Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Procrastination and how to overcome it

I'm sure everyone in the U.K. is sharing my relief that at long last we have some warmer weather! I'm enjoying the long, light evenings now we have switched to summer time, and walking back home tonight after a yoga class at the village hall I was even pleasantly surprised by a few warm drops of spring rain. Every roadside and garden here seems to be full of cheery daffodils!

Procrastination and how to overcome it

I had originally planned to write about something completely different this month, but as the days passed and I did not feel inspired in the slightest I have decided that in fact writing about resistance to writing and to working might be a more appropriate subject.

All of us who are self-employed or whose work is largely self-directed will have battled at some point with the dread enemy procrastination. When there is noone else in charge breathing down our necks it is often tempting to put off things that need to be done until the last possible moment. And although I'm normally reasonably good at not procrastinating, the fact that this blog post has been so long in coming shows me that I definitely need to think about the problem.

So, why do we do it? Quite simple: we're afraid. We're afraid that carrying out the task at hand will either involve something unpleasant or possibly have unpleasant consequences. And while the thing we're afraid of can be something as simple as we'll not get another sunny day until next year so I'd better get outside and make good use of this one or something as profound as if I complete and submit this paper it might get rejected, which will confirm to myself and everyone around me I'm a failure and will never get tenure, fear is ultimately what it boils down to.

What happens if we do it? Again, it's quite simple: we don't get important stuff done as quickly as we could. This means that paradoxically we spend more time on the unpleasant task than if we were just able to focus on it, and have less time for other, more enjoyable things, like spending time in the sun. Even if we distract ourselves from the unpleasant task at hand by doing something more enjoyable – I'll just play one more round of Spider Solitaire – we're probably not really enjoying the game of solitaire as much as we would if we had finished the unpleasant task first and were free to play solitaire for as long as we liked. Ultimately, we're focusing neither on what we have to do nor what we want to do, which means our brain is stuck in some kind of limbo instead of being in the present moment. Furthermore, this lack of focus means we are actually more likely to bring about precisely the unpleasant results we wish to avoid!
Illustration © C.A. Hiley

How can we avoid doing it? This is where it gets interesting and more complicated. Everyone will probably have their own techniques (which I'd love to hear about – do leave me a comment below if you have any to share!), but these are some that work for me.

Focusing on the real problem: Instead of "Argh, I really don't want to translate yet another 2000 words on XXX", listen in and hear that little voice saying, "I'm scared this client might not like my work and might complain and I might not get any more work from them but I really need another regular client." For me, acknowledging the fear always helps.

Focusing on what the client needs: Think about why the client needs your service. What would the consequence for them be if you didn't do your work well or even didn't do it at all? A sloppy translation or proofreading job might, in the absolutely worst case, cost one of my clients a publication in an important journal, or make the difference between minor and major corrections in their PhD viva. Focusing on what's in the work for others rather than myself can often be really motivating for me.

 Reward yourself: Sometimes I promise myself a reward once I've completed necessary work I didn't feel like doing. This might be something like going for a lovely walk, going out for a meal, or even buying a treat of some kind. Really celebrate when you have managed to get a difficult task done instead of just moving on to the next thing (if you want more inspiring reading on the importance of celebration, here's a great blog post by the fabulous Corrina Gordon-Barnes).

The power hour: This is one I picked up from another brilliant lady, Natalie Fee (she's written a fantastic blog post on procrastination - read it here). You set aside just one hour – short enough not to feel threatening, but long enough to get some serious work done if you focus. Really commit to working just that one hour, with no distractions – no emailing, no web surfing, no social media, no Spider Solitaire. Even though I know from experience this one works, I'm still surprised each and every time how much I get done!

And lo and behold, just by systematically setting out my thoughts on procrastination and why I do it, I've completed the dreaded blog post! Not every piece of work I feel resistance to is so easily overcome, but the same solutions can be applied to all of them.

Wishing you all productive, efficient working days as the days grow longer,