Procrastination is emotion-based
"I ran a lot of supervisory leadership courses online with people in industry, and found that most people had difficulties due to procrastinating,” Gervais says. “I realized it can’t be solved by just working harder. There are different styles of procrastination, and they all stem from emotion. Procrastination is emotion based, and that leads us to create habits and strategies. People try to attack procrastination from a strategy or habit standpoint, and they make some gains, but they are rarely sustainable.” So if you’ve tried to solve procrastination issues in the past and failed, don’t despair: You were just scratching the surface of what it takes to ‘cure’ procrastination.
Learn your patterns
Gervais suggests people begin with an internal dialogue, really looking inward to find out where the roots of your procrastination lie. “People will have procrastination patterns, and they will procrastinate on specific things,” she says. That’s why you never miss a workout, but struggle to finish reports on time for work, or vice versa. “When you start to tap into your emotions, you start to uncover the reason why you're procrastinating. It could be that you never rest, and you schedule your day from six in the morning until midnight, and your body and brain are rebelling against that schedule. Or it could be that your people-pleasing tendencies have you running around working on what everyone else is asking you to work on and you don’t make time for your own projects.”
Be kind to yourself
When Gervais runs workshops about procrastination, she notices a common thread: People are just plain unkind to themselves. “I hear people say things like, 'I just have to make myself do this,’ or 'I have to overcome this weakness.' There's so much self-criticism and self-blame, and that’s not helping anyone move past procrastination.” Bullying yourself isn’t going to get that project done faster. While that kind of self-talk may urge you to action in a pinch, it’s not a sustainable way to move through life.
Look for what’s missing
If you struggle with projects at work, like writing a big article or report, Gervais says that your issue might be that you’re skipping the processing time you need, in favor of a ‘just get working’ mentality. Often for bigger projects, some amount of free time and brainstorming is required, but if you’re trying to bypass that to dive right into the action, you’re setting yourself up to get stuck. Carve out time to make notes and outlines, do research and ruminate. That’s just as important as the writing itself. Think about the tasks you’re currently procrastinating on: Are you stuck because you’re trying to skip a step?
Movement is your friend
“When you're stuck in a spot, the best thing to do is physically move. That might just be getting up to get a glass of water, or even going for a walk to allow for processing and thinking time. Moving helps you get unstuck,” Gervais says. Think of this as combining frequently procrastinated-on tasks: Going for a walk midday not only gives you some easy exercise, it also allows you to ruminate on that big project, thinking through next steps and actions you need to take.
Give your brain a necessary pause
If you describe yourself as a workaholic, or as someone who’s always working or thinking about work, you might be procrastinating simply because your brain and body are begging for a rest period. Spending 14 hours a day in front of a computer doesn’t make you an effective worker. Allowing for the downtime your body and brain need will actually make you work more efficiently in the long run. “You need daydreaming time, you need downtime, you need sleep time, you need creative time,” Gervais says. "If you don't allow yourself to do those things, your nervous system is just going to shut yourself down and you’ll end up procrastinating even more.” She recommends adding a relaxing morning and evening routine into your day, including making time for meditation (or just quiet thinking time, if you can’t get on board with meditating just yet.)
Break things into baby steps
Gervais lists out projects using the Chunk-Block-Tackle system of breaking down each project into a series of chunks, then blocking out time for each and finally tackling them. If you try this method, and you’re feeling procrastination creeping in, it’s likely because you have a chunk that’s too big — for instance, 'writing a chapter in my book,' rather than 'collecting all of the research to outline the chapter.' “Whenever you feel overwhelmed and you can't focus on something, it’s likely because there’s a chunk that’s still too big,” says Gervais. "If you wake up in the morning with stuff in your mind, instead of waking up gradually and gently moving into your day, that’s usually a good sign that there's something you haven't chunked down properly.” Look at your list and see if there’s more breakdown that needs to happen.
Don’t get stuck in planning
While it is important to chunk and block projects, tackling them is the only way to get them done. But many procrastinators get stuck in the ‘planning’ phase. Of course, planning is important, says Gervais, but if you don’t start doing the work, you’re still procrastinating. “If you find that you just keep planning and planning and planning, it's typically because you’re still in the space where you are avoiding the actual project,” she says. If this is the case for you, make it a priority to do some action, even the tiniest one possible. Taking these small steps will eventually move you into bigger action, but if you never take the first step, you won’t gain momentum.
Work according to feel, when possible
For some, doing the hardest task first is the best way to get through a procrastination hump. But for others, starting with the easiest task helps build momentum. Your preference can change throughout the day: In the morning, you may want to tackle the hardest task first while you have energy, but by the late afternoon, when you feel the urge to procrastinate coming up, you may need an easier task to keep moving forward. Gervais also notes that it’s helpful to think through which tasks are making you anxious: You might be surprised by what comes up. For instance, many of us struggle with simply making a doctor or dentist appointment, so having that on the to-do list could be a significant source of anxiety and procrastination despite the fact that on the surface, it’s an easy task.
Remember that you can’t do everything
Gervais reminds us that sometimes, what we think of as procrastination is actually not procrastination at all. It’s a feeling that we need to constantly be accomplishing the next thing, and we get caught in that cycle. “While moving through procrastination is good, it’s important to make sure you aren’t doing more and more because you have to chase after stuff all the time. Just focus on one thing at a time, and slow down. You’ll be amazed at what happens for you when you take the time to let yourself focus.”
Focus on excellence, not perfection
If you identify as a perfectionist, consider shifting to a focus on excellence instead. “Perfectionism is about people-pleasing and it's about never being enough. Perfectionism means you're always looking for what's wrong,” Gervais says. “But excellence is expansive. Excellence allows you to hold yourself to your own high standards, but not focus on how other people react to your work.”