If Tim Pychyl has dedicated his academic career to one principle, it’s that procrastination goes way deeper than time management.
In fact, he thinks of it more as a coping mechanism than anything else.
Pychyl is an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. He’s spent more than two decades studying how and why people put off important tasks. Through his research, Pychyl has learned who’s most likely to procrastinate, in what contexts, and, most importantly, how to kick the habit for good.
“First, you have to recognise it’s about feeling good in the short term,” Pychyl tells Business Insider.
Contrary to popular belief, procrastinators aren’t simply weak-willed or bad at managing their time. Pychyl’s research suggests they actually just want to avoid feeling bad. They don’t want to confront the emotions that come with the burdensome task ahead.
“That’s the place you have to start conceptually,” he says. So if you’re facing the prospect of cleaning a messy room or writing a college paper, ask yourself why you don’t want to do it right now. Maybe it’s the dread of chores or a fear of failure that’s keeping you from starting.
But that’s the key, he adds. All you need to do is start. Since you can’t knock out large tasks all at once, Pychyl says the most helpful way to approach cleaning that room or writing the paper is to determine your first action. Pick up one sock. Open a blank Word document. This makes the task seem more real. When you pin down the first step, you turn a hypothetical chore into a concrete process.
“And when we make an action concrete,” Pychyl says, “we believe that action now belongs to the present and has a sense of urgency.”
There are times, however, when you realise you’ve been putting something off but can’t work on it immediately. That’s dangerous if you’re a procrastinator, since “sometime next weekend” can easily become a mantra you repeat for weeks on end. Pychyl says the remedy is simple: Get specific.
Tell yourself, “At 10 a.m. I’ll start picking clothes up off the floor,” or “I’ll begin outlining the paper at 6:30 p.m.”
“You set a stimulus for action into the environment,” Pychyl says. You make the switch from thinking about your goals to thinking about your plans to make them reality. That small shift lets you wipe out ambiguity about how you’ll spend your time.
The final piece of advice Pychyl offers is to recognise that progress fuels well-being.
Even tiny steps build momentum that keeps you engaged in a task, he says. Before you start, there might just be a dirty sock on the floor. But once you commit to an action, that sock becomes a tangible, crucial part of a journey toward a clean room.
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