In Part One of this series, you learned that procrastination is your brain’s way of helping you feel better temporarily when you are perhaps feeling angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. But it can leave you in a holding pattern of “probably”.
In Part Two of this series, you learned about Mindfulness Interval Training. This helps shift your negative mood so you can more calmly focus your attention on the task at hand.
In this post you’ll learn how once you have repaired your mood, you’ll be in a better position to manage the thinking gap between deciding and doing. That’s the fast (Do it automatically) or slow (Hmmm…Maybe later) thinking that accompanies every decision. Building micro-habits can bust procrastination and increase your bias for taking action. How can you more smoothly decide what to do, and when will you do it?
Leeda had been accepted to a prestigious graduate degree program. Before the academic coursework began, Leeda temporarily cut back to part-time hours at work to allow for scheduled courses. She hired a babysitter to play with her two pre-schoolers for two hours a day. The academic work was challenging, and she completed all of it successfully.
By the time Leeda had chosen the path that would eventually guide her to the defense of her research and receiving her degree, her kids were in elementary school. The babysitter now helped with homework. Despite returning to full-time at the office and actually having a lot of work ahead of her, Leeda at first felt she had many hours of spare time each day. There were no exams to prepare for or hard due dates for papers. But with pressure to accomplish daily work now a thing of the past, Leeda struggled to get to work on her research.
The milestones for checking in with an advisor were much farther apart now. Rather than having a class schedule, there were meetings scheduled a month or more away. Leeda secretly hoped the advisor would cancel last minute when meetings approached and her work wasn’t completed. She found herself re-reading the same studies and finding nothing to write about.
Leeda wondered if she should ask to defer for a semester while she revisited her priorities and slowly began to doubt she could do the work. She also felt confused, a little ashamed, and even guilty about her apparent lack of interest in the research topic that had led to her acceptance into the graduate program. Embarrassed, she also hesitated to reach out to her advisor. It became harder and harder to commit to working on the research project at all.
Increasing structure, self-advocacy, and time awareness
Sometimes people struggle to be successful at something which, all things being equal, might be challenging but is also possible. How could Leeda stop putting off the work that would lead to a goal she really wanted to achieve?
Leeda had been a student since she was in Kindergarten. She was adept at playing this role, where someone else assigned the kind of work and when it was due, evaluated the work with grades as feedback, and either allowed adjustments or didn’t. When she went into the world of work, Leeda also needed to show up at a specified time, do what was expected, accept feedback, make adjustments, and complete work on time. Adding children to the mix added chaos, but hiring a babysitter offered a compressed, structured time box when Leeda powered through work and got it done well and on time.
Time was definitely a factor. So was structure, or more importantly, how Leeda struggled to manage the lack of it. To get started with finding the right kind of help, Leeda finally advocated for herself and reached out to her advisor. Future check-ins were scheduled regularly, closer together, and for shorter periods of time. Leeda also hired an accountability coach who sent her check-in nudges with a mobile app. She started to regain enthusiasm for completing her research project, a key step in moving ahead.
Leeda needed to build time awareness. That’s not the same as time management. It turned out that when she had a short amount of time, Leeda used the anxiety of the last minute to force herself to work. In the past, coupled with external structure, this had been effective, if unpleasant. Leeda also needed to develop her executive function skills. (I explain these skills in detail in Chapter 8 of The Effort Myth)
Building micro-habits to smooth the path to goals
Micro-habits are small easy-to-repeat steps that will get you closer to your goal of task completion. People who procrastinate often use the “don’ts” below. Replace those behaviors with the action steps next to the dot points.
Don’t say, “I’ll probably do it.” (Learn how to push past probably in Part One of this series.)
- Assign to your planner/calendar. It can help to see all tasks in a day time-boxed on a grid-style calendar. When will you do what kind of task? How long do you estimate it will take?
- Notice where you intended to work but didn’t do it, where you assigned more time than necessary to complete the next part of a task, and if you chose an attractive distraction instead of working.
- Make the last minute happen sooner by assigning yourself when you will work on a task each day until the one before the actual due date. Plan a fun activity with an accountability partner for the actual day and have fun. Finish ahead of time! Remember it won’t be fun if you’re feeling guilt or shame.
Don’t give in to negative emotions.
- Divide time up into emotionally micro-manageable amounts and use a timer. Ten minutes on task is very valuable and shows you can do the work. Keep resetting the timer and working through the task.
- Spend ten minutes over and over. This is much less daunting than imagining 30, 40, or 60 minutes all at once. This strategy is one of my clients’ favorites!
- Seek feedback about how you feel. Notice the small bits of positive emotional fuel that keep you going when you set the timer for short intervals and then reset when time is up. (To calm and focus see Part One of this series.)
Don’t give in to delaying, and don’t bribe yourself to get in the mood.
- Make adjustments to your approach. Give yourself permission to recognize that you are trying to grow through a situation that may make you feel angry, squirmy, anxious, or incompetent. Fortunately, those emotions are temporary and you can reset them with mindfulness interval training. (See Part Two of this series: Use Mindfulness Interval Training.)
- Set goals you will meet upon returning if you do take a break. As Leeda discovered, it can be challenging to re-engage after time away from working. Use the comments feature in a document so you don’t forget. Try time (“I will work for five rounds of ten minutes each”), topic (I will read/write about ________), or amount (I will read/analyze/write x pages).
- Remember that procrastination is about deceiving yourself to believe that you’ll be more “in the mood” in the future. Tomorrow won’t really be better. You’ll just be more anxious, find another distraction, manufacture an emergency, and be more motivated to avoid work instead of tackling it.
Make repeated effective choices rather than procrastinating. You’ll build micro-habits when you are more time aware, take advantage of structure, and find live or virtual accountability partners. When you take even micro-actions, you experience incremental progress, build motivation, and develop habits for continuing success.
Here’s the quick summary of this series:
Part One in this blog series looked at the beliefs and emotions that may be underlying your procrastination. Instead of “probably” getting around to things, manage the emotional cues that deceive you into procrastinating.
Part Two teaches you how to notice, reframe, and exercise new thoughts. Get started by using mindfulness interval training to capture and maintain your focus while you manage barriers to action.
Part Three shows the importance of repeating your most desirable habit-forming behaviors by building micro-habits that can bust procrastination and increase your bias for action.
Learn more here: “Chapter 8: Manage Executive Functions and Procrastination” in my bestseller The Effort Myth), where you can also explore the “Three Rules for Adulting”.
Now enjoy the ease that can come with taking action toward your goals.
Sherri Fisher, MEd, MAPP, executive coach and learning specialist, uncovers client motivation and focus for improving competence, choices, and self-direction. She has decades of experience working with students, parents, and professionals who face learning, attention, and executive function challenges at school, home, and work.