Procrastination – Good, Bad and Ugly

We have too much to do, not enough time to do it, and still we procrastinate. Why do we let ourselves waste time and get off track? Despite resolutions to focus on the tasks at hand, somehow, we find something to divert us. How can we change this and when should we?

First off, there is a good side to procrastination. Our brains need rest. If we have been tackling a complex or a boring job, when it’s through we need to pause and give our brains a chance to shift. Additionally, we need different types of thinking depending on the task. That said, the pause shouldn’t last an hour. Once we go to our procrastination of choice, we tend to linger there too long. Time gets sucked away and we are upset with ourselves.

Procrastination becomes “ugly” when we use it to avoid a task. Instead of diving in and taking a break when we complete it or come to a natural resting spot, we put off starting. By the time we get to it, we are annoyed with ourselves and are not bringing our best to the job.

How can you manage procrastination so you can use it in good ways and avoid the bad and ugly ones? Amanda Pressner Kreuser presents 5 Easy Tricks to Beat Procrastination You Should Start Today. Here’s the list, along with my adaptations for our world.

  1. Be realistic about your bandwidth. There’s always too much to do. When facing the stress or overwhelm of a big project, you are apt to try clearing your deck of the little tasks, but these don’t move you forward and your deadlines loom closer, adding to your stress. Instead, prioritize the larger tasks based on your availability and look for ways to do the smaller things at a later time. If at all possible, delegate so that you can still enjoy checking things off without having to do them yourself. For example, if you feel pressed to get a cart load of books shelved, make a sign suggesting students look over these recent returns for  a suggestion of what to read next.
  2. Break up large projects or deadlines into small tasks. The old advice works best. Chunk the project up into workable tasks. This way you get a sense of accomplishment as tasks are completed, and your project gets done on time, or even early. An added benefit is that you have a chance to review what you have done as you tackle each new part making it more likely that you’ll find ways to improve and streamline your plan. If you use my telescoping (visualizing the full project), microscoping (focusing on what needs to be done now), and periscoping (popping up every now and then to be sure you are aware of upcoming tasks as deadlines), you will stay on track and keep stress levels down.
  3. Put time blocking into action. Our brains need a pause. Kreuser says studies show we need a break after 90 minutes. Don’t fight against this. Instead, plug this into you schedule, then set a timer and stay on task until you reach that pause point and stop. If you are on a roll, make yourself a note that will help you get you back to where you were when you stopped. What to do during the pause? Moving is one good choice, reading for pleasure could be another. But whatever you do, set a timer for however long you plan to take. This way you won’t fall into the bad aspects of procrastination.
  4. Eliminate distractions — or at least put them on pause. This one is tough. In the library people are always coming in, and you must do what you can to respond. Eliminate the ones you can such as keeping your phone on mute so you are not tempted to respond to it. If you are working from home, let partners and children know when you’re busy. Tell them when you will be ready to talk and ask them to wait until them. If you have a door you can close, post a sign for when you will be “available.”
  5. Reward yourself in small ways. We are naturally motivated by positive reinforcement so make a plan for this with each successful milestone. Take the reward you earned. Do a Wordle or other computer game. Physical activity is always a good change after doing a mental task. Take a walk. Plan a trip to your favorite coffee shop. Then set up the next task and the next reward.

Caveat emptor. Don’t expect this to work every day. Some days you end up going down the procrastination rabbit hole. Somedays will have more unexpected interruptions than others. You are human. Be compassionate. But the better you are at learning to manage procrastination the less stressed you will be, and we all need that.

Take Time to Get Outside

We live in an almost constant state of stress, and this was true before the pandemic added a new layer and level. In the words of the late comedienne Gilda Radnor, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.” There is nothing new in our need to deal with too much pushing in on us. One of the best methods of managing stress is taking time out of usual environments and, if possible, into nature.

The Romantic poet. William Wordsworth wrote this sonnet around 1802.

The World Is Too Much with Us

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Apparently even back then, “getting and spending” was a preoccupation,” and we were already out of touch with nature. “We are out of tune” – then and now.

Getting out is about moving at the pace of your choice.  It’s taking the time to see the world around you. It’s about greeting people as you go. And it’s about thinking– literally — outside the box that is the place you work.

We need to make getting out a priority in our lives. No matter our work and life schedule, we benefit from choosing a way to destress. The caveat is the choosing because what we mostly see is where there is too much to complete, too many errands to run – and doing errands is not getting out.

So, with all you have to and need to do, how can you get out? Ryan Tahmaseb proposes 7 Ways to Get Outside More Often. Hopefully, one or more of these will work for you, and the benefits are enormous.

  1. Schedule a walk – Until this becomes a habit, you need to put it on your to-do list. Plan the time.  Will you do it at lunch?  If so, you will come back energized and are likely not to experience the afternoon slump. Does the timing of your free period work better?  Or maybe it’s after you get home and before starting dinner – or even after dinner. Whatever works, schedule it. Tahmaseb suggests, consider going with a friend.  You will hold each other accountable. Think about what best fits you and your life.  Set yourself up for success.
  2. Take Phone Calls Outside – This can be a great addition to any personal calls you make.  It’s not my favorite idea since your mind is preoccupied with whatever is happening on the phone, which may be stressful, but you are breathing outside air and that helps. It may encourage you to get off the phone faster and since you’re already outside – stay a little longer.
  3. Move Small Meetings Outside – This may not be an available option but is worth considering to see if it’s an option.  The meeting is likely to go better. Suggest it to your principal or a committee chair. 
  4. Eat Outside – You can eat your lunch, and then go for a walk.  Burn off the calories.  You may enroll any lunch companions to join you. Before long you might have a cadre of walkers. Even just sitting in the sun for that time with a book will lighten your stress.
  5. Try Walking Meetings – If it’s no more than 3 or 4 people, this may be a possibility. You can record your notes as you go.  It is worth trying and it may stimulate creative approaches to the discussion. Or make meetings go faster!
  6. Bring Your Work Outside – If you can’t afford to give up the work you do during your free period, do it outside. The work will feel easier.  You will breathe better.  And you may find, as I do, the creative juices flow when you are outside.
  7. Just Take a Short Break – Step outside for a few minutes.  If you are attuned to it, you will be aware of the change in your mindset.  If you can’t eat outside, try to finish lunch a little early and take those minutes to yourself.

There is no doubt that changing your environment can change your outlook and being outside can almost instantly change your mood. Watch for the birds, notice the clouds. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. Do what you can to get into the habit of going outside now.  It will be easier to continue it when winter comes. You will be healthier and less stressed if you do.