The First Step Toward Beating Procrastination
One moment you're planning to tackle that huge assignment that you've been thinking about for the last month, and the next moment you're completely focused on the unnecessary, non-urgent task of looking for an old family photo underneath all of the dirty clothes in your closet. How is it that back in college you were able to write out a 9-page paper the night before it was due, and now that you're an adult it's so difficult even to take the time to plan for a project that has been plaguing you?
You know you're a procrastinator when you focus on vacuuming out that dirty closet over working on a project that has been begging to be completed for months. If you're like me, you are probably tired of being held back by your tendency to procrastinate.
You may have read my first article on procrastination, which talks about why we do what we do. Now it's time for you to break free from procrastination.
I am a recovering procrastinator who has done some research on the subject, so I'm not claiming to be an expert. However, I want to shed some light on things that I've learned so that I can free more people to become doers rather than procrastinators.
Neil Forte, in his beautiful book The Now Habit, describes an analogy that perfectly explains how procrastination works. In your mind, pick out one thing that you have been procrastinating about for weeks. It could be a paper that you need to work on if you're in college, or taking out the trash, or something big, such as completely remodeling your kitchen. Or it could be something work-related, such as completing that annual report for your boss.
Walking the Plank
Now that you have the task in mind, imagine the simple act of walking on a plank. The plank is wide enough for you to walk on—maybe 3 feet wide. It's only a foot above the ground and 10 feet in length. You can simply walk the plank without being worried about falling over. You don't have to worry about an outside force coming in and shaking you off. In fact, if you did fall over it would be comical, and everyone—including, hopefully, yourself—would have a great laugh. Easy, right?
Now imagine that plank was raised 100 feet in the air. Now what are you thinking? If you're like me and you're terrified of heights, you're probably thinking, “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.” Reflect for a moment on how your thoughts changed when the plank was raised.
All of a sudden, this extremely simple task that could be done by anyone now becomes a life-threatening proposition. You feel paralyzed by fear. You wonder how you're going to make it through another day. You want to put this off until you feel like you can actually handle it. You'd rather go back into the building that's supporting the board on your end rather than walk across it, because should you fail, it could be the end of you. You would not survive such a fall, and even if you did, you would be in really, REALLY bad shape.
Just like with the plank analogy, procrastinators take simple tasks that are relatively easy to follow through on and make the stakes impossibly high. Procrastinators fear failure. If we fail at preparing that annual report for our boss, it could mean being reprimanded, receiving a demotion or even being fired.
Although some of these ramifications may actually not be true, procrastinators tell this story to themselves in their mind. You tell yourself a story that ultimately makes you feel like the world will end if you fail, and therefore, you fall off the plank.
When Deadlines Loom
Now let's imagine a third situation. You're back up on the plank at the beginning spot, but now the building behind you is on fire. Now you are probably thinking, “Oh crap, I have to cross this board!” It doesn't matter how you do it, but you will cross that board. You will walk across it no matter what it takes, and you will try your hardest not to fall. Why? Because you have to get across. If you don't get across, the board will eventually catch fire and you will fall, too.
This is what happens when deadlines approach. We know that the deadline could be approaching tomorrow and we scramble to get everything done and turned in just in time. This, in turn, teaches us that procrastination is a good thing—we can wait until the last minute to turn in the assignment and still be OK.
We use procrastination to save ourselves from the stress and anxiety involved. By procrastinating, we give our minds a break, relaxation, and ease, but in the moment it sure doesn't feel like we are getting much ease because we are stressed out. It isn’t until the building is on fire that we are forced to move our butts as fast as possible so that we can meet the deadline and safely travel across that board.
The Stages of Procrastination
In stage 1 of procrastination, procrastinators usually feel that the task they are doing has no worth. By giving a task worth, you put worth in the result of that task.
Here’s an example: When I was a Burger King burger flipper, I put no worth in what I did. I felt like my job was worthless, so I naturally procrastinated about everything and was consequently an awful worker because I put no worth or value in what I did.
Stage 2 occurs when you begin to put too much worth into tasks. On the flip side, when I became a pharmacy resident, I put so much worth in everything that I accomplished, from my major research project to my individual patients that I managed.
If I failed in any one of those things, I ultimately felt like a failure. I felt like if my research project didn't come through or if one of my patients suffered an error or a poor outcome, it reflected on me and who I was, and it made me feel like trash. To avoid feeling like trash, to keep any mistakes from happening and to avoid pushing forward on my work because a mistake could happen somewhere, I procrastinated.
