How to Stop Procrastination (by pressing pause and slowing down)

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‘Hurry up!’ is my catchphrase, except one I use only on myself.

This isn’t new. Back when I first started using it at least I was legitimately busy. Back then, when people asked how I was, I’d always reply, ‘busy!’. And it was generally true. Either that or, ‘tired’, which was sometimes true but mainly just a word of habit. Anyway, either would have been understandable as between juggling work, studying, friends, socialising and making sure I ate my body weight in M&S Deli prawns and calamari and drank a gallon of Red Bull, I never seemed to have a free moment. Back then, when, by the end of the day, my to do list had always become even longer (than Karlie Kloss’ legs) I could comfort myself by reminding myself how much I’d done. I mean… lazing around parks, going to manifesting classes and reading books is time consuming work!

But now, I’m a different animal altogether, for various reasons (not least an irritating illness) and I don’t have the office job or the studying or the busy social life, yet I still seem to have an overflowing to-do list and I still feel mentally busy, as I try to either tackle the tasks on my list or tackle something else, like colour code my Bullet Journal, in order to AVOID tackling the to-do list.

Looking around at friends and colleagues, I realised the busy-itis affliction must be more contagious than the novo virus, since everyone seems to be running around like headless chickens! But the idea that busyness is productive is nothing but myth and, like all the other myths, it needs to be debunked… by me. Just ask my family or my best friend Laura, who all have to listen to me trying to debunk ALL MYTHS. It’s a thankless and time consuming task, I assure you.

Anyway, even though busy seems to be the vibe you must exude if you want to come across as a ‘proper’ high-functioning, important human, it’s a bit silly really. After all, the truth is that all of us ‘busy’ folks have have more hours at our disposal than any human in history: we’re living longer and, thanks to technology, we can do lots of things, instantly, whenever we fancy, any hour of the day, without so much as speaking to another soul never mind having to walk to a building to discuss the thing we want to get done or find out. Think of our grandparents, with ten kids and none of today’s time-saving equipment. Studies have found that women spend half the amount of time on housework as they did in the 1960s, thanks to microwaves, fridges, washing machines, better irons and other time saving bits of tech. We also have a world class research assistant at our disposal 24/7 thanks to our smartphones. So why do we feel so time poor? (Maybe something to do with that smart phone actually…)

We don’t all procrastinate to an extreme degree. My mother for one, has almost zero capacity for procrastination. Take domestic work for example, she’s like the Wimbledon Ball Boy of the cleaning/admin world. If she hears a task needs completed, she hops to it with the intense facial expression and all the exuberance, urgency, seriousness, pomp and circumstance of those uniformed, spritely, eager-beavers on centre court every summer.

It’s almost exhausting to watch. I suppose I shouldn’t even bother trying to keep up with or be inspired by a woman who used to get on her hands and knees and cut her front lawn with kitchen scissors (this is not a lie for comedic value, I swear) and bleached the front door step at 7am every morning of my childhood. Imagine adding the 7am step steep clean to your to-do list?! Then you’d really feel busy!

I mean, she’s so preposterous, I ought to absolve myself of comparison on account of her obvious insanity. I said as much to her and she told me, “not insanity: CLEANLINESS!!! Take a pride!“. So there we go, another addition to add to my mums Book of Odd Life Rules: Take a pride in your door step. Your doorstep?! I don’t have the energy and wherewithal to take a pride in my hair, never mind my bloody step. I don’t even own my own step!

It’s hard not to wonder what it would be like to be so lacking in procrastination, though. Just this morning Mitma Magpie told me she was “off to clean *Sister Magpie’s* house from 12 noon until 6pm”. Who cleans someone else’s house for SIX bloody hours, without being employed to do so?! She will have made a list of 100 tasks to be completed during her six hour clean of the *sister magpie* house and tackled them at the speed of one of those Bump to Baby videos on YouTube. And this is a house that would probably be described as pristine PRIOR to this marathon cleaning session.

I need to learn how to take a leaf out of her book, Minus the chapter called ‘Wimbledon Ball Boy Mannerisms’. So I went on a little quest to discover how to get time back on side, stop chasing the clock and become immune to debilitating busy-itis forever…

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Why Do We Procrastinate?

Psychologist believe procrastination is the result of hyperbolic discounting – the tendency to opt for instant gratification at the expense of a more worthwhile reward in the future. Like that marshmallow test they do with little children: one marshmallow now or ten later?! It’s why we do happy hour drinks even though we should be studying for an exam or writing an essay, or rearrange our wardrobes instead of writing the important work speech. There’s a gap between intention and action and we so often decide that the gap is best filled by a bag full of donuts or a casket of booze, to go along with the guilt that sits in our stomach.

How Do We Stop?

Stop Juggling & Start Mono-tasking

I find it so strange that multi-tasking is seen as the hallmark of efficiency, when it seems to me that so many people who pride themselves on their multitasking finesse, actually don’t finish any of their tasks to an exceptional level. I’m not just badmouthing people I’ve witnessed, as research reveals I’m right, since tackling jobs in tandem takes 30 per cent longer than doing one task after another. We also make twice as many mistakes. The trouble is that both our brainpower and willpower weaken over the course of the day. So, the more you chop and change tasks, the harder it is to knuckle down and get on with something, and then finish that task to a high standard. Another downfall of multitasking is what scientists call the “hangover effect”. This is when your subconscious broods on unfinished tasks, affecting your concentration on the one at hand. In my experience this is certainly true, as I have a low level anxiety whenever I procrastinate or have a lot of unfinished tasks on the go.

The takeaway here is: Finish what you’ve already started and your brain will clear and refresh, providing you with a clean slate and fresh canvas for the next operation.

