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Overcoming Procrastination: Don't put off reading this post

For many, one of the biggest barriers to success at work or school might be the compulsion to procrastinate. About 20 percent of us are self-described chronic procrastinators - we buy holiday gifts at the last moment, avoid compiling reports until minutes before the meeting, and try to see how far below "E" our gas gauge can get before we have to fill up. Though our culture doesn't harshly stigmatize the behavior of putting things off until the last minute, the habit can leave you without a job, stressed out, and lacking opportunities.

For some, the act of procrastination is often attributed to poor self-esteem. When faced with a challenging task, some chronic procrastinators fear the outcome, and thus put off the task. Their behavior is shaped by questions of their own ability: "What if I do it wrong or I am unsuccessful?" "What if I don't make the right decision?"

Another reason we postpone tasks is to avoid some sort of pain or discomfort. "Working out will make me sore." "Finishing that paper is going to leave me exhausted." Or, "I'm going to be bored to death while filing that report." It's human nature to put even more effort into avoiding pain than we do pursuing pleasure.

Finally, many of us put off less pleasurable tasks in favor of more gratifying activities. For example, in the 1960s and 70s, Walter Mischel conducted experiments demonstrating the persuasion of instant gratification versus making investments for future gains. Mischel put treats in front of children and said they could either eat their treat now, or wait a few minutes and they would be given double the booty. Not surprisingly, the children found it difficult, if not impossible to wait - but those who did were rewarded. Adults operate on the same premise. We want pleasure now, and we'll deal with the pain later. The future is a very abstract concept for us. The "Future You" always seems more responsible and less vulnerable to temptation than the "Now You."

Understanding why you do things is important, but taking action to counteract these intrinsic flaws carries just as much weight. Here are some tips to stop procrastinating and take action right now:

To start doing a task in a timelier manner, focus on the concrete details. According to a study published in Psychological Science, an individual's level of procrastination may be the result of how they interpret a given activity. Those that focused on concrete aspects of a task were more likely to complete it sooner than those who viewed the situation from an abstract perspective. When deciding whether or not to start going to the gym again, don't picture a far-in-the-future you with ripped abs and toned legs, picture yourself lacing your shoes and tuning in your favorite workout song on your iPod.

Reward yourself for finishing early, instead of punishments for getting it done late. Over time, if you continually need to resort to self reprimand, you'll begin to equate giving yourself a task with an inevitable punishment. Conversely, incentives for completion lead you to associate tasks with rewards.

Address your fear of failure. Assure yourself that even if you do fail a task or complete it incorrectly, no matter how big the blunder, at least it's a step in the right direction. Who knows, you might surprise yourself.

Deduce that the outcome of not completing the task will be more painful than the act of completion itself. Yeah, completing the report probably won't be fun, but getting fired or flunking the class will be even worse.

Realize that "Future You" and "Now You" are one in the same. Unless you undergo lifestyle changes between now and whenever you decide to reschedule the action, you're going to be presented with the same choice and you're going to want to act in the same way. Getting up after hitting the snooze three times is going to feel about the same as hopping out of bed when the first alarm sounds. Choosing a doughnut over a salad today is going to be just as appealing as it is tomorrow. Understanding this will help you to "just get it over with" and start enjoying the positive effects of your good behavior sooner. In addition, as was the case with Mischel's study, you'll also see more impressive results in terms of your current and future success.

Procrastination can be a tough habit to overcome, but once you do, you'll see the advantages of turning the "I should do that" into the "I have done that" so we can reserve the future for the stuff we truly enjoy.

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