Beating procrastination in your small business

Small Business Guides

6 min read

Procrastination is often described as the art of putting off until tomorrow what you should be doing today. Unfortunately it can be a big obstacle to business success. Here's how to beat it.

What is procrastination?

All of us have felt it at one time or another – the desire to put things off. Maybe your 'to do' list is full of boring or daunting chores. You might be dreading catching up on your paperwork. Or perhaps you just can't face dealing with a troublesome client.

So you procrastinate – you delay these tasks and do something else instead. Unfortunately that can lead to bigger problems.

If you're having trouble completing some of your business tasks, don't worry. You're not alone. Beating procrastination is a challenge for us all. This guide will help you do it.

The science of procrastination

People who procrastinate are sometimes called lazy, but that's not true. It's more accurate to say that they have a conflict in their minds. That conflict takes place between the:

  • prefrontal cortex, which is the brain's planning centre
  • limbic system, which demands immediate reward

There are times when the limbic system’s drive for immediate gratification makes sense. But building and running a business isn’t one of them. That requires long-term planning by the prefrontal cortex.

Unfortunately it takes mental effort to engage that part of the brain. Yet the limbic system will kick in at any time – if given the chance.

A mental image of procrastination

Understanding your mind is the key to beating procrastination. To help with this, imagine two people in a boardroom:

  • One is a serious individual who concentrates on the task in hand. This is your prefrontal cortex.
  • The other is an impulsive child with no self-control. This is your limbic system.

You can see the problem. Only one of these characters should be running your business. It’s important to recognise when the limbic system is fighting for the controls. That’s not always easy in a world full of distractions.

By some measures, we’re five times more likely to procrastinate today than we were in the 1970s. The internet and mobile devices have had a lot to do with that. The first step in beating procrastination is to realise when it's happening to you.

How to recognise procrastination

According to Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University, Chicago, procrastinators generally:

  • overestimate how much time they have left to do a task
  • believe tasks take less time than they really do
  • think they'll feel more motivated to do tasks later
  • feel it's suboptimal to work on a task when they're not in the mood for it

The last point is particularly tough for business owners. We’d all like to be at our best when dealing with big issues. Unfortunately that's not always possible.

Once you're aware of these signs, you'll probably notice them in your own behaviour. Luckily, beating procrastination is possible. But you'll need to take sensible steps to achieve it.

Beating procrastination – 12 top tips

  1. Prune your 'to do' list
    'To do' lists aren't always useful. Sometimes they make the situation worse. Many people feel daunted when faced with a long list of things they 'must' do. They become demoralised and end up doing nothing. So cut your list down to the bare essentials.
  2. Share the load
    Delegation is one of the hardest things for business owners to do, but it's vital. Learn to give up some control and put faith in your employees. And consider offloading routine tasks to service companies. You should save your energy for the big items.
  3. Break it down
    Nobody can concentrate for hours at a time on a single task. Break big jobs down. You could try the Pomodoro technique of doing 25-minute sprints, for example. This is part of good time management for small business owners.
  4. Disconnect yourself
    As anyone with a deadline knows, an internet connection can be the enemy of productive work. When you really have to concentrate, set aside some time – an hour or a whole day – then go offline to work without distraction.
  5. Don't wait for the perfect moment
    Do something now, even if you feel you're not in the right mood. Making a start on a task is often the biggest step. It’ll be easier to come back and continue it, rather than starting from scratch later. It will help put you in the right frame of mind, too.
  6. Schedule your work sensibly
    Use your natural rhythms to your advantage. Schedule big jobs for the morning if you’re an early bird, or evenings if you’re a night owl. And try to avoid doing heavy tasks in mid-afternoon. Most people suffer a physiological lull at this time, making them less productive.
  7. Find an app that works for you

    There are plenty of apps available for beating procrastination, like:

    • Freedom which blocks distracting apps and websites
    • Write Room (Mac) and Dark Room (Windows) which make the doc you’re working on take up the whole screen
    • MeeTimer, which is a Firefox add-on that reports your browsing behaviour so you can see where you’re wasting time

    Find one that works for you.

  8. Sandwich your tasks
    If there's something you really don't want to do, schedule it between two tasks that you enjoy. The first enjoyable task will set your frame of mind, and the later one will give you something to look forward to. If all your tasks are tough, try time-travelling – a mental technique where you imagine how good it’ll feel when you’re done.
  9. Make habits work for you
    Schedule recurring tasks for the same time of the day or week so they become a habit. Forming a habit moves a task into areas of the brain that deal with automation – and you’ll be less likely to procrastinate.
  10. Create the right working environment
    If you have a home office, make sure it’s in a separate room and keep fixed working hours. When you separate business and pleasure you're less likely to drift from one to the other.
  11. Get a computer to do it
    You’ll be surprised how many mundane tasks can be automated. Let technology streamline dreaded jobs, such as:
  12. Reward success
    Give yourself something when you complete a tedious task. Whether it's a mental pat on the back or a more tangible reward, this is important. It'll help you feel good about beating procrastination. That will make it easier to achieve next time.

Get it done – and don't feel stressed about it

Procrastinators sometimes believe that they perform better under pressure. But in fact they tend to perform worse than their peers, according to a study by Dianne Tice and Roy Baumeister of Florida University. They’re also more likely to suffer from stress.

So beating procrastination is vital if you want to perform to the best of your abilities, and also stay happy and healthy. That's all the incentive you need to get started – right now.