Let Loud Colours and Fast Music Raise Your Tempo

We’d have to be visually impaired not to have noticed that fast-food restaurants love garishly bright logos and decor. We also know that fashion stores blast out high-energy pop music for the browsers within. These stimulants not only create an upbeat mood but have also been proven to make us eat, act and spend our cash faster (some of us don’t require any help with that) and in higher quantities.

The good news is that we can use these things to manipulate our own tempo. Supposedly when we see red, our heart rate goes up, we feel hotter, time feels like it’s passing more swiftly, we think faster and our reaction times increase. So with a to-do list waiting, put on a red dress/top/pyjamas… no? that’s just me in pyjamas constantly? Let’s move on…

Music can have varying effects. Up-tempo beats speed up physical or boring tasks, such as ironing, folding or cleaning, but if you need to concentrate on something analytical or creative, they can slow you down. So while cleaning the kitchen I blast some Taylor Swift (I know…), but while writing blog posts, I switched it over to Schubert and I think it worked effectively.

Sprint, Don’t Walk…

By sprint, I don’t mean, physically. I mean copy the sprint philosophy of some procrastination coaches. Yes, that is such a thing: I’ve read about them. Anyway, these ‘sprints’ are designed to last as long as our attention spans can manage – around 45 minutes. So we are encouraged to “work for a 45 minute burst and then take a break to recalibrate, before beginning the next sprint, and so on – breaking the tasks into bite-sized chunks that feel much more manageable than the marathon workdays most people endure.”

The breaks here are the crucial part I think. Not just because I am a lazy lump. Even for the more efficient souls out there, when chasing runaway to-do lists, it’s tempting to keep beavering away, straining our eyes and minds to get the task completed. But while pressing the pause button might feel counterproductive when you’re a busy bee, its the best way to find clarity. Apparently, while using computers and focusing intensely on a task, we tend to hold our breath, or our breathing becomes shallow. This puts our body in fight or flight mode, making us feel stressed and impulsive and this isn’t the optimum state to be in while completing our day-to-day tasks.

Breaks provide contrast within our day, keeping things interesting, sharpening our focus and allowing us to refresh and return to our duty refreshed too. That’s why some of our best ideas sometimes come to us when we’re on a walk, having a bath or getting our eyebrows waxed.

You can refresh by taking a break and using it to stretch somewhere or walk somewhere, read a book, listen to a podcast or my personal favourite for recalibration, play with a child.

I didn’t need to practice taking breaks, as it seems to be what got me in this procrastination conundrum in the first place but you might be in dire need of some to punctuate your busy day so give sprinting and resting a go, if you can, or your job/boss allows. I don’t know if this will go down that well in most offices if I’m honest: “I’ve been working for 45 minutes so I need to have a break”, but if anyone complains, lead them to this blog post and your BOUND to get away with it!

Put Time Thieves in Quarantine

What trips you up, slows you down, or sends you running to a coffee shop to read a magazine or a pub to down five drinks?

Time thieves come in many guises, and many things that are supposed to make us more efficient turn out to be time thieves in practice: I’m looking at you, Mister iPhone.

At the quietest message alert or change in phone screen, our brains release dopamine – the happiness neurotransmitter – and it is addictive so we crave it and we can’t take our eyes away from the screen for any length of time. In my case the phone alert actually gives me low level anxiety that it’s something I need to respond to so I turn it off, but I still check my phone hundreds of times a day probably.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Make time thieves – and yourself – less accessible. Just as you’re less likely to eat a biscuit if you have to go to a shop to buy one, you are less likely to surf the web if you’ve turned the wifi off. Luckily for me, my wifi disconnects 300 times a day. I feel like I’m back in the year 2000, minus having to get off the net so my mum can make a phone call. I can’t quarantine my phone because I use it to write these posts but I did try putting it on airplane mode so I wasn’t tempted by any incoming messages or any urges to check *Daily Mail website (I hate myself too, don’t worry. *Daily Mail is bad). I definitely got more done so I’ll try it regularly.

You could try to keep your phone out of eyesight so you aren’t reflexively scrolling.

I also read a procrastination coaches advice that we should “safeguard our time by telling everyone we are not available during the hours we produce our best work”. For me that’s about 3am, so it would be a bit weird to broadcast this time to people as important “work time”. If yours is 3pm, go ahead and let everyone know they should ‘get lost’ around that time.

Don’t Over think

Don’t overthink things is the next aim on my list. I’ve decided to just get something out there. Done is better than perfect. Done to an acceptably high standard if possible, obviously… but stop worrying that it’s not ready when it is in fact, ready.

Procrastination for me, like so many people, is rooted in fear of my own incompetence or being exposed as a fraud or a joker. The higher the stakes or the more I care, often the more I procrastinate because I want to delay the potential horror story: failing. You might be the same, with procrastination around study or writing or completing the new job application.

So, acknowledging this and remembering it when I procrastinated in the last few days, I was able to think rationally about what was causing the delay and what could go wrong. With that, I was able to just get my sh!t done and almost in an instant the low level anxiety that accompanies procrastination was extinguished. Of all of the techniques listed, not over-thinking was the one that created the biggest change and is the one I’d most recommend.

Between that, doing one task at a time instead of several concurrently, and breaking tasks into 45 minute chunks before breaking for a refresh, I’ve managed to get much more done and feel less anxious about the to-do list, too.

Busy-itis isn’t cured, but it might be in remission.

And while I might never get far enough down my to-do list that I’ll reach the entries for ‘clean the step’ or ‘cut the grass with scissors’, I think I can live with that…