The third stage of procrastination is when you become frozen with anxiety in order to deal with the threats of potential error. We use procrastination as a tool to escape from that pressure.
The final stage is to use deadlines. Deadlines help you become unfrozen from that pressure and cause you to take action as quickly as possible.
If you have ever procrastinated or struggled with it, you've heard people say simple things like, "Just do it." But, they don't know about your task and they don't understand that it's 100 feet in the air. They don't understand that if you fail, you could die, you could lose your job, you could be reprimanded or you could be viewed poorly by others in your workplace. That's why creating a safety net for yourself is so powerful.
Creating a Safety Net
Now, imagine a fourth plank-walking scenario. You're back up on the board 100 feet in the air and the building isn't on fire, but below you is a safety net. The net looks quite safe—like if you fell on it, it wouldn't hurt at all. In fact, even if you fell, you might even bounce up high enough to get back onto the board. In fact (gasp!), it may even be fun to fall.
The fourth scenario is when you create a powerful belief in your worth. When you create a powerful belief in your innate worth, you don't have to worry or feel stressed out by any task because no matter what your performance is on the task, it doesn't change your worth. By creating this powerful belief in your worth, you are creating a big, soft, bouncy safety net for yourself.
Develop a Positive Self-Statement
The first step to beating procrastination is to have a positive self-statement.
Now, if you don’t quite buy the positive self-statement, hear me out. I am a true skeptic. In fact, I think pharmacy school taught me to have the perspective that alternative medicine is voodoo magic and, at one time, I believed that self-help industry was nothing more than a huge money-making machine. I tease my wife all the time about using essential oils, and when it comes to positive psychology, I was skeptic until I actually applied what I am about to share with you.
The (shocking!) truth is that I procrastinated on writing this article. So, I kept track of my thoughts during my writing process, and guess what? I found myself saying things in between my time spent writing such as, "You're not an expert on procrastination. You aren't good enough to write this. What if you write this and people think you're a phony or worse yet, one of those weird motivational speakers who sounds like a sleazy sales guy?" I had all this negative self-talk around writing this article.
To encourage more positivity, I wrote down those negative things and said, "I don't want to believe these things. I want to write this article and I want to help others beat procrastination because I've used this process and it's helped me get things done faster." I put this in writing and it became one of my positive self-statements.
I want to help people. I’m not a perfect writer or an expert in procrastination—but no one else is, either. No one truly knows it all about procrastination. There's always more to learn and everyone experiences procrastination differently. My second positive self-statement was: “I've read several medical journal trials about procrastination and several books. I know more than the next guy.”
If you know the task that you are procrastinating about, one of the best ways to break from it is to identify what feelings and emotions you have about the task itself and the negative story you are telling yourself.
I once had a friend who would tell me about her new pharmacy job by saying things like, "I think I'm going to fail. I'm afraid I'm going to mess up. My boss is always mad at me. I think I'm going to make another mistake." And guess what? Her thoughts were self-fulfilling prophecies because she ended up making more mistakes because she focused on them so much that they became her life.
She had so much anxiety and so many negative feelings about her job that it actually affected her ability to perform. My friend needed to recognize that her fear of failure and lack of self-confidence were preventing her from working to her full potential.
To beat procrastination, you need protection from self-imposed guilt and negativity. You need a safety net to help you bounce back. Otherwise, you will fall deeper into the despair of procrastination, which can sometimes include negative habits such as overindulgence in TV, video games, or food.
Stopping the Anxiety
Your anxiety won't stop until those threats are gone and you realize that whatever negative truth you're telling yourself is untrue. It won't be the end of the world if you make a mistake.
You can become a great pharmacist by beating procrastination and taking one small step today toward working on a task that you have been putting off—because your worth is not found in your tasks.
If you believe that your worth is found in what you do, when that is taken away your sense of worth will be depleted. The next time you get criticized about a report you have to turn in, you'll find that you want to avoid doing that again because your brain tells you that you feel the pain of criticism, the feeling of rejection, or having the belief that you're not worthy of the position.
By having positive self-statements—or even printing them out and putting them in your office or workspace—you can become calm because you know that you've taken that board off the 100-foot building and placed in on the ground again. Your job isn't at stake and your life isn't hanging in the balance, so you are able to take small steps toward your goal.