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How to stop procrastinating and make a start

BY Dr David Burns

28th Sep 2023 Inspire

6 min read

How to stop procrastinating and make a start
Procrastinating is as much about fear as it is motivation. This five-step plan will prompt even the most stubborn procrastinator into facing the task at hand
An executive had just retired at the age of 52 from a job at a large corporation. With the lion's share of his savings, he purchased a small confectionery company. Although the firm was only breaking even, he believed that with his marketing skills, it could grow and prosper.
Surprisingly, despite these high hopes, he soon began to neglect his business. Instead of going to the office each morning, he would dawdle at home or run unimportant errands—anything to delay going to work. In the meantime, his company was foundering from lack of leadership.
Like the executive, many of us find ourselves procrastinating from time to time. In an American survey of 342 university students, nearly half admitted they procrastinated when writing essays. Though the reasons varied, the most frequent explanation was fear of failure.
"Whatever the chore, putting it off often becomes a bigger problem than actually doing it"
In the executive's case, he'd never been totally in charge of a business before, and the responsibility terrified him. His fears had become so exaggerated  that he saw himself going bankrupt and losing the love and respect of his wife and son.
When we talked through his fears, he realised how unrealistic they were. Even if his company failed, he knew he would still be able to support his family financially.
More important, he agreed that his wife and son would never reject him simply because they were going through difficult times. In fact, adversity would probably bring them closer together.
Relieved, he returned to work. One week later he was developing an innovative marketing system to place his confectionery in dozens of new shops.
Perhaps you have avoided paying bills, outlining a proposal or asking someone out. Whatever the chore, putting it off often becomes a bigger problem than actually doing it. Whether you're a dedicated procrastinator or merely stuck in a temporary rut, here are five tips to get you moving again.

1. Expect difficulties

Those who procrastinate often assume that successful people achieve their goals without frustration, self-doubt and failure. This is unrealistic. Highly productive people know that life is frustrating. They assume they'll encounter obstacles; when they do, they persevere until they overcome them.
My daughter, Signe, was not doing well in chemistry at school. Frustrated by her inability to master her science set-book quickly, she put off studying until the night before an exam. Consequently, she barely scraped through.
"Highly productive people know that life is frustrating"
When we discussed the problem, I explained that I often had difficulty learning things. To prove my point, I showed her a chapter from a statistics book I'd been studying for over a year but still didn't understand very well.
Signe could see how worn and underlined the pages were. I told her that my slow progress didn't frustrate me, because I expected the work to be difficult and knew I'd understand a little more each time I read the chapter.
Once she accepted this, she began to think about chemistry as a challenge instead of an enemy. Her moods and studying habits improved enormously.

2. What's the bottom line?

Life decisions
When you're ducking an important task, weigh the advantages of procrastinating against the disadvantages.
For example, a medical student told me he procrastinated about nearly everything, including getting out of bed in the morning. Instead of studying and going to lectures, he'd wander around talking to friends all day and work on computer projects into the night. Although popular and talented, he was on the verge of dropping out.
At my request, he listed the advantages of his procrastination: (a) It's fun to stay up late and then sleep in, (b) I can talk to my friends instead of studying, (e) I don't have to face the anxiety of going to class and finding out how far behind I am, and (d) I can rebel against my parents for trying to pressure me to become a doctor like Dad.
"You may learn that there are good reasons why you avoid doing something"
He was able to list only three disadvantages for not getting to his work: (a) I will get kicked out, (b) I feel anxious and guilty, and (c) My life is going nowhere.
After reviewing his list, he took a leave of absence and worked for a year to decide what he really wanted out of life. Ultimately he realised that he had gone "on strike" because he resented his parents' control of his life.
When he returned a year later, he had sorted out his priorities. He went on to become a top student in computer technology.
When you list the advantages of procrastinating, you may learn that there are good reasons why you avoid doing something. If this is the case, you may need to re-evaluate your goals.

3. Little steps for big feats

Most procrastinators tell themselves, "I'll wait until I'm in the mood." Let's face it: you're never going to feel like balancing your cheque-book or cleaning up the mess on your desk. These are boring, unpleasant tasks. Sometimes you simply have to prime the pump to get yourself going.
One way to do this is to break your job into steps that can be accomplished bit by bit. Get into the here and now, and don't worry about everything you have to do in the future. Life exists one minute at a time, so all you have to do at any given time is one minute's worth of work. That's not so hard, is it?
"Life exists one minute at a time"
A while ago, I found my office in disarray because I had no filing system. To make matters worse, my secretary left unexpectedly, and I was faced with roomfuls of disorganised financial records, clinical files and computer printouts.
I felt so anxious just thinking about the magnitude of the clean-up that I tried to put it from my mind.
Finally I told myself, "This will take months to sort out. Instead of trying to clean everything up at once, work at it five minutes at a time. If I do those five minutes, then I can stop with a clear conscience."
Once I took that first small step, I discovered the job wasn't nearly as bad as I thought.

4. Tune out negative thoughts

Negative thoughts
Finding a publisher for my first book, Feeling Good, a self-help book on depression, was a tremendous chore. I was an unknown author, and in addition the first draft of my manuscript was dull and long-winded.
Ultimately I found a publishing house and an editor, Maria Guarnaschelli, whom I really liked. Maria showed me how to rewrite the book so it would sound more lively and appealing. She also told me it would become a bestseller.
I went home with Maria's accolades ringing in my ears, but for some reason I was discouraged. For ten days, I sat at my desk unable to come up with one good new sentence. I couldn't work out what was bothering me.
Finally I reached for a sheet of paper and wrote down my negative thoughts: "This book has to be a bestseller. But I'm a psychiatrist, not an author, and I don't know how to write a bestseller. Maria will be disappointed in me."
"When you're avoiding a task, it may be because you're feeding yourself unrealistic, negative messages"
The moment I got the thought on paper, I felt a flood of relief—I knew my fears were irrational. I realised it wasn't my job to write a bestseller. I could, however, write a helpful book if I wrote it in the same personal style that I used with my patients. How well the book sold was the publisher's responsibility.
Once I changed my negative thoughts, energy returned, and over the next several months I revised Feeling Good with great enthusiasm.
When you're avoiding a task, it may be because you're feeding yourself unrealistic, negative messages. By writing them down, you have a chance of dispelling them.

5. Give yourself credit

Once you've begun a job you've been avoiding, it's important to give yourself credit as you go along. A mental reward will boost your motivation. Too often people discount their accomplishments and focus on what they haven't been able to do.
A woman I know once told me that she worked hard all day. While trying to care for two young sons, she was also taking evening classes for a degree. Because of her crowded schedule, the woman never got all her chores done. At the end of each day, she would ruminate on the tasks she hadn't completed.
One evening, I suggested that she jot down everything she had done that day. It took 15 minutes, and the list was impressiVe. She'd studied for several hours, paid bills, cleaned the house, driven her children to school and swimming lessons, shopped and prepared dinner.
"Until she sat back and reviewed her list, she had no idea how incredibly productive she'd been"
Yet until she sat back and reviewed her list, she had no idea how incredibly productive she'd been.
We usually think of rewards as coming from the outside. A compliment for a job well done feels good. Getting a high mark on a test or making a sale to a difficult customer can be highly motivating. But ultimately, all rewards must come from within.
If you never allow yourself to feel satisfied with your efforts, you'll soon find it pointless to try. So, no matter how small the achievement, give yourself credit. Then you can tackle your toughest task. Simply begin now.
Adapted from The Feeling Good Handbook, ©MS by David Burns, MD, published by William Morrow & Company, Inc, New York
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