Closing the Gap Between Thinking and Doing

Woman making and throwing paper aeroplanes

We’ve all done it. Some of us do it every day. And most of us wish we could do less of it. We’re talking about…procrastination.

With so many distractions in modern day life, procrastination has become one of those things we all struggle with at one time or another. We know what we ought to do, but we struggle to bring ourselves to do it.

We know we need a dental check-up, but we never get round to making an appointment; we know we should have life insurance, but we never find time to fill in the forms; we know we should check the tyre pressure on the car, but we’re always in a rush to get somewhere – it’s easy to see how procrastinating on everyday problems like this can lead to disastrous consequences further down the line, but putting off things that we know we should be doing can actually have a detrimental effect in ways we wouldn’t expect.

New research suggests that procrastination is linked to task aversion – the idea that when we think a task will be difficult, time consuming, boring or otherwise unpleasant, we put off doing it. We believe that not doing something ‘unpleasant’ is a way to make life easier on ourselves, but actually the opposite is true. Trying to avoid distress, can ironically cause us more.

Procrastination, research shows, can lead to stress, health issues, poor performance, sleep issues and more stressful regret. It can also have a knock-on effect on our self esteem with the guilt, shame or self-critical thoughts that we have when we know we’re not making the right decision.

Let’s use the example of taking out a life insurance policy. It’s something most of us feel we ought to do, but because it’s not essential for carrying on our daily life, taking the time to apply online gets repeatedly pushed to the bottom of the To-Do list.

Paying the mortgage, putting food on the table and taking care of the kids seem like more pressing tasks because they’re things we can’t avoid doing, but if the worst should happen and you didn’t get around to taking out that policy, all those things could become impossible for your family to carry on doing.

As well as putting ourselves, or our family, at risk of financial difficulties in the future, the knowledge that we ‘should’ have been responsible enough to sort out some life insurance weighs on our minds and we may feel critical of ourselves for not having done it yet. Procrastination has a proven negative effect on our well-being.

In other words, procrastination doesn’t actually help us avoid distress, but creates more. Yet we all still do it – probably more often than we’d like.

So how do we stop the habit?

How do we bridge that gap between thinking and doing?

1. Stop thinking it will be terrible

One of the main reasons why we procrastinate is because we think the task will be unpleasant so, naturally, we don’t want to do it. The first step, then, is to stop assuming that the task will be unpleasant.

Ask yourself:

Is it really going to be that bad? Do you actually know it’s going to take ages, or are you guessing?

Are you catastrophising, or over-exaggerating in your mind? Once you stop to actually think about the task, you may find your thoughts over how unpleasant it’s going to be are unfounded.

For those tasks that you’re fairly certain won’t be enjoyable to complete, think about the alternative – a nagging feeling of not doing what you know you ought to do, decreased self-esteem from not taking responsibility for certain areas of your life, self-criticism for not facing up to a task that needs doing. The potential resulting stress and the decrease in well-being might just be enough to convince you that tackling the issue head-on might be the best approach after-all.

Why not just make a start and see if it’s as bad as you’re telling yourself it will be – open the webpage to apply for life insurance and start reading about the different policies, perhaps. Once you start a task and realise it’s not actually that scary, it’s easier to keep going, and keep going until you’ve completed the task painlessly.

2. Minimise Distractions

We can’t blame the internet for procrastination entirely – the Ancient Greeks and Roman scribes were writing about the “hateful” nature of procrastination thousands of years ago – but, let’s face it, having the world wide web at your fingertips certainly doesn’t help.

Distraction can be an especially pertinent problem if the task you’re trying to accomplish does involve being online in the first place. Once your browser is open, it’s all too easy to be led astray by the lure of online pleasures: Is it easier to write a difficult email…or open Facebook for a browse? Fill in an online form … or read celebrity gossip? Research a topic you need to educate yourself about…or check out what’s new on Instagram?

Even when doing something as straightforward as making an online purchase, 30% of millennials admit they’ve been distracted by other messages on their mobile and abandoned the task.

The solution? If you’re trying to do something important online, go to your settings and turn off notifications for the apps you know are likely to distract you. Put your phone on silent. Turn off audible alerts for messages or updates. You can go back and check them later so you won’t have missed anything, but it will help you concentrate on accomplishing a specific task without your attention being pulled away.

Taking 2 minutes to minimise distractions before you start can mean the success or failure of what you’re trying to accomplish.

3. Remind yourself why you're doing it

You may find you procrastinate less if you remind yourself what completing that task will actually accomplish and why.

Let’s use the example of life insurance again (our favourite subject) – your reasons could include making sure your children can carry on living in their current home if you or your partner dies, giving your spouse the time to grieve without having to worry about finances, the knowledge that your actions will mean you are still caring for your family even when you aren’t around to do it in person.

Thinking about it in those terms can be far more effective at beating procrastination than viewing it as an admin task you ‘should’ be doing. The same applies for pretty much any task you need to complete. If you focus more on the ‘why’ than the ‘how’, you’ll find one motivates the other.

Need even more motivation? Consider the shorter-term benefits as well. The prolific writer Anthony Trollope famously didn’t focus on writing 47 novels, 18 works of non-fiction and 12 short stories – he focused on writing 250 words every 15 minutes and every time he accomplished that, he could enjoy the feelings of satisfaction and self-esteem that came from reaching a goal. The rest took care of itself.

Remind yourself of the benefits of doing the task you’re avoiding, and you’ll find you’re far more likely to get it done.

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Procrastination is a fact of life, but having a few tricks up your sleeve to help you think about those tasks in a different way could be all it takes to close the gap between thinking and doing.

Increased well-being, higher confidence and a sense of satisfaction that you’ve done the thing you ‘ought’ to do. Sounds good, doesn’t it? What are you waiting for?!