The best way to get something done is to begin
The topic of this post came out of a lecture I was preparing on motivation. I introduced the topic to the class by playing a clip on procrastination, which may seem odd as procrastination is the absence of motivation. It was a way for the students to "buy into" the topic as students are well acquainted with procrastination. When asked to name one task they tend to put off doing, no one hesitated to say "assignments", or "studying for a test" or, the next popular task "doing laundry". For the most part, students get themselves motivated to complete assignments by the due date and take a breath, at least until the next rapidly approaching deadline.
Procrastination is not solely the behaviour of students. Procrastination is a popular way to operate, though for chronic procrastinators, not necessarily the best method for our overall well-being. You may be a chronic procrastinator if avoiding or delaying behaviours cross all dimensions of your life. For example, if you pay bills late, buy tickets at the last minute, neglect family or relationship responsibilities, or fall behind regularly at work. You may also notice recurring illness (like colds) and feeling fatigued.
There is a lot of research on procrastination. It's a complex behaviour involving personality traits (consciousness and perfectionism), belief in one's abilities, self regulation skills, among others. Chronic procrastinators often lie to themselves saying "I work better under pressure" or "I will have more time tomorrow." They find other, less complicated tasks (or more pleasurable tasks) to take up their time (like checking email, twitter). This is done as a way to regulate emotions - fear of failing in a task for example.
There are different types of procrastinators. Avoiders who put off doing things for fear of failure or of success and are concerned with what others think. There are decisional procrastinators who cannot make a decision, thus absolving them of any responsibility for outcomes. Then there are the procrastinators who delay completing tasks because they like the rush of last-minute deadlines.
Most of us do not fall into the category of a chronic procrastinator but like students, tend to let tasks slide from time to time or there is one particular task that is difficult to start, or finish. This can be due to lack of motivation. There are many theories of human motivation but two basic types are intrinsic and extrinsic. When we are intrinsically motivated, we do things because we like to, it's enjoyable for us. With extrinsic motivation, we engage in behaviours for an external reward (like money or recognition), or to avoid a penalty (like paying late fees on bills). Of course, motivation is more complicated than this and very often it's a mixture of both intrinsic and extrinsic motivations that get us going and keep us going.
Being aware of what we do and why we do it is the first step in making changes. You can change your procrastination habits. When faced with a task that may be boring or challenging, try to find some intrinsic motivation for completing the task. Maybe you enjoy writing, but the content of the report is dry - focus on your enjoyment of writing. Maybe you like searching Google for random bits of information, but have trouble focussing on a specific topic - remind yourself that you like searching Google. Changing your perception of what the task means, may make completing it easier, or at least on time.
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