Updated: May 4, 2020
With the recent onset of a global pandemic (COVID-19), the number of people working from home has shifted dramatically. Of course, for many, this started off seeming like a welcome change - a chance to trial a manner of working not previously available in many professions. While some folks are thriving with the new way of doing business, many are reporting that the unhelpful habit of procrastination is becoming a significant issue and challenge without the oversight, external accountability, and structure that going into an office every day creates. If you're finding yourself in this camp, the good news is that you're not alone, and there are ways to help yourself! So we've compiled some quick tidbits to help you address procrastination specifically in the current situation. Here are 3 simple techniques you can try to address procrastination while working from home if it is a struggle for you:
(1) Stick to (or Establish) a Routine
Usually, you would have a pre-work routine that would let your mind and body know that you are "on" for the day. Working productively is a habit, and all those little pieces that we usually do to start our work day are part of that habit, so it is important not to break the chain. Plus, if we know one thing about starting a task, it is that you are more likely to complete it once you get started - you can think of just doing a getting ready to work-from-home routine as the first step in achieving the bigger work projects on your table, and hopefully, that first step is going to build some momentum for you to get through your day! This might look like having a shower, getting dressed, doing a workout, eating a meal, chatting with a colleague or team upon arrival at the office. Additionally, you may be able to set up a dedicated work area - stepping into that area is another helpful pre-work routine, and a good transitional piece to rely on through the day (step away from your workspace when on break!). If you don't have a dedicated work area, consider other short routines that can signal to yourself that you are switching to work for the day (maybe a 5 minute mindfulness activity, or 5 minutes of listening to music the way you would on your commute to work usually).
Once the day is started, you can do other things like keep a checklist of the 4-6 broader tasks you plan to complete in a day (keep it manageable - it won't help to put more on the list than can possibly be accomplished!), schedule in breaks based around the completion of key tasks (some people find it helpful to schedule 20-30 minute bursts of work followed by 5 minute breaks), and keep a visual tracking system of everything you have accomplished in a day. Also, keep an eye out for activities that you are calling routine, but are actually part of the procrastination cycle - you might benefit from delaying these rewarding experiences until key tasks are complete. Personally, I routinely keep a running list beside me of what tasks I started the day intending to focus on, and I write in little notes about the smaller items I do along the way. Every checkmark and markup on that list gives me a tiny burst of, "Yes! I did it!" and helps me want to do more. At the end of the day, I transfer the leftovers from that list onto a new list for tomorrow - as soon as my new list is ready to go, I clock out for the day and move out of my work-space.
Routinely leveraging your social connections is another useful strategy, particularly around getting motivated and being accountable. If you are used to seeing your boss daily - ask to set up a check in system somehow. If you have colleagues you usually chat with, reach out the them and let them know what you are working on and how it is going. If you are more of a lone wolf, find a friend or business acquaintance to talk with - sometimes even just saying out loud to another person that we have a project and an intended completion date is all we need to get ourselves going. Or hey - book a therapy session and tell your therapist what you are working on and when it will be done! ;) But the point is - build in a routine connection point for yourself where you have to review your progress.
The final routine of note is simple scheduling 101. Working from home is hard for many reasons, and in our current situation, has many elements that would not be as normative, such as having children and/or a partner or roommate home too, a lack of privacy, or a less structured schedule. It is important to make it clear for yourself and others when you are working or not, and thus hopefully finding some ways to defer distractions to break times and non-work time as much as possible. If you are visibly on the clock, you are more likely to avoid procrastination-tendancies. (For me, for example, I have a thing about setting a good example for my kids around work ethic - I chose to spend my morning writing this blog at the kitchen table on my day off so they can see how seriously I take my work. Knowing they are watching and hopefully learning something about work ethics is keeping me on task. And when they have needed something from me, I have asked them to set the timer for 10 minutes, worked as hard as I could for those minutes, and then physically moved away from my laptop to do whatever then needed done.)
(2) Thought Management
Ok, so really, this is standard Cognitive Behavioural Theory with Mindfulness thrown in, but I hope you'll get a sense of why it is relevant and how to use it. Essentially, we know that when we procrastinate, there is an immediate reward - we feel relieved at not having to do any particular task in that moment, and might even further reinforce that feeling if we choose to reward ourselves with a pleasant alternative, or if we know we're the kind of people who get some pay off in the adrenaline rush that comes with waiting to the last minute. So, we need to pay attention to our thoughts and associated emotions, and mindfully step in to change the trajectory, and find ways to control for the sense of being rewarded. Here's how it could look (keep in mind this is just an example - your own thoughts could be quite different!):
INITIAL THOUGHT: That's a project I'm not too excited about, and it is not due for a while, and no one will really know if I am working on it or not anyhow. (Feeling relieved.)
