Procrastination is a self-defeating pattern of behavior to survive under pressure. Chronic procrastination has productivity and career costs and it leads to negative effects on our mental and physical health. Call it a friend without benefits because it helps you avoid the inability to complete something but in the avoidance it sabotages your goals.
You have ambition and drive, yet you find yourself stalling or postponing action on a project due tomorrow morning. It’s ironic, isn’t it? Instead of planting yourself in front of the screen, you watch yourself organize your spice rack, re-arrange furniture, or engage in unnecessary cleaning. You call yourself lazy because you can’t get motivated despite the looming deadline. But you’re not really a couch potato because you’re being productive. In the back of your mind, you know you’re not focused on your priorities, but you stall anyway. What’s going on with me? you ask. You recognize you’re procrastinating, and you’re getting antsy, catapulted into a swirl of adrenaline and cortisol stew. Why can’t I pull it together? you grumble. A deadline passes, commitments pile up, and your inner critic beats you into smithereens. It attacks you with more ugly names and you feel lousy. Now you must reckon with the second layer of pressure that adds another burden of misery.
From a bird’s-eye view, procrastination serves a psychological purpose. Studies show it’s a form of short-term mood repair. At its core, procrastination is the brain’s emotional response to a distressing issue protecting us against fear of failure, judgment by others and self-condemnation. You’re doing something against your “thinking brain’s” awareness, but you do it anyway because of the relief it provides. It’s not rational or logical because it takes effort and energy to procrastinate, but your efforts are going in the wrong direction.
Studies, such as the one by Fuschia Sirois at Bishop’s University in Canada, show that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being because the brain keeps nagging them. Postponing tasks is an unconscious way the mind tries to take away the anxiety of Can I do it perfectly? or Will my boss like the outcome? Many people say, If I don’t try, I can’t fail, and postponing brings relief in the short term while undermining your happiness and success in the long run.
If you avoid the looming task you temporarily avoid the judgment and self-doubt. It’s much more fun to go watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” than to sit in front of a blank screen with your heart beating a mile a minute. It’s a paradox because the avoidance of pressure actually amplifies the pressure. The closer you get to the deadline, the more distressed and paralyzed you feel, and in the long run stalling erodes your productivity and adds to chronic stress.
10 Steps You Can Take
1. Break things down. Taking small measurable steps that are easy and doable reduces procrastination and motivates you. In a way, you trick your emotional brain. The adage, “one step at a time” can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Studies show that if you take that first small step, you realize the task isn’t as challenging or difficult as your emotional brain told you during the time you were avoiding it. This change in perception allows you to break through postponement and move to completing your task.
2. Commit to short time chunks. I recommend five minutes of approaching the task because many people are overwhelmed by the thought of the entire project, think they can’t do it and never start. But somewhere between sunrise and sunset anybody can med for five minutes. Once you commit to five minutes, you often keep going for longer periods of time. You can use this tool with any task. Taking the first step to a task can be the hardest yet most rewarding. Once you complete the first part (perhaps just sitting down and opening your computer), it can get you going.
3. Amp up self-compassion. There is a direct link between self-compassion and success. Coming down hard on yourself when you procrastinate reduces your chance of rebounding. Instead of kicking yourself when you procrastinate, being kinder helps you bounce back quicker. Studies show that forgiving yourself for previous delays neutralizes procrastination, as does self-compassion, which provides shock absorbers against self-recrimination, reduces distress and boosts motivation. A survey of 119 students from Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, found that students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on the first midterm exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one. When you talk yourself off the ledge, give yourself a pep talk, an atta-girl or atta-boy or a positive affirmation, you cultivate the confidence and courage to overcome stalling and the ability to face career challenges and obstacles.
4. Curb your perfectionism. Mother Nature hard-wired you to overestimate threats. If you hear an inner voice say that the outcome must be perfect, chances are you’re exaggerating the difficulty of the task or how severely it will be evaluated. Unchecked perfection’s iron-fisted grip can cause you to set unrealistic goals, try too hard, and then avoid the impossible target you set for yourself. When expectations are out of reach, you start to see failure even in your triumphs. You’re less likely to procrastinate if you see your goals as doable and reachable. Try giving yourself permission to do an imperfect first draft—what is known in the literary world as “the shitty first draft.” Writers often use this tool to trick the emotional brain that says the quality won’t be perfect enough. When you agree, it reduces the resistance to completing the task. When you give yourself permission to make a mistake or do poorly, your first draft is often much better than you thought it would be. Even if it isn’t, you have a preamble of ideas that can unblock your motivation and get you moving.
