Everybody procrastinates occasionally. But for some, procrastination is a real problem; it can interfere with efficiency and, in the longer term, lead to feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.

To procrastinate means "to voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay", says Piers Steel at the University of Calgary.

Psychologists suggest this self-defeating behaviour is an attempt to regulate mood in the short term. Faced with an unappealing task, procrastinators would rather feel relieved right now, even though they know that in the longer term they’d feel better if they put up with initial discomfort and got on with something they’d rather avoid.

Steel carried out a review of 216 studies, and found that individuals who are impulsive and easily distracted, and who lack conscientiousness, self-control and self-esteem, are more likely than others to put off complex, challenging tasks. To make matters worse, a vicious cycle is then created, because procrastinating leads to a further drop in self-esteem.

Procrastinators have been found to be more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, shame and guilt, and report lower rates of life satisfaction – although it is unclear whether these tendencies lead to procrastination or are the result of it.

Steel also found that the longer we have to wait between carrying out a task and the payoff, the more likely we are to avoid it.

If you’d like to become less of a procrastinator, here’s how to go about it.

Forgive yourself

A Canadian study of 119 undergraduates found that those with high levels of self-forgiveness for procrastinating before the first exam were less likely to procrastinate before the second.

Evaluate short, medium and long-term gains

When facing an undesirable but necessary task, author and business woman Suzy Welch suggests you follow her 10-10-10 rule. If you were to complete the task now, how would you feel in 10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years? If you were to put it off, how would you feel at each of those time points? Now decide what to do.

Reframe the way you work

Steel points out that the more we self-manage our workload – and this is increasingly pertinent now more of us are working from home – the more opportunities there will be to procrastinate. To avoid this, start by breaking big tasks into small measurable steps, and attach immediate rewards to each.

Second, because the source of work for many of us – our computer – provides easy access to major distractions, block access to these sites while you’re working towards a specific goal.

Finally, if you wish to increase motivation even further, tell someone you respect what you intend to achieve and when, and ask if you can let them know when you’ve achieved your aim.

Linda Blair is a clinical psychologist and author of Siblings: How to Handle Rivalry and Create Lifelong Loving Bonds.

The Daily Telegraph

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