PROCRASTINATION THOUGHT: Maybe if I tidy my desk for a bit (avoidance = feeling more pleasure and more relief) and listen to some music to put me in a more productive mood (distraction with a pleasurable activity = feeling really relaxed and maybe even excited or happy), that will help me get started (feeling more relief and feeling justified and irrationally believing this will all help me start in the future).
BEHAVIOUR: Tidy the desk, listen to music, put off the work and get caught in a procrastination loop...
The good news is there is space within this thinking to (1) change the thought (2) change the feelings (3) change the behaviours. Here's how that might look:
INITIAL THOUGHT: That's a project I'm not too excited about, and it is not due for a while, and no one will really know if I work on it.
MINDFUL ATTENTION TO THE THOUGHT: I notice I am thinking in a a way that will likely lead to procrastination if I keep going down this path. I notice I am feeling relieved and calm and happy when I think about not doing the task right now. I notice that I am thinking about this as a future problem, not a now-problem.
MINDFULLY QUESTIONING THE THOUGHTS AND REDIRECTING THE BEHAVIOUR:
I wonder what I would do if I was excited about this project, or if it was due sooner, or if someone did know whether I was working on it? I guess I would get cracking on it and consider it a now problem versus a future problem.
I wonder what would I do if I wasn't going to work on the project? Tidy my desk and listen to music? Those sound like activities that I want to do instead of the project, and if I am being mindful I will bundle them in so that I can still enjoy them. I could set myself up for success better by making those activities something that I earn along the way to keep me motivated.
RESULTANT ALTERNATE THOUGHT: I have the choice to mindfully do the project now, and I know that even though it doesn't feel like a 'now' problem, it is a future problem that does concern me, and I have to be doing something anyhow, so it might as well be this project (feeling motivated, engaged, invigorated, and proactive; no opportunity for relief or other procrastination-reinforcing emotions to sneak it).
MINDFUL BEHAVIOUR: Start the project.
In sum, by paying attention to our thoughts and feelings, getting curious about our options, and attaching intentional rewards to doing the work needing done, we can break out of procrastination, allowing us to actively choose to do what we would do eventually anyhow.
As a sidenote, many people will find that they also have thoughts like, I can't get started/ I have no ideas right now/ etc. In my experience, the best thing to do is to start something rather than doing nothing. In coaching people on journalling, for example, it is common practice to say, "It's ok if you don't know what to write - just write I don't know what to write over and over if you have to, and stick to that for a dedicated amount of time giving it your full energy. More often than not you'll find your mindset flips at some point, and all of the sudden, you likely will be creating something and will have ideas and flow.
(3) Mindset - Putting Effort into Accepting & Appreciating
I wish I was writing about a simple and easy trick one could do to kill procrastination. However, as you hopefully have noticed by this point, I am actually talking about doing things that take a lot of effort and dedication. At the same time, one thing that actually takes less cognitive effort than coming up with reasons and strategies to avoid a task, is to simply accept that it does need done, and then to do it. On top of that, if we know something has to be done, and if we can intentionally approach it with acceptance at the very least, but potentially also with gratitude, curiosity, interest, and (dare I say) joy - we're just that much more likely to do it. So, what I like to do, is to again notice my thoughts and how I am feeling, remind myself that my thoughts and feelings don't actually change that the project needs to be done, and to ask myself questions like:
"What would I do if I simply accepted this has to happen?" (I usually would opt to just get it over with).
"What if I approach this as an opportunity and with the emotions of joy and gratitude?" (Sometimes, just switching the emotional lens I am coming in from is enough for me. Sometimes, I remind myself I am grateful to have a steady job, steady income, autonomy in what I do, and that whatever it is I am thinking about putting off is one more way for me to ensure that I will continue to have the same lifestyle and work available going forward.)
I find asking these and similar questions helps me stop myself from stopping myself, and gives me a push to move forward. (If you try this, and struggle, it can help to write down your answers, but be careful how much time you spend doing this - if it takes more than 5 minutes, I'd start to wonder if it wasn't another way of procrastinating rather than a helpful strategy to stop.) Overall, finding the reasons behind why it is helpful to do a project is one of the best mindsets one can be in to really move forward with it.
The last piece I'll address, is to acknowledge that many people feel embarrassed, guilty, ashamed, or frustrated when they have procrastinated. The way to adjust mindset here, is to have a self-compassionate conversation with oneself - make sure you forgive yourself for procrastinating, acknowledge the feelings you have as valuable and useful to learn from, and commit to trying even one or two of the strategies above (or any other non-punitive ones you may come across!). And then, simply move forward with all those positive mindset emotions we just went through at the forefront. :)
And there you have it: Work-From-Home Procrastination can be dealt with effectively by establishing solid routines, mindfully reworking thoughts/ emotions/ behaviours, and adjusting mindset. I hope this has been helpful, and that your ability to power through working from home feels more possible.