Why we procrastinate (and what to do about it)

We all procrastinate at some point in our lives, whether it's procrastinating over completing a project or putting off painting the living room .A small amount of procrastination is not always a bad thing, as it can give us time to think things through, but regular procrastination can destroy your life as chances pass you by. We're often aware that we're procrastinating, but we still do it anyway. Why is this, and more importantly, what can be done about it?

Why we procrastinate

Procrastination is mostly used as a defence mechanism to protect us from our fears, such as the fear of failure. This behaviour is reinforced by the fact that procrastination is often rewarded. For example, even high school assignments that were completed the day before were often rewarded with a relatively high grade. There was very little incentive to go the extra mile and complete something early and to a higher standard. If anything, this kind of behaviour would often result in alienation from your peers and even physical bullying.

Despite saying to ourselves "that's the last time I'll leave it so late", we still end up leaving important jobs to the last minute. Why?

Fear of Failure

Failure has different meanings for different people. For a perfectionist, anything less than the absolute best result is a failure. For other people, it may be a lack of praise from someone they respect that causes them to believe their project is a failure. This fear is particularly potent as many people (mistakenly) equate their own self-worth to the worth of whatever they create. If the project is a failure, then in their eyes they are also a failure. This way of looking at self-worth can be extremely damaging, as it prevents us from taking chances in case we fall short of some impossible mark.

Fear of Success

As if the fear of failure wasn't enough, now it's the fear of success! This takes several different forms, but a lot of it is down to your own perceptions of the outside world. You might have negative images of successful people, and worry that you might become like them if you succeed. Again, this fear can come from school where most success is frowned upon by peers. It's often easier to lower your performance to an average level just to get by.

The other worry that goes with success is the fear that you will have more and more work piled upon you when you succeed and that you'll eventually become overwhelmed…

Fear of Being Overwhelmed

As well worrying that success will lead to more work being piled on, there is also the initial fear of seeing how much work the project needs in order to be completed. This leads to stress as all those minor tasks rush through your head. In a sense this is similar to starting with a blank canvas and wondering about how you will transform it into a work of art. Feeling overwhelmed can have a large impact on overall productivity, as you run around putting out fires without ever feeling like you're moving forward.

Fear of Finishing

The fear of finishing is quite interesting, as most of us procrastinate about getting started. Fear of finishing is closely tied to the fears of success and failure, in that the project will be "judged" upon completion, which will lead to either success or failure. There is also a fear of the emptiness upon completing the project, which can be especially prevalent if it's been worked on for a long period of time.

Lack of Direction

It's difficult to get started on a task if you're not sure of where it's going, even though it can feel like planning will only slow you down. It's vitally important to have a good idea of the final outcome for a project, even if the finished article will differ. Without an end result in mind, it's hard to go anywhere.

Lack of Discipline / Laziness

I wasn't sure whether to include this on the list, as it's much easier to beat yourself up and say it's down to laziness than to accept you may be afraid of something. If you find you're always putting the rewards first, you might need to take a look at yourself to see if it's really a lack of discipline, or if you have a deeper fear of something. Don't be too quick to write yourself off as lazy.

How do we overcome procrastination?

Detach your self-worth from your work

This is easier said than done, but it's really important to keep your self-worth separate from your results. It's a fact of life that some things don't always turn out how we expected. At the time failure can seem like the worst thing in the World, but given time it's easier to see the good things that came from it. Lessons can be learnt from every failure, and improvements can be made that will make you a better person. If you fail, take some time to look at it before picking yourself up and moving on.

Break your tasks into smaller parts

Large projects should be broken down into many smaller chunks, which can then be completed in short bursts. This can help to prevent the overwhelming feeling when looking at the bigger picture, and can also be useful to get you get started.

Make continuous improvements

In "Agile Achievement", I mentioned making iterative improvements to projects. Many small improvements over time can help break the mental picture that the first release must be perfect. To follow up with the blank canvas analogy, think of using an iterative approach as using light pencil lines to sketch your picture, before adding more detail and finally beginning the actual painting.

Not only do small iterations help break the image of the huge barrier to completion, but they also allow you to make adjustments much easier.

Understand that you can't do everything

There is never enough time to do everything that you want. If you're feeling overwhelmed with work, it might well be time to learn to prioritize your tasks. My favourite method is one used by Brian Tracy, in which you read through your task list and prioritise based on which task would make the most difference in your life if completed. This helps to clarify which tasks are really the most important, and can help prevent you from wasting your time on irrelevant jobs.

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Really Simple Success

I was recently "tagged" by the folks at Breathing Prosperity, who passed on the "Success Tag" message to myself. It's slightly different from usual "blog about yourself" tags as it's aimed at getting people to share their success tips. Here's my take on it…

1. Define Your Success

Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a success. For some it might be a fancy car and lots of neato toys, for others it might be serving others or putting a smile on the face of someone they care about. Defining your success if vitally important, because if you don't decide what it is, someone will do it for you.

