If you’re a chronic procrastinator, don’t blame your busy schedule or your lack of time management skills. Don’t even blame technology and the increased demands we get from our 24/7, always-on lifestyles.
Instead, blame evolution.
It turns out, human brains aren’t programmed to make long-term decisions, because we’re just not wired to be good at goal management, says Daniel Gustavson, author of a recently published study about procrastination.
In seems that in ancient times, according to Gustavson and the other researchers, early hunter-gatherer humans needed to satisfy their basic survival needs quickly and there was very little reason to think about your 10-year plan. It could even be harmful if you did think ahead, because you'd be neglecting your immediate needs by focusing on more distant, not-as-critical future needs.
In those days, we were programmed to think quickly on our feet in order to survive. You might not survive long enough to care what happened a few years, months, weeks or even days down the road.
But our society today is different: In order to survive, we have to multitask and juggle many different balls, all the while thinking about how to achieve our long-term goals.
"Although the environment has shifted to valuing long-term goals over immediate survival needs, the impulsive tendencies that have been firmly ingrained during the course of human evolution are still present,” according to the study's researchers. “These tendencies make modern-day humans highly susceptible to succumbing to temptations and overlooking long-term goals, susceptibilities that result in procrastination.”
In the study, Gustavson and the other researchers examined 663 individuals from 347 same-sex twin pairs and found that procrastination is actually a byproduct of the impulsivity trait. This means procrastinating also makes you more impulsive. So if you have a tendency to give in to cravings or act without thinking or planning, you also run a higher risk of procrastinating on your priorities.
To overcome our natural procrastinating state of mind, we have to push ourselves to get things done. Try this five-step process to help you stop procrastinating and actually start achieving your goals:
1. Identify the issues that stop you from getting things done. What is your work process or habits, and do they help you get work done? If not, you should identify the hurdles and stay away from them.
“If forgetting is your big problem, for instance, than take a minute to think about where you’re going to focus better,” Gustavson says. “A lot of psychologists are talking about [using] different types of meditation so people are mindful of their thoughts.”
Another thing to think about: What time of day is best for you to focus? Are you a night owl or an early lark? Determine when you can be most productive, then work your schedule around your biological clock.
2. Make a list of your goals. Writing your goals down can help you stay on track. After jotting them down, scheduling time blocks during which you'll work on them. Once you've created a schedule, look closely at the amount of time you've allotted for yourself. Can you get done what you want done in that amount of time? Make sure the time frames are realistic before you dive in.
3. Find ways to be accountable. You’re less likely to procrastinate if you know someone is watching over you. So tell your friends about your goals. Or announce them via social media. That way, you're more likely to make yourself do what you’ve told others about.
4. Turn off distractions. Our minds aren't meant to multitask, and every time we spend a few minutes switching to another task, we're not working on the tasks we've set for ourselves. Then, when we do switch back to our priority, it takes some time for our brains to readjust.
So stop checking your email or social media updates every few minutes. Remember, every ding and swish you hear from your digital device isn't other people interrupting you. Instead, it’s your fault for not having enough self-control to ignore those interruptions.
5. Just get up and do it. The longer you sit around simply waiting to be more productive, the longer you’re going to procrastinate. You have to get going in order to really start feeling the groove. So start taking some baby steps in the right direction, and before you know it, you'll be checking things off your to-do list every day.
While most people admit to procrastinating some of the time, 20 percent of adults in the U.S. say they suffer from chronic procrastination, meaning being late—to events, on projects, at work and in their personal lives—is a major part of their lifestyle. Unfortunately, what starts out as a minor character flaw can lead to major mistakes that negatively affect your life. We see this happen when people wait too long, realize they can’t do the work in time and end up plagiarizing other people’s work. Or when people end up paying penalties or extra fees because they didn't pay their bills on time or filed their income taxes late.
Despite the fact that Gustavson’s research tells us that we are all procrastinators by nature, the good news is, those who fight it can go on to become successful. Those who don’t end up being chronic procrastinators and never learn to get it right.
Read more articles on productivity.
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