Yasmin sits down to start writing her book, but she has been at her computer for exactly 40 seconds – just long enough to open a new document - when she jumps up and heads off to clean her kitchen, telling herself she can’t possibly be creative when the house is such a mess.
As she scrubs and polishes, sweeps and mops, she goes off the idea of writing that day and decides to read some books about novel writing and publishing first. When she goes back to her laptop, she signs up for a few literary agents’ newsletters, then spends the rest of her allotted writing time on Facebook and Twitter.
An expert procrastinator, 43-year-old Yasmin has some awe-inspiring goals. As well as being a best-selling writer, she also wants to set up her own yoga and retreat company and have a second home in the Caribbean once her sons have left for university. But she hasn’t practised yoga for 18 months, she has never written a word of her crime novel and her three bank accounts are all overdrawn. She is barely able to pay for her own apartment, let alone a holiday home.
“It’s not just my big goals that are in chaos,” says the mother-of-twins, a part-time beauty therapist. “Everything is in a state of disorder because I delay doing even the most ordinary, everyday things. “I pay a fortune on bank interest because I never make my credit card payments on time. I get to the supermarkets to do a week’s shopping five minutes before they close and end up rushing round, forgetting half the things I went for.
“I miss out on theatre and concert tickets because I don’t book them immediately. I look at the sites regularly, but by the time I go online to buy them, they’re sold out. “I rush out and buy birthday cards and presents at the last minute, then I often have to deliver them because I miss the post. My husband and sons never have anything to wear because I don’t get round to doing the ironing – I often iron my uniform a second before I leave for work.
According to Suzy Greaves, one of the UK’s leading life coaches, many of us are guilty of putting things off until tomorrow, but when tomorrow never comes, we lose trust and faith in ourselves – and so do our families, friends and colleagues.
Suzy, who specialises in helping clients beat procrastination, says it’s a vicious circle - delaying even the smallest of jobs, such as booking a dentist appointment or paying our credit card bill makes us feel disorganised, lazy, inefficient and out of control. When we feel so negative about ourselves, we procrastinate even more…and gradually feel worse and worse.
Soon, whenever we announce we’re going to do something, our friends and colleagues think, “We’ve heard that before!” We also doubt ourselves and we never do lose weight, tidy the house, write a book, learn the violin, start a herb garden or go to Thailand. “Procrastinating costs us time, money and energy,” says Suzy. “By not opening our bills or by avoiding speaking to our bank manager, we incur charges which could be avoided. Some people have out-of-date direct debits that go on for years.
“By the time we do the job we’ve put off, it’s often bigger and more urgent. Getting our business paperwork to an accountant may be a matter of putting receipts and invoices in the post but if you’re so overdue you’ve missed the post, you may have a 70-km drive to personally deliver them.
“Operating in this way leaves you feeling tense and snappy and you end up putting long hours in. You may miss out on promotion because your boss doesn’t trust you and your friends and family will despair because you’re so unreliable. “You feel you’re missing out on life and always playing catch-up. You never feel the sense of fulfilment of crossing a finishing line, or completing a project.”
But if being organised and getting things done is so easy and feels so good, why do we procrastinate? Why opt for the more difficult, stressful route when the easier path is in front of us? “Putting things off gives up instant gratification of feeling good, but it has long-term costs,” continues Suzy. “Someone who wants to start running may get home from work and put off their first run until 5.30am the next day.
But when 5.30am comes, and they’re too tired to get up, they give in to feel good and stay in bed. That feeling is short-lived. Their mood would improve so much more if they progressed towards their goals.” According to Suzy, there are four different types of procrastinators.
“The thrill seeker will leave things to the last minute so they experience the rush of adrenaline and a jumpstart of energy to get them started,” explains Suzy. “They then get a sense of euphoria when they pull the job off at the last minute, and they have a good excuse if their work isn’t up to scratch. “The perfectionist avoids the task in hand because she fears failure, and she prefers others to think she lacks effort rather than ability. She may feel she won’t be approved of, unless the result is perfect.
“If you dither over decisions, you may be a responsibility avoider! By not making a decision, you can’t be held responsible for the outcome of the event. “Finally, the starter-not-finisher type will join a gym and go for two weeks, then never return, or she will sign up for courses, but never complete them, leaving a trail of started projects. She won’t experience the joy of finishing anything.”
Once we have ascertained which type or types we are, we can then get on with flexing our just-do-it muscle and start to enjoy the satisfaction of getting jobs done, ticking things off our to do lists and making headway towards our goals. Brian Tracy, author of Eat That Frog (Hodder Mobius), recommends we tackle our most challenging task of the day first. This should be the one we’re most likely to put off, but which will have the greatest positive impact on our life.
The theory is that if the first thing you do is eat a live frog, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll have to do all day. He says successful people don’t get through everything on their To Do list – they focus on important tasks and make sure they get done.
Suzy Greaves recommends we write a big list of the things we want to get done in a week. She points out we’re more likely to do things that we expect to succeed in and things we give value to. It’s also good to say what you’ll do and when. “Research shows that the more concrete you can be about the exact actions you will take in the time slot that you commit to, the more likely you are to get things done,” she says.
“Break your big goals down into chunks. If, like Yasmin, you want to write novel, then say you will write a certain number of words per day. If you want to take part in a marathon, plan to run a number of kilometres per day. “Break the tax return job into smaller chunks. Find the receipts at the bottom of your filing cabinet, put them in month order, find your bank statements and so on. Put a time by each task. Imagine how it will feel to sort out your tax and create a cushion of savings which will buy you a holiday to Morocco next New Year.
“Tell yourself that by taking action you’re proving you’re a good business person, a capable housekeeper or a sales rep who’s on top of things, and don’t give in to feel temporarily better. You will feel fantastic to get things done.” Focusing on WHO we want to become also helps us get things done. “Normally, if you want to lose weight, you stop eating cake and start going swimming on Monday lunchtimes,” says Suzy. “Try a different approach and ask yourself WHO you want to become.
“You may be someone who wants to take care of your body to feel pampered. Ask yourself what actions that person would take. Maybe they would eat wholesome food and have spa treatments. “If you want to be a person with enormous amounts of energy, what would you eat, how would you deal with stress and how would you get up in a morning? Step into your new identity. Act as if, be it and do it! “When you stop procrastinating, you will feel such a buzz and your long-terms dreams will come true.”