Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


5 Things Even the Brightest People Don't Understand About Procrastination

Don't make these mistakes in understanding how to overcome procrastination.

Key points

  • Learning how to overcome procrastination is a skill you can master, like any other skill.
  • People who are good at being disciplined are so because they approach tasks that inherently require less self-control.
  • Curious, enthusiastic people often have a lot of avenues in life they'd like to pursue.
Source: mavo/Shutterstock

Procrastination is a struggle almost all of us can relate to. There might be many activities you want or need to do but don't. You put them off. Then your thoughts and feelings about tasks not done and dreams not pursued start to bother you. At that point, you probably become self-critical and irritated with yourself.

Learning how to overcome procrastination is a skill you can master, like any other skill. To start with that, it's important to assess your procrastination accurately and why you do it.

Here are some common ways smart people misperceive and mislabel procrastination. Check which of these apply to you.

1. You think not pursuing all your dreams all at once is procrastination.

Curious, enthusiastic people often have a lot of avenues in life they'd like to pursue. You might have ideas for many projects, side hustles, trips you'd like to take, etc. However, most of them are sitting on the backburner.

If you label all of this behavior as procrastination, you'll take on the identity of a procrastinator. Seeing yourself that way will make it hard to make improvements and to start taking action on one project at a time.

Try accepting that feeling excited about a lot of potential activities is a good thing. Pick one project, take a concrete step towards it, and allow the rest to sit on the backburner for now. Change your thinking from "I should do..." to "I could do..." The world is full of opportunities. If you're an enthusiastic, curious, smart person, you'll see many more opportunities than you could possibly pursue. Narrow it down to one for now.

2. You think to overcome procrastination, you need more self-control.

We procrastinate tasks that stir emotions for us, whether boredom, anxiety, resentment, overwhelm, or guilt and shame.

People think they need better self-control to get things done when they're having these emotions. That's not the answer. People who are good at being disciplined are so because they approach tasks that inherently require less self-control.

How? The best way is by having strong habits. The more consistently you do a recurring task at the same time and place, in the same way, the less self-control will be required to perform it. For example, it takes less self-control to go to the gym every day on the way home from work than to go haphazardly. Habits make our behavior more automatic, and when behaviors are more automatic, they take less conscious self-control. You don't need to have more self-control. It would help if you used habits so that important activities require less self-control.

3. You think to overcome procrastination, you need to change your emotions.

Instead of thinking you need, you can avoid the emotions a task stirs. Try thinking about how you can use those emotions to propel you. For example, take a task that stirs strong feelings of boredom for you. Or one that stirs resentment about having to do the task at all. How can you use those feelings as information?

The feelings might be a clue that the task doesn't feel meaningful enough to you. How can you redesign it or approach it differently, so it does feel meaningful to you? If a work project feels boring, it could be a clue that it's not meaningful or important enough. Your feelings are telling you it's not the contribution you want to make to the world. How can you use that information to do the task to make it more meaningful or to pivot towards more meaningful tasks?

Or, how can you optimize your processes so that a particular task needs only to be done by you infrequently or not at all, or requires less work when you need to do it? Can you approach a task you need to do in a way that heavily utilizes your unique strengths? By approaching a task in a way that uses your top strengths, you'll feel less bored and anxious about it.

Instead of trying to change your emotions, ask yourself what you can learn from them. Imagine a task like cleaning out your garage. How can you make that utilize your top strengths and feel meaningful?

4. You confuse procrastination with a need for downtime.

You're staring at a pile of laundry that needs to be put in the machine, but you remain sitting on your sofa watching tv. Some people believe they should always, or nearly always, be engaged in productive activity and should need minimal downtime. If you put this pressure on yourself, it'll backfire. You'll end up in boom and bust cycles whereby you go through spurts of high activity only to crash into times of sloth. For example, if you don't take breaks while working.

How much downtime you think you should need and how much you do need in reality might differ. Of course, many of us would prefer needless downtime. If you're finding yourself taking excessive amounts of downtime, consider whether it's a rebound effect due to you not allowing yourself enough of it.

5. You think one strategy will fix all your procrastination.

To overcome procrastination, you'll need more than one strategy. Different strategies suit different tasks, and your go-to strategies might not feel doable in every situation. A toolkit of about six go-to strategies should cover most situations.

I've written about these a lot so that I won't reinvent the wheel, but you can learn here, here, here, and here. Start by finding one or two strategies that work for you, then gradually build your repertoire of skills.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: mavo/Shutterstock