5. Chill your faultfinder. If you’re like most people, you have a relentless faultfinder that lives in your brain, ruling your mind and career, bludgeoning you with oppressive words such as must, should, ought and have to: “I must win that contract;” “I have to get that promotion;” “This project should be perfect.” When you are aware of this relentless voice (the psychologist Albert Ellis dubbed it “musturbation”), choose more supportive, comforting words such as “I can;” “I get to;” “I want to;” or “I choose to.” When you hear a voice within say, “You must or should do or be something,” then by all means talk to it with compassion and remind it that you will be the one to choose. That voice will be silenced, and you will get out of the way of your own procrastination.
6. Avoid labeling yourself a procrastinator. When you call yourself a procrastinator, you identify with the very habit that you want to untangle from. You give your tacit approval to the label and accept it as you. This gives you unspoken permission to act as a person worthy of the label, and you repeat the habit of putting off tasks. Think of your procrastinator as a part of you, not as you. Stepping back and observing this part of you with an impartial eye lessens the self-judgment and keeps you from clobbering yourself. Learning to think of it as an aspect of you, not as you, lets you separate from the booming, eviscerating voice that tells you to avoid the threat. Refer to your procrastination in the second person and befriend it by talking to it so it doesn’t dominate your decision-making. Studies show this strategy helps you to untangle and feel separate from the procrastination, for the part to relax and for you to take charge of the task. When you practice this approach, you notice a heightened ability to scale the obstacles that procrastination puts in your way.
7. Reward yourself. Your brain is hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If you’re like most people, your brain loves a reward. After you complete a small portion of the task—not before you complete it—give yourself a payoff. Instead of watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel before completing an aspect of the task, plan to view it after finishing a designated part of the task. This approach raises your motivation to get something done so you can enjoy one of your favorite activities; in this case, a television show.
8. Set priorities. Simply choosing one item from your to-do list that you can accomplish quickly then completing it can give you a jumpstart and lift the burden of procrastination. You can face your commitments head-on and early instead of waiting until the last minute. If you have several items on your list, you can distinguish between essentials and non-essentials and work through the tasks that need immediate completion one at a time.
9. Set lifelines instead of deadlines. There’s a reason why we call them deadlines. Chances are, you set the bar so high you require yourself to change tires going 80 miles an hour. Out-of-reach deadlines can trigger procrastination. So consider lifelines that slow you down, help you chill and paradoxically make you more productive and effective. When you set lifelines, you don’t over-schedule. You put time cushions—time to breathe, eat a snack, go to the bathroom or just look out the window— between tasks. When you have lifelines instead of deadlines, you’re less likely to hear that whooshing sound as deadlines go by or feel that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach for “always” being behind. Your days become less hurried and harried, and you enjoy them more.
10. Consider the long-term benefits. When you procrastinate, you focus on the immediate relief instead of the gains of completing the future product. Flip your focus around and concentrate more on the gains of the final outcome and less on the short-term relief in the present. When a project seems like an uphill struggle, think of the view from the top, reminding yourself of how good you will feel after you complete the project that you’ve avoided. If you exercise regularly, you probably know the dread of getting to the gym. But when you remind yourself of how good you feel after a workout, it jump-starts your motivation and helps you get there. In the end, considering the long-term benefits moves you closer and quicker to the finish line. In the words of the writer Denis Waitley, “Winners take time to relish their work, knowing that scaling the mountain is what makes the view from the top exhilarating.”
Photo by MagnetMe on Unsplash
Sirois, F. M., & Tosti, N. (2012). Lost in the moment? An investigation of procrastination, mindfulness, and well-being. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive Therapy, 30, 237-248.
Wohl, M. et al. (2010). I forgive myself, now I can study: How self-forgiveness for procrastinating can reduce future procrastination. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences. 48, 803-808.