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The four keys to overcoming procrastination

Procrastination gets the best of us all, harming our work, happiness, and health. However, a new theory may provide us with the simplest way to break the habit.

Consider how you could become healthier, wealthier, and less stressed by taking a few simple daily steps. It would require no significant sacrifice on your part, but your personal and professional life would improve immeasurably in a variety of ways over time.

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Procrastination is a major impediment to positive change for many people. Chronic procrastinators are less likely to be employed, and those who do have jobs earn significantly less, earning at least $14,000 less than their more proactive colleagues. Procrastinators also struggle to find time to exercise because they always put it off for another day. And, as a result of the general chaos caused by the constant avoidance of important tasks, they tend to experience high levels of anxiety. As a result, the risk of chronic illnesses, such as cardiovascular disease, is increased.

But, according to cutting-edge research by Jason Wessel, it doesn’t have to be this way. Wessel developed a system comprised of four simple “reflection points” that target the psychological roots of the problem as part of his PhD at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Asking yourself these questions on a regular basis will help you resist tempting distractions, allowing you to focus on the things that truly matter in your life.

Temporal Motivation Theory

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Wessel’s method is based on Temporal Motivation Theory, which proposes four interconnected causes of procrastination.

The first is ‘expectancy,’ which occurs when we underestimate our chances of succeeding at a task, lowering our overall motivation. The second factor is our’sensitivity to delay’: many of us fail to recognise how negatively our current delaying tactics will affect our chances of finishing on time. Third, we fail to recognise the ‘value’ of the task and the benefits of completing it on time, implying that we prioritise our immediate pleasure over long-term consequences. Finally, Wessel contends that we lack basic’metacognition,’ or the ability to think analytically about our own thinking. This would enable us to identify ways to resist these behaviours and get back on track.

Although studies of chronic procrastinators have provided some good evidence for Temporal Motivation Theory, potential antidotes to these problems have been woefully under-researched thus far. “There simply aren’t that many studies yet,” says Wendelien van Eerde of the University of Amsterdam, who conducted a meta-analysis of available interventions in 2018.

Wessel developed a system comprising four simple “reflection points” that target the psychological roots of the procrastination

Van Eerde discovered that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was the only existing method with consistent benefits in her study. A professional therapist will assist the client in talking through the thoughts, emotions, and actions that are impeding their productivity during CBT sessions. “You try to identify what you’re doing wrong and adapt your behaviours to more functional ways of dealing with things,” van Eerde says.

However, as effective as it may be, in-person CBT is time consuming and expensive to deliver, making it difficult to scale up. This made Wessel wonder if it was possible to provide a faster and less expensive alternative.

Following careful consideration, He decided to distil Temporal Motivation Theory principles into four simple prompts that ask people to consider:

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  • How would someone successful complete the goal?
  • How would you feel if you don’t do the required task?
  • What is the next immediate step you need to do?
  • If you could do one thing to achieve the goal on time, what would it be?

The university setting was ideal for putting the method to the test. Wessel first gathered a group of over 100 undergraduates who were to complete a written assignment worth one-third of their final grade. To track their progress, students were sent text messages on a regular basis asking them to estimate their overall progress in completing the assignment (from 0% to 100%). Participants in the intervention were also asked to reflect on the points listed above at various points during the two weeks. Wessel hoped that thinking about these prompts would produce the same mental shifts as in-person therapy, but in much shorter bursts. “It’s like a’micro-dose’ of some of the elements that you’d get in a coaching, counselling, or therapeutic session,” he says.

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When Wessel compared the participants’ progress updates over the course of two weeks, he discovered that those who considered the four reflection points were significantly more likely to get ahead of the work early, rather than putting it off until the end of the fortnight. In other words, it had significantly reduced their procrastination.

The benefits were not immediate; Wessel says the students needed to consider the different reflection points a few times before they started taking action – a phenomenon he describes as a “sleeper effect”. “There are only so many times you can tell the app you know exactly what you need to do and then fail to do it,” he says. The students were expected to be irritated by the reminders, but the majority reported that they had learned a lot from the experience. “They suggested that we do this for every course they offer.”

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