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Procrastination part II: how to overcome it and start getting things done

For most people, procrastination is an occasional problem. But for about twenty percent of us, it’s more than that: it’s something more serious. In the second half of our two-part lesson on procrastination, we’re diving into avoidance behavior and discussing strategies for overcoming procrastination. Plus, learn the English expression “on your plate.”

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  • Procrastination: part two

    Hi there, great to have you with us once again. I’m Jeff, JR is the producer, and this is the audio portion of Lesson 254 of Plain English. As always, you can find the full lesson online at PlainEnglish.com/254.

    Coming up today: the second half of our two-part lesson on procrastination. Last time, we told you what it is; today, we’re talking about strategies to overcome it. The English expression is to have something on your plate. Two-for-one today in the quote of the week section. I have a quote, and then a snarky rejoinder. And of course the video lesson and exercises online at PlainEnglish.com/254.

    Before we start, I want to tell you that the new site is looking really, really good. I’ve mentioned before that I’m redesigning the web site. The existing site is good, but it’s getting a little long in the tooth. Meaning, getting a little old. So I’ve been testing the new one and practicing with it and really just putting the finishing touches on it. This is not official, but I’m planning to have the new site up and running on June 1. If you’d like to learn more about the new site, including sneak previews, special offers, and the chance to vote for features, then go to PlainEnglish.com/new. PlainEnglish.com/new – that’s going to be up until we re-launch the site.


    Strategies for dealing with procrastination

    In Lesson 253, we talked about procrastination—specifically, why it’s more than just delaying an unpleasant task. Procrastination is when you delay something—but invent time-wasting activities to do in its place. If you substitute something fun for something unpleasant—that’s not procrastination. But if you mindlessly scroll through the internet or otherwise waste time just to avoid the unpleasantness of something—that’s procrastination.

    For most people, this is an occasional problem. But for about twenty percent of the population, it’s more than that: it’s something more serious.

    Today we’re going to talk about what to do if you find yourself repeatedly procrastinating. The first thing to do is to start recognizing when you’re procrastinating. You generally know that you’re procrastinating when you get that feeling that you don’t want to do something, and you just substitute a filler activity. It’s important to recognize what’s going on. To say to yourself, “If I do this, then I’m just procrastinating.” Being more aware of what you’re doing is enough to help you begin to cut down on it.

    But take a step further. When you know you’re tempted to procrastinate, ask yourself: What is the activity I’m running away from, or trying to delay? And why don’t I want to do it? This will be different for every person and for every situation. But this is helpful because often the “unpleasant activity”—I’m putting that in air quotes—is often not as bad as we think. People who procrastinate often over-estimate how painful a certain activity is. If you think about why you’re avoiding something, and think about the steps to accomplish that task, you may discover that it’s not quite as scary as you thought. You might also look to the future and say to yourself, “Think about how good I’ll feel when this is over and off my plate.” Imagine the feeling of having the task completed and you’ll feel more comfortable starting.

    Speaking of which, here’s another strategy: just start. Take the first, small step. When we’re deciding whether to do the painful activity, we often worry about how long it’s going to take and how hard it is. But if you take just the first step, then you might get the momentum you need to continue and get halfway or even all the way through it. Some people say it helps to break a big, scary project down into tiny steps. I find that sometimes works—but other times, writing out 50 small steps makes it seem more, not less, overwhelming. Find the strategy that works for you.

    Starting is important, but it’s not enough to only start. Once you’ve got some momentum, it’s important not to lose it. Experts always say, minimize distractions. Try not to multi-task. This is especially important if you’re prone to procrastination. Every time your concentration on a difficult task is broken, you need to decide again to resume. Deciding to start is your roadblock, as a procrastinator—so every time you’re doing something that you know is hard, that you know you’ve put off before, you need to minimize distractions more than ever.

    Studies have shown lately that each person has a limited amount of concentration and self-discipline available during the day. Some people tend to have more; some, less; but we all have a limited amount of self-discipline. The more times we have to resist temptation, the less we’re able to concentrate in the future, when it counts. Notifications on our phone, distractions around us—these are all temptations that we must resist throughout the day. If you have lots of those distractions, then you’re handicapping your ability to buckle down and do what you have to do.

    Decision-making can be a stressor. This can be the catalyst for getting off-track. Let’s say you’ve been putting off going to exercise after work, but you finally decided to go today. Then, at lunch, a friend calls and invites you to dinner. Yikes—now you have a decision to make; an opportunity to get off track. Here’s one way to deal with that: anticipate these types of choices and make your choices ahead of time. Think through a few scenarios and decide what you’ll do in advance.

    Let’s continue with the example of putting off exercise. What are some of the decisions that could possibly come up? Number one, you get invited to do something social in the evening. Number two, you feel tired and you’re not sure if you have the energy. And number three, you have to work late. Before you leave for work, decide what you’re going to do if any of those three things happens. If I get invited to go out to dinner, you might say to yourself, then today I’ll say no, but I’ll suggest we do something on Saturday.

