Why wait? Nip procrastination in the bud
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Why wait? Nip procrastination in the bud

1 month ago · 3 min read · AICPA Insights Blog

Procrastination is not a harmless habit. Every time we put off completing an important task, we’re hurting our future selves.

Procrastination is a widespread but often misunderstood problem. It’s not typically about laziness or poor time management. In fact, procrastination is more often the result of our failure to regulate our mood in the short term, according to psychologists Dr. Fuschia Sirois and Dr. Tim Pychyl.

InProcrastination and the Priority of Short-Term Mood Regulation: Consequences for Future Self, Sirois and Pychyl argue that people procrastinate to avoid the negative feelings associated with tasks that feel boring, meaningless, frustrating, or unstructured. By avoiding these tasks, they can find momentary relief and hand off their burden to an imagined future self who can better handle the job.

Understanding the psychology behind procrastination can help you acknowledge when you’re doing it and why, so you can reevaluate and use your time more wisely. For example, those struggling with short-term mood regulation won’t get much help from time management tools because they don’t get at the root of the problem.

Negative emotions might be the root cause of your procrastination, but they needn’t dominate your life. Here are five strategies for regulating your short-term mood to get things done.

Find something to enjoy about the task.

To-do lists filled with boring or unpleasant tasks are tempting to ignore. You might be more inclined to do literally anything else, like reorganizing your books by color. Chronic procrastinators often busy themselves with less important tasks to avoid the unpleasant ones. This way they can still feel accomplished even though they haven’t done the critical work.

One way to trick yourself into facing your most dreaded tasks is to approach them with curiosity and find something enjoyable in the process. For example, if you have been putting off doing the dishes, you could practice mindfulness as you work your way through the stack of plates and bowls, appreciating your progress as you rediscover the bottom of your sink.

Take one baby step at a time.

Vague or overwhelming tasks can thwart procrastinators. Where to even begin? Without a clear point of entry, it’s nearly impossible to tackle gargantuan projects.

Start by taking the smallest first step. Label your project document. Address an email. By focusing only on the next action, you can build momentum without being crushed by the weight of the project you’re facing.

You could also try working in short bursts with regular breaks, as recommended by the Pomodoro Technique. Telling yourself you will focus on a given task for only 20–25 minutes can make the work seem less daunting.

Set unofficial deadlines.

Procrastinators know that when you leave something to the last second, it only takes a second. Unfortunately, this approach reinforces bad habits. People claim to thrive under pressure, but quality work is rarely rushed.

If you consistently wait until the last minute, you can try setting unofficial deadlines ahead of the actual due date to keep yourself on track. Of course, it can be difficult to meet deadlines no one is enforcing — consider finding an accountability partner you can check in with periodically.

Eliminate temptations.

Surrounding yourself with distractions will only make completing work more difficult. Why would you complete a boring task when you could scroll endlessly on your phone or play with your dog?

If you struggle with such temptations, try removing them or at least making them inconvenient to access. For example, you could delete social media apps from your phone, find a place to work where no one will bother you, or work somewhere without an internet connection to complete tasks that require deep focus.

The aim is to create an environment where you can be intentional in your work.

Don’t dwell on past inaction.

Procrastination can be a vicious cycle because it often causes shame and self-judgement, which leads to negative self-talk and an urge to avoid the tasks related to all these bad feelings.

According to Sirois and Pychyl, ruminating over past failures to get things done on time can lead to a pattern of “doing nothing” to avoid these unpleasant feelings.

Rather than dwelling on past failures, forgive yourself for, say, completing your CPE in the 11th hour and challenge yourself to create a less stressful timeline going forward.

Completing CPE could be one critical task you’ve been putting off for months. If so, you’ll want to try CPExpress. For 20 years, CPExpress has been a comprehensive and convenient source of CPE for accounting and finance professionals. Content is updated regularly and is available in a short-duration format, covering essential accounting topics like tax, assurance, ethics, employee benefit plans, not-for-profit, fraud, and forensics.

Hannah Pitstick, B.A.

Hannah Pitstick is a content writer at AICPA & CIMA, together as the Association of International Certified Professional Accountants.

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