How to manage procrastination without it ruining your life

Try to stay focused.
Try to stay focused.
Image: AP/Mel Evans
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Everyone procrastinates, to some extent. Even the most hyper-efficient will delay putting off unpleasant tasks. So why do some people feel so crippled by their inability to start, or finish, projects?

Tim Urban has a theory. Urban, who writes the waitbutwhy blog, explained at a TED talk last month that there are really two kinds of procrastination: short-term and long-term. Short-term procrastination is deadline-driven—delaying a term paper, a work project, returning a library book—and has a built in fail-safe: panic. When we’re procrastinating, we’re visiting the “dark playground” of  the “instant gratification monkey,” Urban says, and it takes the realization of the looming deadline to propel us into action. That’s how Urban completed his 90-page Harvard thesis in 72 hours. “It’s not pretty, but it works,” he said.

The more insidious kind of procrastination comes when there’s no deadline, and there’s no reason to panic. Instead, we simply never get around to doing what we set out to. It’s particularly damaging for freelancers and artists—careers that rely on self-starting—but also afflicts people outside of work, in taking care our health and relationships. Or in getting out of relationships.

“Long-term procrastination makes them feel like spectators in their own lives,” Urban said. “The frustration isn’t that they couldn’t achieve their dreams, it’s that they could never start chasing them.”

So how can long-term procrastinators get moving? Urban reminds us that we all have a limited stay on this planet, and offers the ultimate deadline—death—as a source of motivation. But setting short-term, self-imposed deadlines may be more effective,  and doesn’t require invoking existential dread. And paying yourself a reward for meeting them—if you complete a book chapter, you can binge watch “Transparent”—may satisfy the instant gratification monkey that lurks within us all.