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We all procrastinate. I will be the first to admit that I spent all day online shopping and browsing the depths of Reddit while ironically, I was about to give a talk at the public library on the topic of procrastination in a couple days. I hadn't even started on the presentation yet! I asked myself, why? I know procrastination is bad for me, and I’m motivated for change, so why is it still happening to me?

I did a lot of research on what the mind does with procrastination. There are three key steps to stop procrastination I wanted to share that have good scientific support to back it up and in fact, have truly helped me. Now, the occasional e-mail and snack break, despite that we have a deadline ahead, can be nice and refreshing. It is important for us to figure out whether we are taking a break before continuing to work on our goals vs. battling chronic procrastination that is detrimental to us achieving our goals. These steps are only for those of us doing the latter. Here they are:

1. Figure out what you procrastinate about and the core reasons why.
We all procrastinate about different domains in life, whether it is doing household work, starting a project, doing job applications, or continuing an exercise routine. Write down what you procrastinate on and the core reasons why. Are you a perfectionist? Do you feel tired and unmotivated? Is there a fear of failure of disapproval? There are likely different running themes of procrastination in your life and this step will help you identify the unhelpful conclusions that you tend to draw about yourself in the next step.

2. Identify the unhelpful conclusions you draw that is the CAUSE of procrastination.
It turns out that we all have unhelpful conclusions about ourselves and these assumptions guide the way we think and act. This step involves really breaking down your thinking while you are procrastinating, so you might want to write down what your thoughts are during this process. For instance, you might have experienced some of these thoughts:

  • If it’s not perfect, I won’t do it. I’m a perfectionist.
  • I don’t think I am good enough to do it, so I won’t even try.
  • I can’t work when I’m tired, so I’ll rest instead.

There is always some truth to these thoughts, and it’s important to acknowledge that. But just because there’s truth, doesn’t mean that we don’t challenge the action of procrastination, that we chose to go with that truth. We want to challenge the UNHELPFUL bits of these thoughts because they are inflexible and often, not accurate. Most importantly, it doesn’t help us reach our goals to think this way. Let’s try breaking it down:

Original thought: I can’t work efficiently when I’m tired, so I’ll rest instead.
The Truth: I am really tired.
Unhelpful Conclusion: I shouldn’t do anything now, I’ll only do this after I have rested.

This is fine if you end up doing the task, but for a lot of us, we rest and rest and then keep putting off the activity and it never gets started. Now that you have identified your truth and your unhelpful conclusion, generate a more helpful conclusion that can help you achieve your goal. What seems reasonable and can help you with your goal right now?

The Truth: I am really tired.
Helpful conclusion: But I can make a small start right now. I can make a smaller gain, rather than no gain.

3. Taking action to test your unhelpful conclusions.
You might be thinking, I know my unhelpful conclusion isn’t good for me and I recognize the errors behind it, but I still don’t act on it! That is why I love this next exercise, because it proves to me how untrue some of the thoughts I believe are. Here’s an example:

The Truth: I am really tired.
Unhelpful conclusion: I am too fatigued to do anything.

Now let’s test that:

  • Rate your tiredness on a scale of 0-100
  • Set a timer and take 10 minutes doing the task you wanted to procrastinate on
  • Rate how tired you are again and see what you were able to do in those 10 minutes
  • Continue for another 10 minutes, and again rate your tiredness and see what you got done

You might end up gaining more energy and, at the very least, you will be proud that you made the effort to start and try! This evidence can then support your helpful conclusion.

Helpful Conclusion (that you drew yourself!):
Yes, I am certainly tired, but it looks like I am not too fatigued to do anything. I can do a little bit and I’m proud I did it.

The key to positive self-development often comes from challenging these unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that bring us down. Challenging that negative voice within is a life-long process, but with practice we can get better and better at it. The key is to keep trying, keep believing in yourself, and most importantly, be kind to yourself even when you think you could be doing more. You can do it, you just have to believe it.

Posted by Chloe Lau

Chloe Lau is a Masters of Science candidate studying clinical psychology and plans to pursue her doctor of philosophy in 2017 at Western University. Over the past year, she has hiked the depths and lived in multiple cabins across different mountains in Norway. This year, she will be pursuing her research interests at the University of Zurich in Switzerland funded by the ThinkSwiss 2017 Scholarship, the Office of Science, Technology and Higher Education at the Swiss Embassy in Washington, D.C.

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