How to stop procrastinating. (Hint: it doesn't involve more self-control)
Have you ever found yourself compulsively sharpening all the pencils in your desk tidy, organising your spice rack or making your perfect 90’s pop playlist on Spotify instead of the dull-but-important job you want-to-don’t-want-to do?
Do you berate yourself for a lack of willpower? Do you hide your time-wasting habit from others? Do you know that you could achieve more in less time if you could stop procrastinating? (Yes?, I feel your pain dude… me too!)
Well, I have discovered that procrastination has nothing to do with laziness or lack of willpower and everything to do with mood regulation.
Really? Procrastination and bad moods?
According to Dr. Piers Steel the author of ‘The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done’ procrastination is not laziness its self-harm.
It’s what makes procrastination feel so rubbish. It’s not just that we are putting off an important task for another day but its also the awareness that that is probably a bad idea.
So we do we do things that are harmful to us? Well the technical answer goes like this: It's because of the primacy of short-term mood repair over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions. Or more simply put we have an emotional short circuit. Our mind prioritises the cause of emotional irritability over the thing we want to get done.
How can we stop procrastination?
Just like with any symptom that interrupts our well-being the key is to ask open questions about why it is there. Usually, it points to a deeper unease and this trail can lead us ultimately to self-awareness and increased wellness and then effectiveness. We find that we get done the things we set out to do. So what questions should we be asking when we find ourselves procrastinating? I use a simple formula for dealing with emotions. It’s the RULE method that enables you to rule over your emotional world.
How to use the RULE method
R stands for Recognise. Become aware of what is in your life. Stop the automatic thinking and be present to yourself.
U is for Understand. Look deeper into what the symptoms and behaviours mean to you. Reflect on why they might be there.
L for Label. Avoid the polar traps of minimising and catastrophising and get really honest about what is happening.
And E is for express. Don’t jump to trying to change your behaviour. It took you a while to get here most likely. Be patient with yourself and focus on self-expression.
Applying the 4 steps of the RULE method
To understand how we might apply the rule I am going to use an example from my life of procrastination (yes, I am a fellow procrastinator). I procrastinate about mundane tasks like recording expenses. It's important for me to get them done because I care about having my accounts in order but I seem to put it off and then panic about finding the time to deal with all my financial paperwork. So this is how the rule method would work for me: having spotted the procrastination pattern in my life I would next recognise the emotions at play.
This is the R of rule. With a bit of introspection I can tell that the emotion I feel is annoyance or irritation. I feel irritated by the task of recording my expenses. I often use a 1 to 10 scale to help me recognise the intensity of the emotion. 10 is really intense and 1 is barely noticeable. So on a scale of 1 to 10 this irritation is about at a 3. Not very intense but definitely there. I can also recognise how often I feel the irritation. Is it daily, weekly or monthly. Paying attention to what is in this step requires me to focus on my thoughts and feelings without judgement. This is hard as we want to skip to solving the problem and making the irritation go away but we risk sticking a plaster on the situation instead of getting to the root cause and dealing with it.
Next, I reflect on the emotions in order to understand where they are coming from. This is the U of rule. Why is a helpful question here. Why am I feeling irritated? Locate the emotion in your body or visualise yourself in your irritated state. Your visual, kinesthetic brain is great at guessing so spend some time exploring what it looks and feels like to you. Close your eyes and focus on you. Notice what it is like in your body.
For me, my irritation comes from a feeling of being boxed or controlled as I understand my emotions more I remember that I enjoy autonomy and creativity and my feelings of being boxed in by tasks could be causing the irritation. The more I lean into those feelings and re-imagine or re-experience them the more information I will have with which to make better decisions.
I then apply the label. This is where I need to avoid two pitfalls: minimising where I under estimate the feelings and use vague words like ‘might be’ or ‘I’m just a bit’. Or catastrophising where I over emphasise the emotions using ‘always’, ‘never’ and ‘can’t’. Time spent being accurate in the labelling of your experiences is useful here. Words matter.
Lastly, I find expression for what I have learned. I do not say what I am going to do about it but simply what is. Find descriptive words that fit your emotions.
For help with labelling and expressing emotions see:
For resources on how to define what is important to you see:
Using the RULE method you can see how becoming aware and addressing the emotions naturally leads to empowerment. When you feel empowered making the choices to prioritise what is really important is much easier.
All this info is on my YouTube channel in the video entitled ‘How to stop procrastinating’. I’d love to hear from you if you have tried the RULE method or if you are finding it hard to end your procrastinating habits.