Joyce Rozar

There it was again - still hanging around on the to-do list: "Complete phase 2 of website redesign." The task had been on that list for weeks now, staring me in the face, every day, coaxing me, egging me on to complete it, but... no completion was taking place. Even though much of the prep work had been done - the written content, new images and icons, even things like logo and graphics were at the ready, "phase 2" was still very much stuck in "phase limbo."

It just wasn't progressing. I had been putting it off. A few previous forays into tackling phase 2 had proven it wasn't going to be straightforward - the graphics didn't align properly, the formatting looked wrong, the images needed resizing, the header needed redoing...

Suddenly the other tasks on the list started to look a lot more urgent - and a lot more inviting. I'd deal with those first, and when I had the time... I'd take this on.

When I had the time... yes... I'd heard that one before. I remember seeing the quote "I haven't got the time right now" was the most popular excuse for procrastinators. Oops.

Our Illogical Selves

So why is it that we procrastinate? There are many reasons - but an interesting study published by the Journal of Consumer Research recently shows us that a lot of it has to do with how we categorise time. Our natural tendency it seems is that we tend to view things either in the "present" or in the "future".

So any goal or task we have that is close to the deadline we categorise as "present," and any task in this category it turns out we will more than likely get around to start working on. Any goal we have that is further away we view as being in the "future" category and the result is that we do exactly that - we file it away in the long-term "to-do" list to be done later, some day.

Problem is - "someday" doesn't appear on any calendar...

The most revealing part of the study is how illogically and inaccurately we in fact categorise time. A simple test was set up:

A group of participants were given the simple task of opening up a bank account (and also rewarded for doing so.) They were asked to do this in June, and given a six-month deadline to complete the task - so by December that year. The results of this was the participants were very likely to carry the task out.

However the same six month deadline, but with the time frame moved forward only one month, so July to January, resulted the participants not likely to carry the task out. This was simply because the task happened to fall into the next calendar year, so was categorised as "future" - something that could be done later.

Shorter term tasks also showed the same results. Tasks with seven day deadlines, begun on Tuesday with a Tuesday week deadline were categorised as something to start working on now. However if the deadline was extended by only one day, with a completion date of the next Wednesday, the task was considered as something that fell into "next week" and was therefore categorised as a "future" project - and a far more likely candidate for procrastination.

The study shows how this categorisation (or "mis-categorisation" if you like) of any project or goal we think we can delay addressing until later - for whatever reason, rational or otherwise - we will, and in so doing create the perfect environment for procrastination.

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How we decide what tasks we categorise as "future" - and therefore tend to procrastinate on - seems to be depend our perception of the project.

The larger or more difficult or complex or even just uninteresting we think the task is, the more likely it is we would place it in the "future" category.

It's a natural tendency. After all it's easier and more (instantly) rewarding to complete the smaller and seemingly urgent tasks - Unless you're a real DIY or home improvement enthusiast, (which I'll confess I'm not) who wants to spend the weekend painting and weatherproofing the garden fence (even though it needs it) when the lawn could just do with a mow?

The key to tackling and overcoming "future" category syndrome is to divide seemingly cumbersome and onerous tasks into smaller and more manageable chunks - and to give them shorter deadlines. Like perhaps a painting panel at a time over a number of evening or weekends. This will automatically place the tasks in our "present" category and give them a greater chance of getting actioned.

Inevitable Success

So was I procrastinating? I mean, I really didn't have the time to complete the whole redesign at the moment. Not without dropping a few other things on the list as well.

Actually, I was right in a way. I didn't actually have the time, at that time, to complete it all, no. But I had some time. 15 mins here - 20 mins there. And that's all that's needed to make a start. I started on the graphics, and after that was done, scheduled in to do the images. One by one they were sorted out, then the formatting was tackled. Slowly, the whole site was coming together.

So as awkward or difficult that project seems, break it up into smaller pieces - and make a start on one of them. And once a start is made, pressing on from there becomes easier. Progress, however slow or steady becomes inevitable.

As long as the process is continued with, procrastination can only but get left far behind. And the results of how much you can achieve will surprise you. That's how I completed the redesign of my OnlyMensHealth site. And the results are pretty cool. (Well, I think so anyway... )

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