Sherrie Pillington’s fear of failure caused her to avoid even starting tasks—which left her feeling stressed and inadequate. She didn’t want to procrastinate, but she didn’t know how to change. It was not until she began to examine the motivation behind her procrastination that she realized what had her frozen in fear: a difficulty with time management and perfectionism.
“I was really stressed when a task took longer than the time I had dedicated to it,” says Pillington. “Not only did I want to finish my goal within one attempt, but, most importantly, I wanted the task done efficiently in the best scenario. I was thinking, It’s not worth doing unless it can be done right the first time.”
Pillington realized that in order to accomplish her tasks, she needed to tackle them one step at a time, without focusing on perfection. These days she sets a timer and sees how much she can get done in an allotted time period, which helps her feel more in control.
Performance coach John McGrail, Ph.D., believes that procrastination is far more complicated than simple avoidance of unpleasant tasks. “Procrastination is most often caused by fear of failure or fear of success—sometimes both at once—or a lack of personal validation often accompanied by a lack of self-esteem,” he says.
For chronic procrastinators, delaying and avoiding can feel like impossible behavioral patterns to break. But, fortunately, it is possible to change your ways. Recognizing what is driving the procrastination is key, as is finding a method to beat it that works for you personally.
When You’re Feeling Stuck
The Lose the WAIT Method
Corporate consultant and coach Karen Auld developed the Lose the WAIT method after realizing that many of her clients were struggling with chronic procrastination that was holding them back from taking action in their lives. “The majority of people who seek my services are stuck,” she says. “The majority of them have a big ‘but.’ You know, I’d go back to school, but . . . I’d change jobs, but . . .”
The Lose the WAIT method is as follows: W = What and Why, A = Acceptance, I = Imagination, T = Take Action. This method encourages you to recognize what you need to do and why you are putting it off, accept what you have to do, imagine ways to accomplish it, and make a plan of action. For many people, writing down their WAIT responses can be just the nudge they need to get unstuck. For added motivation, chronic procrastinators may benefit from working through these steps with the help of a coach or therapist.
When You’re Dealing With Time-Draining Tasks
Make a Plan
A common problem with planning tasks is misjudging how long they will take. “We think easy things are going to take longer than they actually do, and we are usually wildly off on how long difficult things take,” says Gabrielle Loehr, a mental health and wellness expert. “Figuring out how long you need to actually do the things you are procrastinating can be incredibly useful in freeing up time and mental space, which in turn makes it easier to plan your schedule.”
Figure out the main projects that need to be done, and break them down into tasks that are manageable and measurable. As you plan, be as realistic as possible about how long it will take to accomplish each component of the project. Keep track of how long each task actually takes, and you’ll end up with a better idea of how much time to budget for similar projects in the future.
When You’re Putting Off Boring Tasks
Make dreaded tasks more attractive by introducing a competitive aspect. Jon Rhodes has used this method successfully with his children: “I say to them, ‘You’ve got 10 minutes to make your room as tidy as possible, then you must stop. I will take a picture now, and then after your 10 minutes are up. Let’s see who wins. Ready, go!’”
The principle works for adults, too. Set a 20-minute time limit on a menial task, such as filing, and it will feel less like a drudgery. Timeboxing—allocating a fixed time period, or time box, for an activity—helps the task seem more manageable, and it creates a feeling of accomplishment, whether it is fully completed at the end of the time or not.
When You Don’t Have a Deadline . . . But Need One
Create a Contract
For author Bryan Mattimore, a written or understood contract is his method for combatting procrastination. In fact, it’s what helped him get his three books from his head to his editor. “Creating a social contract is something I do all the time in order to get past my tendency to procrastinate,” he explains. “The social contract is simply a promise I make to others—clients, friends, or family—to deliver something within an agreed-to time frame.”
Creating a contract with expectations can prove effective for those who flounder without an actual deadline. Knowing someone is counting on you to deliver by a certain date—even if it’s one you created—will add that extra urgency to complete the job.