Day 115 is courtesy of Jacqui Brown

There are less than one hundred days left in 2011.

If you have a backlog of projects that you meant to work on this year, but which you haven’t gotten around to, it’s very likely that procrastination is the culprit.

Timothy Pychyl, Ph.D., creator of the popular web site procrastination.ca, is one of the world’s foremost experts on procrastination. Dr. Pychyl defines procrastination as “the needless, often irrational, voluntary delay of an intended task”. That is, you intend to work on a task but you go off and start working on something else which you know is not as important, and which doesn’t need to get done right away.

There are several myths, lies, or excuses that we use in order to avoid doing the work that needs to be done. A procrastination myth is when we tell ourselves that there’s a valid reason why we’re putting off an important task, when the reality is that it’s just a lame excuse we’re using in order to defer doing work that requires effort and concentration. Four of the most common procrastination myths are laid out and debunked below.

Myth Number 1: “I work better under pressure.”

You have an important report due in two weeks, but instead of getting started on the report you find yourself cleaning out the refrigerator or reorganizing your closet. In order to reduce the dissonance that exists between what you’re doing and what you should be doing, you immediately start rationalizing this behavior. You tell yourself that you’re just one of those people who works better under pressure, so the best thing for you to do is to postpone getting started on the report.

The reality is that procrastination harms performance. Scrambling around trying to complete projects at the last minute and cramming the night before a big exam is not the most efficient or enjoyable way to get things done. Planning and pacing your projects always gets you better results, and it’s a lot less stressful than constantly pulling all-nighters and handing things in at the last possible moment.

If you’re convinced that you simply can’t get yourself to start on a task unless you feel the pressure of a looming deadline, then start creating artificial pressure for yourself. There are many ways you can do this. For example, set a timer and tell yourself that you have thirty minutes to write the first paragraph. You can even pretend that it’s a timed essay exam and that at the end of the thirty minutes you have to stop typing, no matter what. Another method you can try is to get an accountability buddy to whom you have to “hand in” regular updates of your work.

By using artificial pressure you get the best of both worlds. On the one hand, having artificial deadlines forces you to focus all of your attention on the task at hand, and it prevents you from expanding the work needlessly in order to fill the time available for its completion (Parkinson’s Law). On the other hand, this method allows you to give yourself sufficient time to do adequate research, to check your facts and figures, and to edit your work properly.

If you’re still not convinced, conduct an experiment. Take two similar tasks: postpone working on one of the tasks until the last possible minute; pace yourself on the other one. Then, compare the two experiences.

Myth Number 2: “I need to be inspired or to be in the right mood before I can work on this.”

Do you put off getting started on important tasks until you’re “in the mood” or until inspiration strikes? Telling yourself that you’re waiting for inspiration to strike is procrastination in disguise. Instead of waiting for the ideas to start flowing before you get started on a task, you need to sit down and get to work with or without inspiration. You’ll find that inspiration is a byproduct of having the discipline to do what needs to be done; inspiration comes from doing.

Stop wasting time waiting for inspiration. As Picasso once said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”

Myth Number 3: “I need to have at least three or four hours of uninterrupted time in order to work on this.”

In “Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time” Brian Tracy recommends that you think continually of ways to save, schedule, and consolidate large chunks of time. Then, use that time to work on your most important tasks. However, if you don’t have a large chunk of time available to work on an important task, such as a report that’s due in a couple of weeks, it’s a mistake to keep postponing the task until you do have a few hours of uninterrupted time.

Instead, you should apply the “Swiss Cheese Approach”. This is a method that was introduced by Alan Lakein in his book, “How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life”. Of course, Swiss cheese is easily recognizable because it’s full of holes. According to Lakein, “the underlying assumption of the Swiss cheese approach is that it is indeed possible to get something started in five minutes or less. And once you’ve started, you’ve given yourself the opportunity to keep going.”

In a nutshell, the Swiss Cheese Approach consists of the following:

  • Work in small holes of time, such as fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, or half an hour.
  • Poke small holes into a large task on a consistent basis.

This approach works for the following reasons:

  • Once you get started on a task, it no longer looks as difficult and overwhelming as it did before you got started.
  • By poking small holes in a project you’ll be making constant progress at a good pace.
  • This approach allows you to create a sense of forward momentum.
  • Each time that you get a little bit of the task done, it gives you a feeling of accomplishment.
  • You’re making good use of small pockets of time, instead of wasting that time.

When you only have fifteen or twenty minutes to work on your project, instead of telling yourself that you’re better off waiting until you have more time to work on it, ask yourself the following questions:

  • “What can I get done in these fifteen minutes?”
  • “Is there a small segment of the project that I can get started on?”
  • “How can I use this time to poke a small hole into this project?”

Keep poking holes into the project whenever you have a few minutes to spare, and soon you’ll be surprised to discover that you’re practically done with the project.

Myth Number 4: “I’ll be able to do a better job tomorrow.”

We all have a tendency to think that things will be different in the future, even if that future is just tomorrow. In the future we’ll have more time, we’ll be better organized, we’ll have more impulse control, we’ll be better rested and have more energy, and we’ll be better equipped to get things done. Therefore, we keep handing our present-day responsibilities over to this superhero future self.

The reality is the following:

  • Unless you start taking steps to become more productive and effective today, you’ll be as time-starved tomorrow as you are today.
  • Unless you take steps to become more disciplined today, you’ll be just as undisciplined tomorrow as you are today.
  • Unless you take steps to become more organized today, you’ll be just as disorganized tomorrow as you are today.

This can be boiled down to the following tried and true adage: don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.

Conclusion

Most of us have probably used one or more of the myths above as a way to excuse ourselves from getting to work on a task that made us feel uncomfortable–because we were afraid of doing a bad job, because the task was complex and we felt overwhelmed, or because there was something else we would rather have been doing. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll stop saying these things to yourself when it’s time to get to work on an important task.

What myths have been sustaining your procrastination habit? Please share in the comments below.

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