How to stop procrastinating

Our new columnist, award-winning coach Kim Morgan, meets a woman who keeps putting off necessary tasks


How to stop procrastinating

Leaving it till tomorrow

Amanda came to see me to overcome her lifelong habit of procrastination. She said, ‘I always leave things until the last minute, no matter how much advance notice I have. I find myself doing all sorts of other things instead. Last week, I even ironed a whole basket of clothes instead of writing essays – and I hate ironing!’

Procrastination is postponing an action until there is a significant time lapse between when you intend to do it and when you actually do it. We all procrastinate from time to time and it can help prevent us making rash decisions. But if taken to excess, it can lead to stress and anxiety.

I asked Amanda why she was seeking help now. She said that her employers had sponsored her to do a professional qualification. She had to submit essays within two years of completing the course, and the two years were up in three weeks. ‘I think I really have left it too late and it could have disastrous consequences for my career,’ she said. ‘I must write the essays and I need coaching to help me do that.’

I agreed to create an action plan with Amanda and asked her to find answers to the following questions:

What practical resources do you need to organise to make this happen?

What is the smallest step you could take to make some progress on this issue?

What will the impact be if you don’t do it?

What is the long-term purpose of achieving the goal?

Amanda felt energised and motivated by the questions and left the session with a real sense of commitment to achieving her goal. She planned to take some annual leave and work non-stop on writing essays.

Rethinking tactics

I wondered if I should have also offered Amanda some suggestions about how to complete the essays. As an organised person myself, I thought I knew just what she needed to do to overcome her procrastination and write the essays.

I met with my supervisor, who reminded me that coaching should encourage learning and self-discovery for the client, and that it’s the coach’s job to trust the client to come up with their own strategies to achieve their goals. ‘When somebody finds their own unique solution to their own unique problem, any changes they make will be likely to stick.

The greatest gift you can give Amanda is to help her to think this through in her own way. Coaching is not about giving advice. Advice and information are widely available, but coaching will help her to find exactly what will work for her.’

Taking baby steps

As soon as Amanda arrived for her coaching session, I could tell she had written the essays – she had a big smile on her face and a spring in her step. Talking to me about her procrastination had made her realise that it was not a trivial or innocuous habit, but one that was causing her stress, anxiety and harm.

She had now written the essays, but she was pretty sure she was going to just scrape through with a low grade and she had decided not to put herself through this sort of stress any more. She had realised that two major things contributed to her procrastination: the task seeming overwhelming, and fearing being unable to do it as well as she wanted to.

She had learned that the simple technique of breaking the task into small, achievable steps worked well for her. Shrinking the task into small pieces reduced the feeling of being overwhelmed and also enabled her to have a series of small successes, which built her confidence to finish the task.

Amanda told me, ‘When I started writing, I realised that, all along, I had been mentally preparing for the essays by formulating ideas in my head. So I don’t procrastinate as much as I thought I did, as a lot of the work is going on in my head in advance. I have decided to call this “preparation” and stop beating myself up by labelling it “procrastination”.’

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What is stopping you from getting down to it?

If you are procrastinating, identify which of the following personal blockers you are thinking, saying or feeling:

  • The task is overwhelming
  • I don’t have the skills or knowledge to do it
  • I am waiting for the time to be right
  • I am scared of failing
  • I was not assertive enough to say ‘no’ to this
  • I don’t believe it is possible
  • I don’t have the support I need
  • I don’t have enough time
  • I am afraid it won’t be perfect
  • I work better under pressure
  • I will do it when… (I have tidied my desk, made a cup of tea, gone for a walk)
  • It doesn’t matter enough to me

When you have identified your personal blockers, take some time to write convincing arguments against each of them, or possible solutions to them.

Save the date

Telling other people about your plans will increase motivation and accountability. Choose a few people who you know will support and encourage you, then tell them what you’re planning to do and when you’re planning to do it. Ask them to check in with you from time to time, to see how you’re doing and to offer you support. Set a date in advance to celebrate your final achievement and send those people invitations to the future celebration. Imagine how you will feel if you have to cancel it!

Just do it!

A looming task can stop us in our tracks, inducing a ‘freeze’ response. Evidence suggests, however, that once we start on a task, our minds will keep working on it for us. Fight procrastination by just making a start – on the middle bits or end bits, on little bits or fun bits – but start somewhere. You may find that once you’ve started, the rest will follow.

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Photograph: iStock