You only need to look at modern advertising to see this in action. You'll be never be happy without Product X, Product Y will make you better and so on.

By deciding on what will make you successful, you immediately create a way of finding out what won't make you a success.

2. Set Your Priorities

Make it a priority to achieve your goals. Success is very rarely achieved overnight, and it takes time and energy.

Some tasks are really boring and unpleasant, and sometimes you will just want to sit down and do nothing, and you really want to do something, but always be looking for the things that will bring you closer to achieving your goal and that will bring the most benefits.

3. Commit to Paper

Once you've decided on your goals and prioritised them down, write them down on paper. I recommend paper over electronic storage simply because its more portable and flexible. You can easily pull out an index card to read on a train or bus, or when you have five minutes of spare time.

4. Review Your Plans

This is a vital part of achieving any goal, but it is very easy to overlook. The more often you review your goals, the more they become embedded in your daily thoughts. You should aim to read your goals at least once a day, and review and rewrite them as often as necessary.

Making constant, small adjustments is much easier than making a few very large changes.

5. Take Action

Take action, any action, that will bring you closer to achieve your goal.

Notice I say "any action", and not "the one single perfect action that will solve everything". It's extremely easy to get into the trap of putting off action because you want to make sure you do everything right. There is seldom one perfect action that will complete a goal, so take it one step at a time.

Whilst it's important not to rush blindly into everything, it's equally important not to procrastinate too much on tasks. If you break your goals into small chunks, you can do a little bit of action every day.

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10 Ways to Energise Your Day

Waking up in the morning can be difficult. Even if you go to bed full of energy and enthusiasm, it doesn't always carry across to the morning. If you find yourself with a groggy head after waking up, try some of these tips to give yourself some energy.

1. Exercise – 20 to 30 minutes of exercise can do wonders for your energy levels. If the weather is nice, it's even better as you can go outside and breath in some fresh air. If you're particularly enthusiastic, you can go outside in the cold and rain too. If nothing else it will wake you up!

2. Relax – It might seem counter-productive to relax as soon as you get up, but it aids concentration and gives you some time to clarify your thoughts. Even though "just getting on with it" seems like the smart thing to do, it can end up doing more harm than good. Take a few minutes every morning to do some deep breathing or light meditation and clear your head.

3. A Quick Shower – Some people recommend a lukewarm shower in the morning to wake them up, but personally I prefer it to be a little warmer. This is a good idea if you've done some exercise!

4. Ditch The Computer – There have been far too many days when I've sat down to "check my email" only to glance at the clock later and find half my day has gone. Even if your work requires a computer, try and blast through some manual tasks first.

5. Listen to Something Inspiring – This also goes great with exercise. Make a collection of inspiring tunes or podcasts, and listen to them whilst you work-out.

6. Read Something Inspiring – A few inspiring stories first thing in the morning can be a great boost. There are plenty of books full of these stories, but autobiographies are also a good place to go.

7. Revisit a Previous Victory – This is one of my favourites, because it's so simple but is easy to overlook. When things get difficult, our first reaction is often to affirm that we're incapable of completing the task, when the truth is that we're much better than we give ourselves credit for. Take a few moments to remember all the times you've been faced with a difficult moment and have succeeded.

8. Read Your Goals – Your goals should inspire you, so read through them every morning to get yourself in the mood. This also helps to keep you focused on what you want, which is always a good thing.

9. Choose a Reward – Not everything on your to-do list will be fun and exciting, and you may need a little encouragement to get things done. Pick out something that you want, and then treat yourself to it when you're done. Make sure you spend some time thinking about the reward to build your desire and motivation. Simple, but effective if done properly.

10. Ditch the TV and Newspaper – It's nice to feel informed, but being bombarded with all of the unpleasantness the World has to offer every morning can be a real motivation killer. Use the time saved to read something more inspiring, such as your goals or an uplifting story.

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Becoming Proactive

In "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People", Steven Covey wrote about seven habits that could change a person's life on an immeasurable scale. These habits are split into three distinct areas: Private Victory, Public Victory and Renewal, which cover both internal and external change.

The first habit, and possibly the most fundamental, is "Be Proactive".

What does it mean to "Be Proactive"?

The term "Proactive" has lost a lot of its meaning in recent years, as it has been picked up and bandied around as a buzz-word (much like the term "synergy"). Once you cut through the management speak, you'll see that this habit is one of the most vital that any person can develop.

Being proactive is about choosing how you react in any given situation. The more commonly held reactive model of living suggests that how we act in certain circumstances is out of our control. If someone shouts at us, we become upset. It's not our fault, it's theirs. They made us feel this way.

