Time Management

The "Wait" Problem Solved: Five Steps to Reduce Procrastination


In a recent Harvard Business Review article, research identifies seven key characteristics that make a task "procrastination-worthy." Learn how to combat these productivity-blockers and watch your work ethic soar.

Chris Baily is the author of the recent HBR article, Five Research-Based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination. Baily is a productivity expert, and the international bestselling author of The Productivity Project. Baily points out that 95% of us procrastinate, and as Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation states: “It is a human condition.” I agree. I don’t see any other species waiting to do what needs to be done. I think the word “need” is perhaps the culprit and the key to the problem; if we need to do something it takes a back seat to what we really want to do. And as Tim Pychyl, author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle says: “The more averse you find a task, the more likely you are to procrastinate.”

Seven Procrastination Triggers

In Mr. Pychyl’s research he identifies seven characteristics that make a task what he calls procrastination-worthy:

  1. Boring
  2. Frustrating
  3. Difficult
  4. Ambiguous
  5. Unstructured
  6. Not intrinsically rewarding (i.e., you don’t find the process fun)
  7. Lacking in personal meaning

I don’t know which ones you may encounter, but I will be stopped dead in my tracks by anything that is frustrating, like creating new formulas for excel. And the lack of structure slows me down too. Have you ever had a meeting and at the end you were given an assignment but had no clue as to where to start? That’s unstructured and hard to tackle, so we put it off.

How to Combat Procrastination

The author, Chris Bailey has this to say: “On a neurological level, procrastination is not the slightest bit logical — it’s the result of the emotional part of your brain, your limbic system, strong-arming the reasonable, rational part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex. The logical part of your brain surrenders the moment you choose Facebook over work, or decide to binge another episode of House of Cards when you get home. But there’s a way you can give the logical side of your brain the upper hand. When you notice an approaching showdown between logic and emotion, resist the impulse to procrastinate.”

Five Steps to Reduce Procrastination
  1. Reverse the procrastination triggers. Consider which of Pychyl’s seven procrastination triggers are set off by an activity you’re dreading. Then try to think differently about the task, making the idea of completing it more attractive.

  2. Work within your resistance level. When a task sets off procrastination triggers, we resist doing it. But just how resistant are we? Lower the resistance level like starting with 30 minutes for a project instead of 60.

  3. Do something — anything — to get started. It’s easier to keep going with a task after you’ve overcome the initial hump of starting it in the first place. That’s because the tasks that induce procrastination are rarely as bad as we think. 

  4. List the costs of procrastination. This tactic works best when you’re putting off larger tasks. While it’s not worth spending 20 minutes listing the costs of not going for your evening run, listing the costs will significantly help for a task such as saving for retirement.

  5. Disconnect. Our devices offer a cornucopia of distractions, whether it’s email, social media, or texting with friends and family. This is especially difficult as our work becomes more ambiguous and unstructured (two triggers of procrastination).

Why Wait?

Putting things off is certainly a human thing to do and often we are the only ones that know that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing. This makes it extra tough on our psyche because we’re probably making excuses and digging an even bigger hole to climb out of.

My advice is to write down your list of to do’s and then rank them by hardest or least attractive to easiest and perhaps fun. Then flip a coin. Heads you start from the top with the hardest and tails from the bottom, the most fun and easiest. Here’s the catch you have to alternate hard to easy until you end up in the middle with zero to do. Try it and let me know. Why wait?