Procrastinating During the Pandemic?
How to shake things loose and be more productive at work
A body at rest will stay at rest until compelled to do otherwise. It’s Newton’s First Law of Motion. After a long period of quarantine, cancelled travel, gym closure, social distancing and working from home, this body’s motion has slowed considerably—except for frequent journeys to the refrigerator. The slowness and stress of the past few months also seems to increase procrastination. Apparently, I’m not alone.
As the pandemic drags on well past what most of us expected, many are finding it hard to get things done. Early on, we expected extra time to do home projects, fun activities or other things we had put off. Instead, we are dealing with anxiety, isolation and burnout.
So, this isn’t your typical “get organized and get things done” article. First, we are going to look at why we procrastinate and then apply that to the current crisis. Perhaps we’ll gain some helpful insight to get past this sluggish hurdle together.
Why we procrastinate
First, it’s important to understand that psychologists don’t associate procrastination with laziness, bad organizational skills or other such character flaws. According to Pamela Wiegartz Ph.D., author of In the Age of Anxiety, procrastination often is our brain’s way of dealing with anxiety.
Here are a few examples: “If I complete this report, will I put my job further at risk if it’s not well received?” (fear of failure; putting in effort but still failing). “If I successfully pitch a new idea will it mean more work in my already full schedule? (fear of success and the greater responsibilities that may come with achievements.). “I don’t have time to do this project the way it should be done” (perfectionism, which may cause one to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed by impossible self-imposed standards).
What’s different in our pandemic reality is that non work-related stress could cause procrastination as well. Worrying about your job, health, money, relationship, loneliness or other factors that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
But what is true of all kinds of procrastination is that it causes more stress. While doing something pleasurable, such as browsing Facebook Marketplace or watching funny cat videos on YouTube, temporarily eases your mind, you will have less time to complete an important task, causing more stress later.
What to do about pandemic procrastination
Psychologist Patricia O’Laughlin recommends a combination of light planning, carving out a good work environment and self-care. Here are some of her recommendations, with a few notes from me on what has helped keep my busy work schedule on track.
Plan a day ahead of time. You likely keep a calendar of appointments and maybe even use project management software for work. But if you are already feeling overwhelmed, break down just what you want to accomplish the next day. O’Laughlin suggests jotting down a schedule in a journal or planner the night before. I make a list on the common computer app Notepad at the end of my working day for what I want to do tomorrow. This way I know what the next day will bring and can my mind rest for the evening. Make sure not to list out everything on your plate- just what you can reasonably accomplish the next day. Noting too many tasks will set you up to fail, and cause more anxiety and depression.
Get an active start. According to the latest edition of the U.S. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, any amount of physical activity—even two minutes’ worth—can add up to huge benefits for your immediate and long-term health. Movement also releases feel-good endorphins and gets the brain moving in a positive direction. So, take the dog for a walk, go up and down the stairs a few times, or call up your favorite exercise video on YouTube. Keep it short—this is just the beginning of your day.
Nutrition is key. Don’t skip breakfast, but don’t overindulge. A big breakfast is a little too heavy for the beginning of the day. Skip the sugary pastry or sausage McMuffin, and opt for healthy proteins and antioxidants. Here are three suggestions for a quick and easy brain-boosting breakfast. My favorite is a toasted slice of flourless whole grain bread, topped with a quarter of sliced avocado and a perfectly round microwaved egg white.
Do Important tasks first. In most people, brain activity is most active in the morning, and fades as the day goes on. AM is the time to get things done. Even if you are a night owl like me, afternoons can be a little sluggish. By prioritizing complex or urgent tasks at the beginning of the day, I can sail through some easier work on cruise control in the afternoon.
Create a “focus bubble.” Whether you are working at home or a company’s place of business, it’s important to carve out a work space with little interruptions. This may mean rearranging your desk or office to not see or encourage engagement from passersby. Save social conversations for break time.
Working from home has its own set of distractions. You’ve probably heard suggestions to set up a separate workspace to delineate your work and home space. It’s also important to ask family members or roommates to provide some quiet time when you need it. If you don’t have a separate room to dedicate as an office, check out these cool DIY room dividers.
Avoid the device trap. Texting or checking social media can be such a time sucking trap. Turn on your virtual “do not disturb” sign, and try to stay focused on tasks at hand.
Reward yourself. When you complete your manageable daily list, celebrate! Have a treat, play your favorite video game, indulge in a hot bubble bath or other self-care reward. The best thing? Spending the rest of the evening knowing you accomplished your goals today.
Find an accountability partner. Perhaps there is a friend or coworker that could use some motivation as well. Ask if you can help keep each other on track. Tell them what you are working on. Discuss your mutual struggles and goals to stay motivated.
If you’re feeling stressed, consider limiting your time online to reduce anxiety. It helps to acknowledge why we procrastinate. Then, take a deep breath, and remember we are all in this together. Stay in the present and take things as they come.