February 6, 2024

The Difficult Art of Getting Started

We’ve all been there - an essay that needs to be submitted, an important work deadline to achieve, tax returns that need to be filled out, emails that need to be read - and we’re doing everything but. Even tasks that we wouldn’t normally want to prod with a barge pole become infinitely more attractive compared to the task that we are really supposed to complete: in short, we’re procrastinating.

According to the Cambridge English dictionary, to procrastinate means to keep delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring (from Dictionary.com). Often we procrastinate because we simply do not feel like ‘doing it right now’. We can also underestimate the time it will take us to finish the task we’re avoiding. We hope for the moment when we will be in the mood to do the task at hand. This sometimes has unfortunate consequences: the deadline draws nearer and nearer, and we still have not ‘felt’ like doing it. Often we find ourselves eventually going into panic mode and fervently finish it at the 11th hour.

It seems self-evident that we are more likely to avoid tasks that are unpleasant and boring, even when they are necessary. One way to understand procrastination can be to think about how we self-regulate. Self-regulation refers to the ability to manage one’s impulses, behaviours, thoughts and emotions in a way that favours the pursuit of long-term goals. It can feel a lot more rewarding in the moment to watch another episode of something gripping than to finish a presentation that’s due next week. It’s easier to let ‘future you’ deal with something dull and ‘present you’ enjoy the moment. Although a little bit of procrastination never hurt anyone, it can get in the way of us reaching goals and gaining a sense of achievement.

Is there anything we can do?

  1. Engage in mindfulness. Mindfulness can help you stay focused in the moment and can support regulation.
  2. Set some SMART goals. SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound. By making sure that the goal you’re working towards is SMART you could improve your chances of success.
  3. Write down motivations for completing your tasks. If you can identify the benefits of approaching a task rather than procrastinating, you indicate to yourself that the outcome is desirable and this could increase your willingness to get started.
  4. Perform a functional analysis of your procrastination. This can help reveal a pattern of what happens before you start procrastinating (antecedents), what you do as a result (behaviour - this includes what you do, but also includes thoughts and feelings) and the consequences of your procrastination.
  5. Allow yourself to slip up. You won’t always be able to stick to your SMART goal and there will be times when you indulge in that extra episode of something enjoyable. It’s ok, you’re human - remember, just because you procrastinate every now and again doesn’t mean you always will.

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