Procrastination isn’t just a human problem. Newton’s First Law of Motion says that a body at rest will stay at rest until compelled to do otherwise. Dare we say it? The entire universe procrastinates.
But just because procrastination is universal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. And too often, we find ourselves procrastinating when we know we shouldn’t. We mutter, "I should really be working," as we stalk our sophomore year homecoming date on Facebook, stand in front of the open fridge for the fourth time in an hour, or realize we’re watching banjo lessons on YouTube when we don't own a banjo.
Procrastination can also go beyond work, affecting other important parts of our lives. Not getting that irritating symptom checked out leaves an unknown disease untreated. Avoiding a difficult conversation only prolongs the conflict. And delaying an important life decision, like breaking up, making a serious commitment, going back to school, or finally changing career paths, can lead to running in place for years.
In the end, we kick ourselves. We regret the time wasted as deadlines approach, time runs out, and opportunity slips through our fingers.
Why do we do this to ourselves? The solution seems so simple: Just do it already. But reality is far more complicated, and to make matters worse, procrastination is in our very genes. The tendency to procrastinate runs in families, and is linked on the genetic level to impulsivity, creating a catch-all of difficulty regulating our own behavior. To top it all off, a study in the journal Psychological Science notes that procrastination is, unfortunately, a lifelong trait.
So what does that mean for us procrastinators? Are we doomed to a lifetime of whiling away hours of absently watching 80s music videos on YouTube?
Fortunately, no. Just like the inhibited among us can practice loosening up, and those prone to worry can learn to let go, those of us who procrastinate can find our own strategies to help us focus and resist our impulses.
Procrastination has many faces. Sometimes it’s simply choosing pleasure over discipline. Sometimes it’s an attempt to avoid something negative. And sometimes it’s getting paralyzed by overwhelming expectations. Therefore, here are five different reasons why we procrastinate, plus a customized approach for each:
1. The task isn’t urgent.
Whether it’s a crying baby, a pinging phone, or a deadline on the calendar, we tend to pay attention to what’s right in front of us.
But it’s a lot harder to prioritize things that aren’t urgent. From organizing the basement to saving for retirement, we all have things we never get around to. As a result, tasks big and small sit neglected at the bottom of the to-do list for months, if not years.
Solution: Consider the big picture.
This annoying tendency actually has some evolutionary significance. Humans are wired to consider the needs of the present much more strongly than the needs of the future, a phenomenon called temporal discounting. And this makes perfect sense: The present is in our face, so naturally we pay it more attention.
The remedy, according to a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, is to take on a broader perspective rather than nit-picking the details. Look at everyday tasks through the lens of a bigger picture.
For example, if you’ve been wanting to go back to school, but just never seem to get around to it, take a step back. What would this mean for your life? What are your values and goals around your education? What’s the big picture? Taking on a new perspective can jump-start the process of taking action.
Once you’ve decided to take action, it’s time to battle a new kind of procrastination, which is...
2. We don’t know how to start or what comes next.
Too often, we find ourselves procrastinating, because we’re not sure what to do first. We feel overwhelmed, confused, or disorganized. We put off getting started, because we’re not sure what the first step is.
This kind of procrastination is less an avoidance of the task, and more an avoidance of negative emotion. No one likes to feel incompetent or clueless, so who can blame us for turning our attention to Netflix or even cleaning the bathroom instead. Indeed, when we put off the task at hand by doing other tasks, it’s called productive procrastination. And anyone who’s ever organized the files on their desktop or shopped online for an upcoming event instead of doing work knows what I mean. At least finding the perfect outfit in advance makes us feel prepared.
Solution: Build confusion into the task.
The key is to acknowledge that it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed or stupid when you’re just starting out, especially if you’ve never done the task before.
Therefore, build confusion into the task. Make “figure out steps” the first step. Add “scream into your pillow” to the top of your to-do list, if that gets you moving.
Alternatively, some people need an outside party to help them think, so spitball with a friend or talk it out with your coworker to come up with where to start.
Remember, it’s okay for the beginning of the task to include a lot of pivots, do-overs, and plain old messing up. It only feels lousy if you think it shouldn’t be happening.
3. We're afraid of failure.
A dash of perfectionism isn’t all bad. After all, high standards lead to high-level work. Bruno Mars, Serena Williams, and Beyonce are all self-proclaimed perfectionists. But sometimes high standards have the opposite effect. We blow off our projects, convinced there’s no way we can meet the standards we set for ourselves.
Solution: Untangle performance and self-worth.
Perfectionism and procrastination are linked, but it’s not necessarily the sky-high standards that slow you down, but the sky-high standards mixed with a belief that your performance is tied to your self-worth. That combination can grind you to a halt.
Always remember the crucial difference between who you are and what you achieve. There’s so much more to your worth than your accomplishments—your identity, family, passions, experiences, travels, friends, politics, taste, knowledge, challenges you’ve overcome, and, most importantly, how you treat other people.
4. Some of us work better under pressure.
We all knew (or maybe were) that kid in high school or college who could crack open the textbook for the first time a few days before the final exam and still do better than those of us who planned ahead.
Solution: Know thyself.
Turns out those kids were planning ahead, just in a different way. There are two types of procrastination: passive and active. Passive procrastination is what we typically think of as procrastination: getting distracted by videos of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg making brownies to the detriment of our performance.
Active procrastination is more strategic—those of us who work better under pressure and prefer the adrenaline rush and intense focus that comes with a close deadline might choose to start later.
And, it turns out, the choice pays off. A 2017 study by three Swiss researchers found that passive procrastination negatively affects students’ GPAs, but active procrastinators’ grades turn out just fine. The lesson here is know thyself. If the high-pressure intensity of all-nighters works for you, go ahead and make that pot of coffee and crack open the textbook at midnight.
5. We just don’t want to do our work.
What we’re supposed to be doing is boring. It’s hard. It’s 3 p.m. on a beautiful Friday, and we’d rather be doing anything else.
There are some things no one wants to do—taxes, calling customer service, getting off the couch to go to bed—I mean, why do we have to be horizontal in a different place? What to do in this case?
Solution: Measure and compensate.
A study in the European Journal of Personality might have found a solution. It showed that many college students who procrastinated did so simply because there were fun alternatives. In their minds, they weren’t blowing off their work—they fully intended to study. Just not right now.
And just like the active procrastinators from the previous study, these procrastinators also knew themselves well. The study found that they compensated for their tendency to procrastinate by intending to study more and earlier than non-procrastinators. In other words, they allotted for time wasted from the get-go. And in the end? They actually studied more than non-procrastinators—not a lot more, but still.
To summarize: if you want to stop procrastinating, look at the big picture, know it’s okay to be dazed and confused at the beginning, remember your worth goes beyond your achievements, and, most of all, know thyself. Work with your tendency to procrastinate as it is, not as you wish it to be. So get on that—right after you watch that video on how to escape quicksand.
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