The proactive model says that you can decide on how you react. By living a proactive life, you take full responsibility for how you act and feel.

Steven Covey illustrates this habit with the story of Victor Frankl, a Jewish prisoner during World War 2. With the exception of his sister, Frankl's entire family perished during the war, and Victor himself was subjected to savage and harrowing torture. During his time as a prisoner, he came to realise that although his captors could take away the freedoms of his physical body, they could not take away the most basic freedom of all - the freedom to choose his response.

How do you become proactive?

Like building any habit, becoming proactive takes time and consistent effort, but it can be learnt in a similar way to most other habits.

I would certainly recommend taking a thirty day trial to see if it makes a difference. Start small and build your way up. Going in at the deep end can destroy your confidence, so start with small things. This helps to give a solid foundation as you gain experience and confidence.

A few examples of where you can try out being proactive:

  • Work on a small task you've been putting off, and pay close attention to how you feel whilst doing it. Experiment with changing how you feel during the task.
  • Replace reactive language such as "I can't" with proactive language like "I choose"
  • Show unconditional love to another person. Don't wait for them to show it to you.

There are plenty of other ways to be proactive, so have fun and experiment. One of the great things about doing a thirty-day trial is that you can try lots of different approaches in a short space of time, but without the pressure of making a permanent commitment.

Why does it make a difference?

Everything can build upon this habit. Becoming a better person requires that you go about it in a proactive way. Getting fitter, learning a new language, starting a business, forming a new relationship or maintaining an existing one. All of these activities benefit when you act in a proactive manner instead of a reactive one.

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How to change your bad habits

We all have bad habits that we'd like to get rid of. They can be something simple, like chewing our fingernails, or they can be something more dangerous like eating too much junk food or watching too much TV. Giving up a bad habit can be a difficult process, but it can be made easier by approaching it in the right way.

Why it's hard to stop a bad habit

Picture the scene: It's 3am in the morning, and you've just finished playing some Flash game involving towers whilst reading two-dozen blogs about funny things cats have done. You wake up the next day tired and irritable, with huge bags under your eyes.

"That's it", you say, "No more late night internet surfing for me!"

You make the commitment to stop hanging on the internet for so long. For the first few days you're clear of the internet, but it isn't long before you find yourself rubbing your eyes at 2am and wondering why you failed.

The problem isn't always that you don't have the discipline to succeed, or that you're too addicted to something. The problem is that getting rid of a habit leaves a hole to be filled. It sounds simple, but dropping the habit entirely won't fix the problem. By leaving out something like internet surfing, you're creating a gap that wants to be filled. If you don't fill it, you'll go back to your old ways.

A better solution is to replace the bad habit with a more constructive one.

Identifying your bad habits

There are two main ways of finding a bad habit. The first and easiest method is to just grab a piece of paper (or open up notepad) and write down what you think your bad habits. We're often our own worst critics, so it's not hard to fill a sheet of paper, but try not to be too hard on yourself. Focus your attention on the habits that will yield the highest rewards if you replace them.

The second way is to ask other people what your bad habits are. This can be quite an eye-opener, but be prepared to hear things you might not like. It's not essential to get feedback from other people, but it can be useful if you want to get a fuller picture.

Setting your new habit

Once you've decided on which habit to change, you must decide what you'll replace it with. I recommend only changing one habit at a time to begin, and to build upon small victories. Think of all the benefits you'll gain from taking up your new habit, and compare it to the consequences of keeping your existing habit.

It's important to visualise the benefits and how they'll make you feel, as this will help when the going gets tough (which it will). Don't forget to write all of this down, so you can refer to it as often as you need. I suggest when you wake up and before you go to bed, but it's really down to personal choice. The important thing is to constantly reinforce the belief of how this new habit will improve your life.

Changing your environment

Our environment often reinforces our current habits, so take a conscious step and change things to reinforce the habit that you want. A small change in our surroundings can make a huge difference in our habits. If your environment isn't supporting this new habit, then it's time for a change. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic, and even creating a poster with your new habit written on it can make all the difference.

For example: if you want to stop drinking lots of soda, replace all the existing drinks in your fridge with water or fruit juice, and keep bottles of water close to the areas that you work in.

The case of the chewed fingernails

To finish off with, here's a small example of how all this can work. A friend of mine had a habit of biting their fingernails that they wanted to change. They found the easiest way to prevent themselves from biting their nails was to place nail clippers around the house. The best places to put them were in areas where they would normally start biting, such as next to the couch or on the bedside table. When the urge came to bite, they could simply pick up some clippers and use them instead.

That's a very simple example, but it shows just how powerful a few small changes can be.

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