    There you go: you’ve decided. When the moment comes, you have your decision. You can even tell your friends, “Hey, I promised myself that I would go exercise even if I were invited to go out.” Next, you might decide, if I’m feeling really tired and I don’t want to exercise, I’ll just go and do a half-hour of light movement and re-evaluate how I feel. And finally, you might decide, if I have to work late, I’ll work as late as I need to—but I’ll get up early and go before work the next day.

    The thing about procrastination is, it’s so easy to delay what you know you need to do. It’s so easy to give in to the temptation to delay and feel good in the short run. So if you’re one of the people who struggles with procrastination, then try putting some of these tips to work. First, work on recognizing when you’re procrastinating. Ask yourself, why am I doing this? What exactly am I dreading? Picture how good you’ll feel when it’s over. Get started—just take the first step. Once you have some momentum, don’t torture yourself with distractions. And practice making your hardest decisions in advance.


    In case you couldn’t tell, I am one of the twenty percent. This is something that I’ve struggled with in my career for a long time. I have a good job; I do well. But I put things off. I know I could be doing a lot better, professionally, if I didn’t procrastinate so much. I’ve been working, post-university, for about 15 years. And I just think of all the time I’ve lost simply due to procrastination. So this is something I’ve been working on personally.

    On your plate

    Do you have a lot on your plate? I’m not talking about dinnertime—I’m talking more generally. When you have a lot on your plate, you have a lot of responsibilities, a lot of things to do. Can you take on a new project? Ah, I’m sorry, I have a lot on my plate at the moment. I don’t think I can. That means you have a lot of responsibilities. I have a lot on my plate. That’s what you say when you have a lot to do.

    What can you do if someone in your life has a lot on their plate? How about this: you can take something off their plate. Let’s say you volunteer at your kids’ school. You notice that one of the other parents has said “yes” to a lot of projects and is starting to get overwhelmed. You might offer to take something off his or her plate. You might say, “Hey, Aline, I notice you’re planning a fund-raiser and volunteering after school three days a week. Can I take something off your plate?”

    That’s a polite and empathetic way of offering to do something without seeming threatening. You don’t want to steal a job or a responsibility from that other person. It’s not an insult. If you say, “Can I take something off your plate?” what you’re really saying is, “It looks like you have a lot going on. I’d like to offer to reduce the number of things you have to do.”

    It works the opposite way, too. Sometimes it’s hard at work, when someone just starts—you need to find something for him or her to do. Here’s something you might say: “I’m a little worried about Nelson. He’s got nothing on his plate and I’m worried he might be bored.” He’s got nothing on his plate; he doesn’t have anything to do.

    Do you remember how I used this phrase earlier? If you’ve got an unpleasant task that you’ve been putting off, delaying, then try imagining how good you’ll feel later, when it’s off your plate. So often, the stress associated with unpleasant tasks and chores isn’t the stress of doing it—it’s the stress of imagining how bad it’s going to be in the future. Half the time, actually doing something isn’t nearly as bad as you thought it would be. One way to combat these stressful feelings is to imagine how good you’ll feel when the job is done. Imagine yourself without this extra thing to do. Imagine how nice it will be when it’s off your plate.

    Quote of the week

    I’m going to give you a quote, which is not the quote of the week. But in order to understand the quote of the week, you need to know this quote first—otherwise the quote I’ve chosen isn’t going to be funny.

    Benjamin Franklin—one of the founding fathers of America—is a rich source of quotes. Here’s a famous one: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” We always hear that; that’s drilled into us from a young age. Mark Twain—a nineteenth-century author—was often bothered by these industrious quotes from Benjamin Franklin, urging us from his grave to be more productive and better people. So Mark Twain decided he would write his own quote about procrastination, based on Benjamin Franklin’s original. Here’s the Mark Twain version: “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well.” That is the quote I’ve chosen—the story of my life sometimes. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow just as well,” by the American author Mark Twain.


    That’s all for today’s lesson. Coming up on Thursday: how will the world of work change after COVID-19? We’ll indulge in a bit of speculation about the future in Thursday’s lesson. How the world of work will change in the future as a result of COVID-19. Come join us for that.

    And remember, if you’d like to get the inside track on the brand-new PlainEnglish.com and the chance to vote for new features, then visit us at PlainEnglish.com/new.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

  • Note to listeners: The interactive transcripts are now part of our Plain English Plus+ membership. Not ready to join Plus+ just yet? You can access only the interactive translations with a membership to Plain English Lite. If you’re curious what the transcripts look like, see a sample episode here. Already a member? Log in now.

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Simone
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Simone

Hi, Jeff and Jr!
I really like today’s quote and the episod.
Can you tell me what the difference between dinner and supper is? Tks

Jeff
Admin

Hi Simone,

I think they are the same. However, “dinner” is far more common at least in the US. I personally never use the word “supper.”

Wikipedia has an interesting history of the word: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supper

Simone
Member
Simone

Thanks, Jeff!

CeciliaJR
Member
CeciliaJR

Excellent tips! 🤗