If ever there was a yin to productivity’s yang, an oil to productivity’s water, it’s procrastination, which is something nobody in business can afford given how fast, efficient and productive your competitors likely are. There’s an entire industry around trying to cure procrastination, another around trying to power up your productivity. But sometimes we don’t need an industry, we just need to be industrious and look within ourselves for answers.
As part of my research for my second book, I conducted interviews with scads of people with a self-determined propensity to procrastinate (they weren’t hard to find given the commonality of the bad habit). When combined with my personal experience having coached many sufferers of this ailment across three decades in corporate, I can share with you three big mental errors you can make that feed a procrastination habit, or at the very least get in the way of getting some important things done.
The key is to not fall for three lies in particular that you might tell yourself (as I shared in Find the Fire). Avoid these mis-beliefs and you’ll miss far fewer deadlines.
1. “I work better under pressure.”
You might believe this, but science doesn’t. Tim Pychyl, psychologist and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, says that stress created from time pressures makes it harder for your brain to function, weighing it down with a cognitive load and making it difficult to learn and translate ideas into meaningful information. Time and time again in studies, people under time pressure induced stress make far more errors of omission (not doing or including something they should have) and commission (doing something but doing it incorrectly or poorly).
So no matter how much you believe you work better under pressure, don’t take the bait. Relieve that pressure valve by just getting started. Think about it, how often have you put something off time and again, yet when you started the task you found yourself saying, “This isn’t so bad.”
2. “My willpower will kick in.”
Unfortunately, two classic studies on willpower show that your willpower is not as dependable as you think it is. The first willpower study, conducted by Janet Polivy from the University of Toronto showed that, in fact, we often avoid committing to long-term goals because we’re afraid that deep down, we know that when we encounter setbacks we’ll throw in the towel.
The second study, published in Psychology Science by Loran Nordgren from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, showed something even more disconcerting. When respondents were exposed to a range of temptations, from sexual in nature to cigarettes, they consistently gave into the temptation at a far greater rate than they predicted they would. So depending on your willpower to switch on and get you going on that important task later on is a strategy for suckers.
3. “My self-imposed deadlines will keep me on track.”
That’s all it takes, right? It’s not real until it’s on the calendar, goes the thinking. First, I’ve found that tasks expand to the amount of time you give them. Set a deadline a month from now, the task takes that amount of time to complete. Set it in a week, you miraculously find a way to complete it on time. In theory, that means you could just set deadlines sooner and keep things moving.
But something else often happens. When you finally get into the task, no matter when you set the deadline, it might turn out to be harder than you thought. You might discover it takes longer than you thought and you ultimately realize you don’t have enough time to hit the deadline, making you more likely to bail on the task altogether.
All this said, yes, you should still set deadlines. You just shouldn’t put off getting started assuming that the deadlines will provide all the pressure you need later on. Apply the pressure yourself to get up and running.
So to keep things moving, avoid these mental errors that tend to slow things down. To a screeching halt.