We’ve all had to deal with the urge to procrastinate at some point in our life. Procrastination is an especially relevant topic for students because it can be hard to put away distractions in order to study or work on an important assignment.
Most massage therapy schools will require students to complete several large projects during the program. Many students end up procrastinating on the assignments until the last minute and the deadline alarm bells are ringing in their head.
The result of procrastination is not only unnecessary stress, but it can diminish the learning benefit that you are supposed to receive from the assignment.
Preparing for the MBLEx is another task that many students end up procrastinating on. The problem is that due to the large volume of information covered on the massage licensing exam, waiting until the last minute to start studying is a poor strategy.
My goal in writing this blog post is to help massage students and therapists who struggle with chronic procrastination to understand why they do this. Then I’ll offer some useful strategies that can help to overcome procrastination.
What is procrastination?
We all know that procrastination is when we put off doing something until later. It has been defined as the gap between intention and action.
Another way of looking at procrastination is when Present Self, which wants to feel good now, screws over Future Self. It is Future Self that has to pay the consequences of inaction.
“Procrastination is the art of keeping up with yesterday.” –Don Marquis
Procrastination is also a form of lying to ourself. We convince ourself that we can put off something unpleasant until later.
Most of us have experienced procrastination many times in our life: putting off washing the dishes, writing a term paper, or studying for a massage exam.
Procrastination is a common problem that most students experience. It may be that we just notice our tendency to procrastinate more when we are a student, because of all the external deadlines. Or because learning assignments and tests are not particularly pleasant experiences.
In the real world (after graduation) many of our deadlines are self-imposed, or internal. Which means we can push them back if we want to. And we may not notice any negative consequences right away. Or the consequences may be so far into the future that they don’t motivate us to take action now.
However, there are consequences associated with chronic procrastination. It can cost us:
- Health (stress-related illnesses)
- Decreased performance
- How we feel about ourself
You can imagine how putting off important responsibilities in these areas of our life can cause some really painful long-term consequences.
What procrastination is NOT
Procrastination is delaying doing what we intend to do. But sometimes things are truly out of our control. For example, if your intention is to do some online research for a project and your Internet is down because of a snowstorm, and can’t get to the library. That’s not procrastination.
It is also not a time-management problem. It’s an emotion-management problem.
Here’s another example of what procrastination is not. Let’s say that you know you will need to learn more about accounting to run your massage practice. But you won’t be starting your practice for another 12 months. So spending the time studying accounting is not a current priority.
In this case, it makes more sense to learn these skills when it is time to know them. For now, focus on what you need know now, like developing your hands-on skills, graduating massage school or passing the MBLEx.
Tip: there’s actually a name for this learning strategy. It’s called just-in-time learning. This is a productivity hack that advocates learning what you need, when you need it. Because if you study something too soon, you will likely forget it by the time you need to know it. Also, learning something too soon means taking time away from what you really should be doing right now.
Why do we procrastinate?
We know what we should be doing, and the consequences of not completing the task. So why do we procrastinate anyway?
The reason we procrastinate is because of the two main driving forces in our lives: pain and pleasure.
From birth we have a constant drive to avoid pain and seek pleasure.
When we anticipate that something will be painful, we will put it off. Some massage school graduates postpone taking the MBLEx because of test anxiety. We will keep doing this until we reach the tipping point when putting the task off is perceived as more painful than just getting it done.
In other words, procrastination is a task-avoidance strategy. We use it as an emotional coping mechanism, to postpone negative feelings that we anticipate, such as stress, pain, confusion or boredom.
Chronic procrastinators deliberately seek out distractions to avoid doing what they think will be painful. Even though we can logically convince ourselves that it would feel good to get the task done, the more immediate feeling we anticipate will be pain.
The more painful you anticipate the task will be, the more likely you are to procrastinate. This could mean an expectation of physical pain, like procrastinating on going to the dentist. Or it could be emotional pain, like putting off giving someone bad news.
“Procrastination is like a credit card: it’s a lot of fun until you get the bill.” –Christopher Parker
Or it could be any form of discomfort, like anticipating that something will be a big hassle, boring, or really hard to do.Since failing is often painful, we also tend to put off something if there is a fear of failure.
Paradox of procrastination is that we often procrastinate because there is some stress associated with working on the task. But the more we put the task off, the more stress builds up.
If we put off something too long, we can add guilt to the list, and possibly self-loathing and loss of self-esteem.
Chronic procrastinators often times convince themselves that they can just wait until they feel like working on the task. Many writers and other creative types fall into the trap of waiting for inspiration.
It’s easy to do something when we feel like it. But what if we never feel like it? Or what if inspiration never comes?
Sometimes the answer is to just start working.
The reality is that you are more likely to find inspiration when you’re in the process of working on something, rather than just randomly while you’re not even thinking about the task.
“Do what you should do, when you should do it, whether you feel like it or not.” –Brian Tracy
Procrastination isn’t always a bad thing
There are times when procrastination can actually be useful.
This is called productive procrastination. It occurs when we procrastinate on things that don’t move us towards the main outcome that we really want.
For example, if I need to get a lot of housekeeping chores and yard work done because it’s getting out of control and starting to stress me out, then I may make this work a priority. I’ve probably procrastinated on this up to this point because I see this work as a tedious and time-consuming task.
On the other hand, if I have a final exam in a couple of days, and the outcome of this exam is much more important than a few weeds in the garden, then doing all those chores around the house is a form of procrastination.
