Procrastination: How to deal with those boring tasks


June 28, 2013
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Meet Arpan Patel, hardcore put-upon procrastinator. A student majoring in software engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Arpan believes procrastination is a way of life. His motto? Play before work. During high school, Arpan never studied for tests and excelled at convincing teachers to grant extensions or accept late work. Now in college, he’s still living on the last-minute with everything from laundry to papers to financial aid forms. He claims it hasn’t negatively affected his life all that much, but his biology grade tells another story. 

Arpan’s recent procrastination moments: 
• It’s unusual for Arpan to have regrets, but not studying earlier for biology exams throughout the semester is one of them. A typical test covers eight chapters of a textbook and 12 PowerPoint presentations that are 40 to 90 slides each. Most students start weeks in advance, but Arpan began studying the day before. When the grades came out, he wasn’t very happy. A naturally smart student used to getting straight A’s, his failing grade came as a scary wakeup call. The final is now going to make it or break it for him. “I used to get by never even cracking open my textbooks, and now in college, I’m realizing I actually have to,” he says.

• Cleaning doesn’t fall under the topic of interesting for Arpan, and it shows the minute you step into his dorm room. Empty wrappers, sheets of paper, Post-its, and 12 packs of cold medicine and pain relievers (six of which are empty) cover his desk. Unfolded laundry is strewn across his bed. On the floor, a spray of empty water bottles. There’s even a spill in one corner that he doesn’t plan to mop up: “I mean, it’s water. It evaporates, right?”

• If there’s anything college students never seem to have enough of, it’s money. So when Arpan actually saved enough to start paying off a loan without accruing interest, you’d think he’d jump at the opportunity to save himself some additional expenses. But even with his mom’s nagging, he put off the 10 minutes it would take to make his payment…and ended up with an unnecessary $63 in interest charges. 

2 telltale signs that you’re acting like a put-upon procrastinator
Put-upon procrastinators feel bored or devalued by tasks “put upon” them. Like Arpan, they purposely try to avoid the inevitable for as long as possible, prioritizing activities they consider more important or more fulfilling. The loop in their head includes thoughts like, “What’s the point anyway?” “My time is better spent on something else,” “If I don’t do it, maybe someone else will.” If this sounds familiar, you’ll probably relate to the following two common characteristics. 

1. Live in the moment. Put-upon procrastinators tend to view their world through a lens of “right now” rather than “better in the long run.” Faraway deadlines barely register, especially if something more enticing shows up. “If a paper is due next week, I don’t feel like doing it early is going to be enjoyable at that moment. I know I’ll get it done anyway, so I’d rather do something else that I know will be worth it, like going to a party or watching the game that’s on at that time,” says Arpan. 

2. Try to “why” their way out of it. Why do I have to do this? Why can’t someone else do this? Why should I even do this now? A put-upon procrastinator’s list of “whys” can go on and on. For example, “I just don’t get why I should even do some of the stuff I procrastinate on,” says Arpan. “Why am I doing all this biology work when I’m trying to pursue a career in software engineering? Why should I fold my laundry and put it away when I’m going to have to take my clothes out again to wear them anyway? Why should I clean when I don’t mind living like this, and I’m going to have to move out of my dorm anyway?”

How do you stop “whying” and start doing? First, you have to truly, deeply, sincerely want to change your ways. Then, try one or more of these tips to avoid the eleventh hour. 

• Highlight the benefits. Draw a T-chart for a task that you’re putting off. On one side, write down all the advantages of starting now. On the other side, write all possible consequences of starting later. Pin your chart in a visible place so you can’t ignore all the benefits of not procrastinating that you came up with. 

• Ask for some help. Arpan often feels like he’s in control of everything because he does what he calls smart procrastination — planning ahead for what he can save for the last minute. But scrambling to study hundreds of pages in one night or panicking over an unpaid bill sounds more like barely hanging on. It may be time to find someone who can get the tasks done for you, or at least get you started. What you don’t want to do is ask someone to act like your personal calendar. You’ll end up feeling frustrated when that person starts pestering you, risking your relationship. 

• Treat yourself, strategically. Arpan can’t live without his TV shows and movies, so he might use that as an incentive to study a certain amount of hours before allowing himself to watch a show. If you love going out, tell yourself that you can’t hang with your friends on Friday night unless you get your house cleaning done. This tactic is tried and true, but you have to take yourself seriously for it to work. 

• Commit. Complain. Reflect. Try the “just do it” approach. Will yourself to start, and give yourself permission to complain. Whine and grumble about how you much you hate it all you want — as long as you finish it. Once you’re done, reflect upon getting the task off your plate. How do you feel now compared with before? Was doing it as bad as you thought it was going to be? What do you have time for now that it’s out of the way? 

PRINTABLE TIP CARD #5: Tips for Put-Upon Procrastinators

Last week: How pinball procrastinators can get a handle on the details.
Next week: Habits of a paralyzed procrastinator, and what to do about it

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