The ant toiled diligently, stocking grains for the rainy day. The grasshopper laughed at it and flitted in the sunshine. When the rains came, the ant was comfortably prepared to wait out the season while the grasshopper was taken by surprise.
We’ve all played the grasshopper at some point of time – delayed doing an important task or procrastinated till the last minute. The surprising part: we know that delays will only kick the can down further. Then, why do we do it? Researchers studying procrastination have a bunch of answers, centered around these key reasons:
#1: Immediate rewards are more compelling than distant benefits
Procrastination is often fueled by the time gap between the action and its consequences. You need to save today for a distant rainy day – that’s a considerable gap between when you take action and when you see its results. Compared to it, the joys of flitting in the sunshine today are more immediate. Instant gratification wins.
To overcome it: bring the long-term consequence closer. Need to exercise and lose weight? Visualize a healthier ‘future you’ today. Imagine how you would look, feel, dress, or even what you would do. Be specific and give your mind a picture to work towards. It’s a powerful tool. Or imagine how exercise boosts your mood – a daily possibility.
#2: It’s a self-defense mechanism
Putting off work on that presentation or a paper could actually be a means to counter your fear of failure or lack of confidence. Blame the poor outcome on lack of time or effort than on ability. Psychologists call this self-handicapping – a practice of creating impediments that reduce the chances of success to protect one’s sense of self-competence.
To overcome it: take a first, really small step towards the task. Like reading a paragraph from the material to review. Or make a deal with yourself to do the task for just five minutes, like Instagram Co-founder Kevin Systrom does. It reduces the emotional barriers that prevent you from starting. And if your fear of failure seems daunting, know that you can lean into it by reframing your disappointments as learning experiences.
#3: It’s boring, mundane, or lacks structure
Dislike folding clothes and find them piled up after a week? Find yourself on Facebook when you should be completing that report? This happens maybe because the cost of procrastination is not immediate or high. Or there might be easy access to distractions.
To overcome it: break big or time-consuming tasks into smaller ones, which makes it easier to tackle them. Promise yourself a reward for reaching a goal. Or make the cost of procrastination high, like skipping your favorite food whenever you let the clothes pile up. You could even cue yourself to promote productivity – work in offline mode, or in a corner with low connectivity, or sign out of a social media portal than staying signed-in.
If by now you think of procrastination as a mental game, then you’ve recognized its true nature. It’s a habit as old as the human race. But with the right tricks you can win at it. Just start now.