How to avoid procrastination

Dr Mehul Mathukia presents some practical tips for prioritising work and getting things done.

Organise your tasks with a to do list (ISTOCK)
Organise your tasks with a to do list (ISTOCK)

Procrastination can be defined as the practice of carrying out easier, less urgent tasks in preference to more difficult, urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and putting off important tasks until later.

GPs' workload is ever increasing. The intensity and complexity of the work makes the job extremely challenging. Over the past six years, my job description and job expectations have changed significantly. My colleagues often describe feeling overwhelmed, overworked and very stressed.

A transfer of work from hospital to the community, the increasing complexity of the case mix and the requirement to be involved in management and leadership roles means we have less time and more work. Good time management has become ever more crucial.

However, while partially related to time management, procrastination is much more than this. It is a complicated psychological behaviour that affects everyone to some degree.

For some, it can be a minor problem, for others, it is a source of considerable stress and anxiety.

Top tips
  • Realise that you are delaying a task unnecessarily.
  • Discover the real reasons for your delay. List them.
  • Dispute those real reasons and overcome them. Be vigorous about this.
  • Prioritise your tasks and begin the number one task.

Why do we procrastinate?

Simple reasons

  • The task looks difficult. We all naturally tend to avoid difficult things in favour of those that seem easier to do.
  • The task looks time-consuming. It will take large amounts of time and these are unavailable until the weekend.
  • Lack of knowledge or skills. Nobody wants to make mistakes, so we prefer to wait until we learn how to do something before we start to do it.
  • Fear. We fear not doing a good piece of work or making a mistake.

Complex reasons

  • We are perfectionists.
  • We may have unrealistically high expectations or standards. We feel everything must go completely right. This may be either imposed, or self-imposed.
  • Anger or hostility.
  • If we are unhappy with someone, we will often withhold our best efforts.
  • Low frustration tolerance.
  • Circumstances easily overwhelm us and we find situations intolerable and unfair. Feeling this way, it seems reasonable to put off a task until you feel better about doing the work.

Are you procrastinating?

These are some clearly recognisable signs of procrastination:

  • Filling your day with low priority tasks from your to do list.
  • Reading emails several times without starting work on them or deciding what you are going to do with them.
  • Sitting down to begin a high priority task and immediately going to make a cup of coffee.
  • Leaving an item on your to do list for a long time, even though you know it is important.
  • Regularly saying yes when other people ask you to carry out unimportant tasks, filling your time with these instead of getting on with the important tasks that are already on your list.
  • Waiting for the 'right' mood or the 'right' time to deal with the important task at hand.

Does this all sound familiar? If you recognise any of these traits in yourself, you may be falling into the procrastination trap.

To summarise, there are three main reasons why we procrastinate - we find the task unpleasant, we feel overwhelmed, or we are simply disorganised.

How can you stop doing it?

If you are putting off a project that you find overwhelming, you need to take a different approach. First, break it down into a set of smaller, more manageable tasks.

You may find it helpful to create an action plan. Start with some quick, small tasks if you can, even if these are not the logical first actions. You will feel you are achieving things, so perhaps the whole project will not be so overwhelming after all.

Many people overestimate how unpleasant a task will be, so just give it a try - you may find it is not as bad as you thought. Hold the unpleasant consequences of not doing the work at the front of your mind. Reward yourself for doing the task.

If you are disorganised, keep a to do list, so you cannot forget your tasks. Become an expert at scheduling and planning, so you know when to start all-important projects. Set yourself time-bound goals. Focus on one task at a time. That way, you will have no time for procrastination.

  • Dr Mathukia is a GP principal in Ilford, Essex

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