Here’s How to Stop Putting Important Things Off

Mar 4, 2014
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.

ProcrastinationHere’s a secret about procrastination: everyone is guilty of it.

Even that super achieving, highly organized CEO will put off a task that really needs to get done. The difference between those people and the rest of us is that for the them, pprocratination is a rare event. They have what psychologists refer to as high conscientiousness. They will self-correct.

There are chronic procrastinators; people who put off all sorts of important tasks, both professional and personal. For them, professional help is necessary to help resolve what is, or will become, a debilitating habit.

Most of us, though, are casual procrastinators. Faced with a boring task or an unpleasant one — think dusting the window blinds or completing annual performance reviews — we put them off. Intellectually, we know the work will have to be done eventually; emotionally, we’re not ready.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review blog network, author Heidi Grant Halvorson says we all can reduce procrastination if only we would adopt the right strategy.

Dr. Halvorsen, who is also associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School, says the right strategy depends on why we’re procrastinating in the first place.

When we simply don’t feel like doing something we need to, her suggested strategy is to “Make like Spock and ignore your feelings. They’re getting in your way.”

Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea – without consciously realizing it – that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action.  We need to be eager to do so.  I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100% nonsense.

Her tough love solution to this common rationalization for procrastinating: just do it.

For boring, tedious or unpleasant tasks that we’re putting off, she says use if-then planning.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project – it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.

Her third strategy is to adopt a “prevention focus” when the reason for putting something off is fear you’ll not get it right. Those who look at a job with a promotion focus see it as a way of ending up better off. But if you worry about screwing up, Halvorsen says that’s the wrong focus. Instead, look at it as a way of preventing loss.

Prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong.  When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action.

Her advice requires work, and isn’t as much fun, she admits, as the “stay positive” and “follow your passions” strategies others recommend. “But they have the decided advantage of actually being effective.”

Image: Stuart Miles /
This article is part of a series called Tips & Tricks.
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