3 Ways to Get Past Procrastination – Part Two

In Part One ‘3 Ways to Get Past Procrastination’ we looked at the effect of being too specific when ‘chunking’ tasks, or in some cases, not being specific enough. In this post, we’ll delve into our bias or aversion towards certain types of tasks, which is created over time and can make it harder or easier to get started. We’ll also examine the role of self-esteem and personal expectations in procrastination.

Sameness versus difference in tasks

Our familiarity or lack of familiarity with a task will affect how we feel about getting started. Sometimes we notice ‘sameness’ and sometimes we notice ‘difference.’ The interesting thing is that, just like the global versus specific chunking we looked at previously, both ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ can stop us in our tracks, or conversely, make us prefer a particular task over another.

For example, you may look at your monthly bookwork and notice ‘sameness’. You could think “If I never had to do this again, I’d be a happy person.” Or if you like seeing improvements in your figures each month, you might instead think “This is an enjoyable task so I’ll do this first.”

The same applies when we notice ‘difference’. If for example, you were about write your first article for submission to an industry journal, you might feel a bit anxious and think “I’ve never done this before. Where on earth do I start?” Or the opposite –you might relish the prospect of a new experience, and of increasing your skills.

And just like reversing the way we’re ‘chunking’ a task, reversing the way we’re looking at the task in terms of sameness and difference can help us get past the procrastination block.

Turning sameness into difference

When we’re noticing the sameness of repeated or boring tasks, we need to make the task appear different. You can do that by adding a new challenge, or looking for a new, improved way of managing the task.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What is new/different about doing it this time?
  • What can I add to my experience by doing this task?
  • What would I need to do to complete this task faster than ever before?
  • What could I do to increase the quality of the outcome for this task?
  • What could I do to improve efficiency of this task in terms of time spent and resources used?

Turning difference to sameness

Now let’s look at the reverse situation. If noticing the difference is creating reluctance to start then aim to make the task appear more similar to other tasks that you have done successfully.

Ask yourself questions like:

  • What are the similarities to the jobs I have done in the past?
  • What processes have I used in the past that might help me with this task?
  • What experience do I have that I can apply to this task?

The interesting thing is that there is often a link between global / sameness, and specific / difference. The more global you are thinking the more similarities you will notice. For example: There are many different kinds of foods (apple, chicken, carrot, banana, muffins etc) and yet when we think of food groups (fruit, vegetables, meats, dairy, manufactured, etc) we start to see the similarities.

To illustrate the opposite: We are all human beings (Global / sameness) and yet we are all individuals (Specific / difference). 

The self esteem factor

If you’re like many other human beings, your self-esteem doesn’t remain level – it goes up and down with every success and failure. And the higher our personal expectations, the bumpier that ride can be! When expectations are high, the simple prospect of failure, or producing a less than perfect result, can cause procrastination. So let’s look a little closer at the way we interpret success and failure, through the eyes of the 19th Century polymath Dr William James.

Dr William James (1842 – 1910) was an absolute champion! As a medical doctor, philosopher and pioneering psychologist he wrote many highly influential books in his areas of expertise. His brother was Henry James the novelist, his sister was Alice James the diarist and his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. No wonder the guy was a smarty pants! He also got to hang around with Helen Keller, Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Sigmund Freud and Carl Yung. What a life!

James suggested that our self-esteem does not require us to succeed at everything all the time. Our self-esteem will only be damaged by failure if we expect the results to be perfect every time.

For the mathematically minded: Self Esteem = Success ÷ Expectations

When our expectations are high (Say 10 out of 10) and our success is low (Say 1 out of 10) then our self-esteem will be (1 ÷ 10 = 0.1) and we’ll feel pretty awful. When our expectations are low (1 out of 10) and our success is high (10 out of 10) then our esteem will be (10 ÷ 1 = 10) and we’ll feel very successful.

What does this have to do with procrastination? Well, sometimes we avoid starting things because we fear failure. Or perhaps we fear the way failure will make us feel, rather than the tangible consequences of failing at a particular task. That’s because we tend to link our personal self-worth to the success of the task. Often, the tangible consequences of failing at a task or not delivery the perfect result are in fact quite small.

Realistic expectations and a healthy sense of perspective

At this point you might be thinking “Are you suggesting that we should lower our standards, not try as hard or expect less from ourselves?”

Well yes and no … It would be foolish to suggest that we should lower our levels of effort, care or conscientiousness. What I am saying is that we might find it easier to start certain tasks when we have more realistic expectations of our skills and abilities. I’m also suggesting that we might procrastinate less if we take our work but not ourselves seriously, and learn to put things into a better perspective.

So next time you find yourself reluctant to start a task and you think the fear of failure or a less than perfect outcome is holding you back, try one of the following:

  1. Change your idea of success by setting several specific goals rather than just one big one;
  2. Adjust your expectations. Instead of expecting perfection ask “What skills and resources can I bring to this task?” “How can I do an excellent job?”
  3. Get some perspective by comparing the task to other priorities. For example, how important is it when you compare it to your health and your family/friends? 
  4. If you don’t get it right will you be lying on your death bed thinking “If only I’d done that better…”

Once you’ve created more realistic expectations and put the task into better perspective, it’s likely any potential consequences of not doing it to absolute perfection will pale into insignificance, making it much easier to get started.

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