Procrastinating on time: is your work as good as it could be? How to will yourself to finishing completely

Phew! So you got it in. Was it as good as it could have been?

Procrastination isn’t just about getting to things late. It’s also about getting them done fully and properly.

Any harm caused by delay or deferment is procrastination. Just because you turned it in on time doesn’t mean that you couldn’t have done better had you given yourself more time, or had you not given up in the middle and just mailed in the rest.

Complete completion, or just kinda done?

As a teacher I all-too frequently received unfinished or sloppily completed last minute work. But, heh, it was in on time! Sorry, return to sender.

Often, students will say that they just didn’t understand what they needed to do until the last moment. Or, they just couldn’t finish because something else came up that was equally important.

Whatever the excuse, the work was deficient and the grade shows it. (And it’s classic procrastination.)

Task initiation and “just getting started” are hugely important for overcoming task aversion and avoidance.  But equally destructive is procrastination’s impact on task completion.

Let’s simplify

Did you do as well as you could have done?

It might be that you just didn’t give yourself enough time because you started late (delayed task initiation). Or, just as often it can be that you just didn’t give it the necessary push to be done fully, completely, and with your best effort. Either way, the damage done is a lower grade than you might have gotten or wanted.

Procrastination is putting something off until later (or never) in order to avoid the anxieties of taking on an unpleasant task. When you put off something you don’t want to do, it makes you feel better — at least for now, but for now you do feel better.

Same thing happens when you stop short or just bust through something in order to get it out of the way: you’re giving in to your feelings. You gave in to your emotional urge to stop because stopping or taking shortcuts makes you feel better, whereas carrying on steadily makes you anxious and unhappy.

So what to do? Task aversion and just getting started

A first step is to understand that procrastination arises from what psychologists refer to as “task aversion,” or not wanting to do something. The “aversive” task could be boring, irrelevant, incomprehensible, or any manner of things you don’t want it to be. But you have to do it, and not doing it has a negative consequence. And that makes us nervous.

As we face aversive tasks, our anxiety rises. The procrastinator’s impulse is to defer, to put it off, a process called “mood repair” by which the procrastinator relieves him or herself of the anxiety from an aversive task by putting it off for later. Phew. Feeling better now, and, besides, tomorrow I’ll deal with it.

An effective method for overcoming “task aversion” is to employ what is known as “task initiation” — just get it started. Most often, the anxiety produced by thinking about the aversive task disappears once we start. It’s not really that bad. I can actually do this.

And if you just “get started” the next time you approach this task, you will have the benefit of having started it already, making it much easier to re-start.

Finishing… Willing yourself through

Hopefully, task initiation gets us to it and the task is done. Check it off the list, and you’re free now to go do something else.

However, and I saw this all too often as a teacher, we often don’t really finish it. It became too much. It was so boring. It was… Here we have the same problem building anxiety we had to overcome for task initiation. Anxiety and the impulse to stop can build as we try to push ourselves through an aversive task. Jeez, can’t I just finish this later? I hate this…

While we might get back to it, especially if we are in control of our schedules and prioritizing correctly. But that’s not procrastination. Instead, we never get back to it in time, then it’s rush rush, fill in the blanks and hand it in. At least it’s done!

Maybe not. So what can we do?

First of all, let’s congratulate ourselves for having started. Yea! Can’t finish what we don’t start.

Secondly, if we recognize that finishing can be just as hard as starting, at least we’re aware of the causes of our anxiety and our impulse to stop working.

To finish, apply some muscle

According to Dr. Timothy A. Pychyl of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University, research shows that willpower is like a muscle: it can get depleted (tired), but the more we work it the stronger it gets. Additionally, when it is depleted it can be restored through a quick application of glucose — a sugary drink or a piece of fruit.

The dangers of resting or taking a break are that we wont’ get back to it. Breaks can be just excuses for putting things off. So we must make sure our breaks are set up to get back to work, and not just a tricky way to procrastinate (slippery devil, procrastination!).

Make your breaks meaningful: a couple ideas

Plan a break for after you have started a difficult or aversive part of your task, or after you have started an additional task.

Here’s an example: if you’re pushing yourself to do your math, and you decide to take a break before starting your English work that you hate even more than math, it’s better to take your break after you start on the English rather than in between the math an English.

This way you have built into your break “task initiation” — just getting started — for your next step or task.

Break for replenishment, not for diversion. Use your break to step back and reorganize your thoughts and re-build your will for getting back to it. If your break is the TV, or a phone call, you are more likely to decide not to get back to your work, as those other things make you feel so much better than doing your work.

So tell yourself the reason for your break and “pre-decide” to get back to work after a set event, especially one that is beneficial to rebuilding your will power such as getting a glass of juice or eating something with glucose, which you now know can rebuild your will power.

Ask yourself how you will feel tomorrow if you don’t let your break get in the way of finishing it.  You’re going to wake up tomorrow and say, wow, I finished it! Beats waking up tomorrow and saying, oh, no, I still gotta do that stupid paper…

Raise your awareness and tell yourself it’s okay to get it done.

Breaking procrastination starts with awareness of its causes and effects. Recognize that your desire to “do it later” is just avoidance, deferment of something that needs to be done in exchange for feeling better right now. You know you’re going to pay for it later, but your immediate impulse to feel better makes “later” seem like a good option. You know that you’ll hate it just as much later as you do now.

You also know that you’ll do a better job on it if you start it now. And know this, too: if you get it done now, you’ll have more time to revise, you’ll feel better about it, and you’ll feel good about yourself.

And your grades will applaud you, too.

– Michael