Procrastination is the enemy of wealth creation. Every year you put off investing makes it more difficult to reach your financial goals because you forego compound interest.
Procrastination isn’t only about lost opportunity, it can also cost you money. Around one-in-five income tax returns were lodged late in 2016. Fees and penalties clock up fast: you’re charged $210 for each month of late payment, and there’s a 9% interest rate on the unpaid debt. If there’s one time of year that procrastination bites the most, it’s right now at tax time.
I was a terrible procrastinator, but two single-sentence pieces of advice have helped me overcome more mañana moments than everything else put together:
1. Don’t wait until you feel like doing something
I first heard about the idea from British journalist Oliver Burkeman. He explains that when we procrastinate, it isn’t about us being unable to get on with the job, it’s about us waiting to summon the motivation. We think to ourselves ‘I don’t feel like doing this now, so I’ll wait until tomorrow when I may be more in the mood’.
Most advice on how to stop procrastinating isn’t about how to do things, it’s about how to feel like doing things. The focus is on how to get motivated.
But that’s a terrible idea. Not only do you have to do some mundane task, but you have to want to do it too? Don’t fall into the trap of needing to be psyched up before you do something, it’s just adding another roadblock to you getting it done. You will never want to do your taxes; you’re going to feel just as unmotivated tomorrow and the day after that – so you might as well do them now when your efforts will at least have the most impact on your returns and savings.
2. Set laughably small goals
The bigger the task, the more likely we are to feel overwhelmed and so put off doing it. When my kitchen is a mess, I find the trick to getting it cleaned is to break things down into tiny – ridiculously tiny – steps. I say to myself ‘Right, whether or not I clean the whole kitchen, I’m at least going to put that single cup into the dishwasher’. A friend of mine used to go for ‘10 second jogs’ to at least get his shoes on and make it out of the house. The smaller the goal, the more difficult it will be for you to justify not doing it.
Small achievements are reinforcing, make you feel positive, and carry momentum so you’re more likely to get the bigger goal done. It plays on the Zeigarnik Effect – the urge to finish an incomplete task so we can free up mental energy. If you already have your jogging gear on and have sprinted to the mailbox, you're more likely to think ‘we'll, I've come this far, I might as well keep going’.
Ultimately once you’ve started an activity, continuing it seems easier. Making it past the ‘start’ point is the hardest part, so focus on that first step. If there’s an application form that has been on your to-do list for months, don't wait until you feel like doing it: set the laughably small goal of just writing your name on the front page. You may find that momentum carries you the rest of the way.