Strategies to overcome procrastination
I’ve put together the following list of strategies based on research and my own personal experiences with procrastination.
1 Recognize when you are procrastinating
It starts by recognizing procrastination, which can come in many forms. Pay attention to your own habits and patterns.
For example, I noticed that my house gets really clean when I have something that is actually important that I need to work on. So cleaning is one of my avoidance strategies
Many of us mistake being busy with doing something important. Just remember that there will always be things you could do now. But there are only a couple of things that you should do now.
Overthinking things can lead to procrastination.
Procrastinators can have different areas of weakness. Some people have trouble starting a project while other people have trouble finishing.
2 Create a starting ritual
If you have trouble starting a task, you can create a starting ritual.
The 5-minute rule: commit to only working on your important task for 5 minutes. Many times this is enough to help you get some momentum, and you will keep going long after the first 5 minutes is over.
You can also start by finding a component of the task that you might enjoy, and are most likely to complete.
For example, let’s say you need to complete a research paper about a specific pathology for massage school, and see this as a daunting project.
If you think writing the paper will be challenging but are interested in reading about the topic, then start with that. Or as an alternative, maybe you could just start by watching a few videos on YouTube about how to write a research paper. The point is to start with something easy and build momentum.
Then you could find 3-4 articles on the topic, and start reading those. This will increase your confidence, inspire some ideas, and give you some momentum. While reading you could jot down some notes on the topic, or you could write some additional questions you have about it.
After this you could start writing down some subheadings for your paper to give it some structure.
This is getting into the next strategy on the list…
3 Break it down
Break complicated tasks down into smaller and simpler chunks. This strategy is called chunking, and can make an overwhelming task seem more manageable and less intimidating.
For example, for the massage and bodywork licensing exam, you could break the content down by content area. You could spend 1 week studying each content area.
If there is a particularly unpleasant component of a task you need to do, you could do this part first. Then you won’t have it hanging over your head.
Like they say, if the worst thing you have to do today is eat a frog, then you might as well do it first thing. There’s no benefit in looking at it all day.
Starting with the hardest part is the opposite of the previously suggested strategy, so try them both and see which one works better for you.
4 Be specific with your intention
Being vague with what you intend to do is basically an invitation to procrastinate.
If you’re vague on your goals and intention, how will you ever know if you accomplished what you set out to do?
Instead of saying “I’m going to study anatomy and physiology tonight”, try being more specific and concrete. Say something like, “I’m going to study my notes on the circulatory system from 7:00pm to 8:30pm tonight, then spend 30 minutes drawing and labeling the major components of the circulatory system from memory, using colored pencils.”
What goes along with intention, is havinga strong reason why. Knowing why you must do something will help you summon the willpower to take action. Tasks that are meaningful, important, and must get done, will end up getting done. Tasks that we should do, rarely get done.
Without proper motivation, we tend to do what is fun and easy rather than what is difficult and necessary.
5 Make it easy to focus
Do one thing at a time. Create a barrier to temporarily shield yourself from all distractions so you can get your most important work done.
Structure your environment to make it easy for you to focus. For example, if you need to study for an anatomy exam, don’t study in a room with your favorite TV show on in the background.
Also, turn off all notifications on your phone or computer. There are dozens of distractions vying for your attention at any given time.
6 Set deadlines
Give yourself strict deadlines that fall well ahead of external deadlines.
Also set intermediate deadlines for yourself. This works especially well for large projects, like writing a term paper or preparing for a comprehensive exam such as the MBLEx.
Make these deadlines reasonable, but tight enough to create a sense of urgency.
There is a phenomenon called Parkinson’s Law that states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” So giving yourself too easy deadlines will just drag out the task for longer than necessary.
Then create a reward system that incentivizes you to reach these deadlines. Be sure to reward yourself each time you complete a component of your task. Even a cookie or literal pat on the back could be sufficient. Whatever makes you happy!
7 Develop good habits, routines and rituals
Since chronic procrastination is a habit, it is likely that procrastinators have certain habits that they fall into when they should be doing more important tasks. They use this avoidance strategy like a security blanket to relieve stress and feel better.
Our decision to take action now or delay action is a habit. And like all habits, we can strengthen the behaviors that we want through repetition.
Procrastination can also be a slippery slope.
I may tell myself, “I know I need to study, but watching a few funny cat videos won’t hurt…then I’ll be ready to buckle down and study.”
Or, “ I really should go to the gym to exercise, but I probably should check up with my friends on social media first so they don’t think I’m ignoring them…”
What starts as a few minutes of procrastination will often turn into delaying work on the task for hours, or even days.
8 Finishing what you start
For some people, completing projects is where they struggle. Perfectionism is often the source of procrastinating on completing a task.
The truth is, there are very few things in life that need to be perfect. In fact, I can’t think of a single example right now of something that needs to be perfect.
Let go of the need to keep working on something until it is perfect. Instead, strive for excellence, which is much more attainable. And for some things that really aren’t all that important, “good enough” may be all you need.
If you have trouble with perfectionism and finishing tasks, it sometimes helps to walk away from it for a while. Take a break and get your mind off of the problem.
You can try going for a walk, taking a nap, or working on something that is completely different. This gives your subconscious mind some time to wrangle with the problem and come up with new ideas. And when you start back on the task, you will likely have some fresh insights on how to finish.
Most of us procrastinate at times. The strategies listed here will help in overcoming procrastination if you put them into action.