When a deadline looms, do organizing your desk and watching cat videos online suddenly seem more appealing than getting work done?
Most of us procrastinate from time to time. But experts say that there can be a real downside to letting procrastination have too big a role in your life: It can increase your stress levels and lead you to adopt maladjusted coping strategies. It can also leave you struggling to meet basic deadlines and can get you noticed—for the wrong reasons—pretty quickly.
“The cost of our procrastination is always our happiness and our well-being,” said Tim Pychyl, Ph.D., a psychologist who heads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.
People procrastinate not because they’re overwhelmed with work, but because they harbor negative feelings toward whatever task is in front of them, he said. Feelings of guilt and shame often emerge as well, said Pychyl, who also wrote Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change.
Psychologists and CPAs offer the following tips on how to combat procrastination:
Dive in right away. The accounting profession works well for people who are organized and able to handle complex projects, said Beth Knipscheer, a CPA and assurance senior manager who works at JPMS Cox in Little Rock, Ark.
“In public accounting, you work with so many deadlines that eventually you figure out you’re doing yourself more harm than good if you put things off,” she said.
When Knipscheer embarks on a project, she estimates how much time it should take and generally starts doing work right away. That allows her to chip away at the tasks incrementally instead of leaving it all to the last minute.
“It’s probably a bit easier to do work on the front end,” Knipscheer said. “My life is a lot better if I do it this way.”
Break tasks into steps. When you face a new task or project, focus on the next step you can take. Otherwise you can become overwhelmed by the entirety of the task or give in to distraction, Pychyl said.
For example, when Pychyl is asked to write a letter of reference for a student—not a task he particularly relishes—he approaches it by first committing in his mind to opening the email from the student to see what’s being asked of him. He then focuses on the question, “What’s the next action I can take?” and he then takes the action, which in this case would be opening a file to write the letter. Before long, Pychyl said, he becomes more interested in the task and finds enough motivation to finish it without delay.
Stop making excuses. Some people justify their procrastination by claiming they do better work when a deadline is imminent, but that strategy often leaves them without enough time to do a thorough job, said Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a psychologist who has researched the causes and consequences of procrastination since the late 1980s and wrote Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.
Others blame their procrastination on time management issues, but, as Ferrari noted, this is typically just an excuse. “You can’t manage time, you manage yourself and how you deal with the time,” he said.
Figure out a system that works. Mike Sapperstein, CPA, CGMA, a senior associate for Rosen, Sapperstein and Friedlander in Maryland, admits to falling victim to procrastination from time to time.
But he’s found that developing his own task management system has reined in the temptation to waste time. Now, Sapperstein uses an Excel template his firm developed to track projects, adding his own modifications to include additional information about deadlines and tasks. He then segments his tasks, and assigns time slots to each one in his calendar to ensure he’ll be able to get everything done without having to rush at the last minute.
“I’ll actually schedule out my days for each task,” he said. “I’ve found it has helped me stay on track.”
Sapperstein also likes to come into the office early, at 6 a.m., before most of his colleagues have arrived. He’s found that he can concentrate and get large chunks of work done then, without the distractions that can come with a busy office.
Sarah Ovaska-Few is a freelance writer based in North Carolina. To comment on this article, email associate editor Courtney Vien.
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