People often complain that there is not enough time to complete all their errands or big projects. This is genuinely the case sometimes, but most often, procrastination is the culprit. If you counted the amount of time spent on coffee breaks, watching television, texting, or surfing the internet before a big deadline, you may change your mind about blaming the constraints of time. So why do people keep falling into a cycle of procrastination? If you return to the moment before you decide to sit down on the sofa rather than empty the trash, or open up Facebook rather than send an important email, you may find that a number of beliefs about not being able to, or not wanting to put in the effort to complete certain tasks sends you down the wrong path. Perhaps instead of telling yourself that “it’s too hard, it can wait,” or “I can’t stand doing this right now because I am stressed out,” you can increase your threshold of tolerating your frustration by subscribing to more rational beliefs that are reality-based. For example, saying , “I don’t like emptying the trash, but I can stand spending two minutes on this task,” is realistic and increases the likelihood of the task being completed.
In addition to challenging our beliefs about not being able to tolerate the frustration associated with the tasks at hand, I have borrowed a few tips from Michael Bernard (2000):
“Knock-out” Technique: Complete the tasks that you find the most aversive first because it would be the most rewarding to be rid of these.
Small sequential steps: Instead of telling yourself that you have to complete one big task (e.g. finish everything on my to-do list by the end of the day; finish writing the entire report), try to break it down into smaller, more manageable steps (e.g. complete one item in the next 30 minutes; finish the first page of the report).
Five-minute plan: Tell yourself that all you have to do is spend 5 minutes on the task at hand. After you complete 5 minutes, you can add on another 5 minutes.
“Remember Forgetting” technique: If there is something that you have been putting off and forgetting to complete, as soon as it pops into your mind the next time, do it or do some of it.
“Swiss cheese” method: Do anything related to the task that you have been procrastinating on. When more and more of it has been completed, it becomes less aversive to complete the entire task. For example, if your goal is to clean your apartment, wash every plate that you use or pick up the stray sock on the floor. It will become easier when you complete small chores one at a time.
Self-reward: Reward yourself once you have completed a task. For example, allow yourself to watch that television show you put off in order to respond to a few emails. The television show is that much better when it is a reward.
Self-punishment: As long as you don’t complete the tasks you have set for yourself, force yourself to engage in some other tedious activities.
Cost-benefit analysis: Write down the reasons you would like to complete the tasks at hand and the repercussions if they were not done. Review your list regularly.
Stimulus control: Make your environment as conducive to completing the task as possible. For example, turn off your internet connection, put away your phone, or find a quiet place. You are much more likely to sit down and do something if you are not surrounded by distractions.
Next up: Amy Horowitz, Psy.D. on Think Before You Tweet (Lessons from Congressman Weiner)