initial hump," says Black. Just getting started is more than half the battle.