How To Beat Procrastination, Part I
We all do it.
It’s so common, one of my graduate school instructors said: “If your client says they have nothing to discuss in therapy, ask them what they procrastinate about.”
Procrastination is an easy way to avoid an unpleasant task or situation. One satirical website even says “Hard work pays off later. Procrastination pays off now!” (See “Despair.com” for all sorts of humorous “de-motivational” materials.)
All kidding aside, procrastination can cause serious life problems. For example, studying that gets postponed for easier, more pleasant activities can lead to lower grades or dropping out of college altogether. Dishes get put off until not one clean spoon is left in the house. At that point we wash them whether we want to or not. Or better yet, we order in.
Procrastination often leads to problems at work. When I managed a large clinic, I noticed that many staff members would delay updating client records. When a clinical record is neglected, the consequences for the provider can be severe if an insurer or the client requests to see it. I’m not talking about just getting behind a few days. Some have gone for months without completing notes. If this happens in my field, I imagine it is a problem in others as well.
With a little work, though, procrastination can be effectively minimized. Let’s start with a metaphor.
Have you ever had to push a car that has broken down or is out of gas? I remember this happening to me on more than one occasion as a teen. All of us would get out while one of us stayed inside to steer. It was always hardest to get the car moving initially. We would put our backs into it and finally be rewarded with some forward motion. Once we got it moving it was much easier to keep it going. It was still difficult, but it was moving in the right direction.
Like pushing a car, getting started with unpleasant tasks is the hardest part. Most of us delay starting tasks because we dread doing them. We tell ourselves “It’s so awful! Doing these dishes is a horrible way to spend the afternoon!” We then make an excuse and tell ourselves we will do them later.
And then we don’t.
Thankfully, there is a way to overcome this “personal inertia.” We can employ what I call “The Five-Minute Rule.”
Simply put, I decide that I am going to commit five minutes to do the dreaded task. It is important that the commitment be for no more than five minutes. I can tolerate just about anything for five minutes.
When the five minutes are up, I get to decide if I keep going or switch to something else. If I want to stop, there is no shame or judgment. After all, I kept my five-minute commitment.
Oftentimes though, I will find the dreaded task is not so horrible as I had imagined it. I can then choose to keep going for as long as I wish. Often, I find myself either finishing the task or making a great deal of progress toward finishing it.
Many of my clients tell me that once they pass the five-minute mark it’s easy to keep going. They also tell me of feeling good about themselves once they finish. They also feel guilt free when they do something enjoyable afterward.
It is not uncommon for the Five-Minute Rule to be the only thing needed to overcome procrastination. Sometimes, though, other strategies can be helpful too.
I’ll put off writing about these until later. ;)