- Procrastination isn't caused by laziness—rather, it's often due to fear of failure, perfectionist tendencies, or disorganization.
- Most procrastinators find that simply getting started is the most challenging part of task.
- Rewarding yourself for any progress, no matter how small, and starting with the easiest tasks can help chronic procrastinators break free.
The word procrastination derives from the Latin root procrastinatus, which combines the prefix “pro” (meaning forward) and the Latin word “crastinus,” meaning “of tomorrow." Literally, to procrastinate is to delay or push forward a task until tomorrow. The problem is that tomorrow, as the familiar song from the musical Annie reminds us, is always a day away. Tomorrow can never be the present day, and as we know, change can only occur in the present, not in a thousand tomorrows.
Are you a procrastinator, pushing things off to a thousand tomorrows? If you are, wouldn’t you rather be a precrastinator? Precrastination is a playful word that I take literally to mean, “before tomorrow”—in other words, doing things today rather than tomorrow.
You’re probably familiar with the Ben Franklin adage that we shouldn’t put off until tomorrow what we can do today. This maxim still rings true. But why is it so difficult to put Ben’s advice into practice?
Isn’t It Just Laziness?
The short answer is no, as laziness is not a thing but a description of a pattern of behavior, merely a label we attach to certain behaviors. If we say that Mary doesn’t get her work in on time because she is lazy, we are merely saying that we have noticed a pattern in her behavior of failing to get her work in on time, and we then use the label to explain her lateness. Why doesn’t she get her work done on time? Because she is lazy. How do we know she’s lazy? Because she doesn’t get her work done on time. This is a circular argument, leading us round and round, but explaining nothing. We need to understand why Mary doesn’t complete her work when it is due and not confuse a label we apply to her behavior with an explanation. Better yet, we need to help Mary get unstuck so that she can break this self-defeating pattern of behavior.
Procrastination does not reduce to any one cause. We need to take various factors into account to get a better fix on it:
Fear of Failure
Performing a task poses a risk of failure. We might screw up, drop the ball, land a dud, or in some other way incur failure, disapproval, or disappointment. We learn from an early age that our work is scrutinized, evaluated, and graded. Even if no one is there to give us a grade, the critical voice in our heads stands ready to shout out just how unworthy we are. When writing these blog posts, I face my own self-doubts—that no one will read them, or that even if they do, they will not like them.
The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow distinguished between two types of choices we make, fear choices and growth choices. A fear choice is born of insecurity, a choice made for the sake of security or safety, driven by a need to avoid failure or disappointment. But at what cost? We may turn down a promising job opportunity, thinking it isn’t a good fit, when in fact our choice is based on avoiding potential failure. On the other hand, when we make a growth choice, we put reward over risk, choosing to do something, despite the risk, that might make our life more meaningful or rewarding. As Maslow wrote, “One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.” So which will be the determinant of the choices you make in life, fear or growth?
We risk failure or rejection in so many ways, whether starting a business, putting our name on a report, or trying to close a sale. But if we give in to procrastination to avoid potential failure we risk looking back at lost opportunities with remorse and regret, voicing silently to ourselves the saddest words of all, “if only.” In the previous blog post, I noted how many prominent authors, including Margaret Mitchell, Dr. Seuss, and John Grisham, to name only a few, dealt with rejection after rejection before achieving ultimate success. Fortunately for readers worldwide, these and other prominent authors were not deterred by rejection, and neither should you.
Procrastination may seem like a non-choice, merely a delaying tactic, a tendency to kick the can down the road. But in reality, it is a choice, one of inaction over action in dealing with challenges we face in life, putting them off for yet another day, which soon becomes yet another week, and perhaps yet another year.
Procrastination is reinforced by a powerful reward—relief from anxiety. By not doing something, we avoid having to deal with the consequences of rejection, disapproval, or criticism, at least in the short run. Like the person with an elevator phobia who opts to take the stairs instead, the procrastinator breathes a sigh of relief by not facing up to the threat of rejection or disappointment. But procrastination ultimately proves self-defeating, as it keeps us from reaching our goals.
“But I’m Just Disorganized."
Getting things done requires organization. We need to organize our time and the materials we need to finish a report, complete a master’s thesis, prepare a work proposal, and accomplish countless other tasks. You might think “I’m just not organized” and leave it at that, using this self-label as a justification for inaction (rationalization, really). But it can just as easily be a prompt to action, if followed up with a prescription for change, as when you say to yourself, “Yes, I know I struggle with organization. So what do I need to do to get organized?” A cluttered desk can serve as a cue to action, to sorting things out, putting things in their respective folders, and creating a filing system that allows you to find materials needed to organize your work efforts. For any given task, create a list of the materials and supplies you need to complete it. Organize them on your desktop and then get to work.
“What Can I Do? I’m Just a Perfectionist."
Many people who struggle with procrastination are perfectionists. Nothing is ever good enough to pass their own personal inspection. And so, they procrastinate, letting work pile up and foregoing completing tasks unless their work measures up to some Olympian ideal. Perfectionists apply an irrational standard to their own behavior, irrational of course because perfectionism is an idealized and not a realistic goal. A useful maxim to keep in mind if perfectionism is your personal bugaboo is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. So long as we swear allegiance to the gods of perfection we inveigh against a more reasonable expectation—the "good enough" standard. By adopting a “good enough” mindset, we understand that while our work could always be improved, we can let it go when it meets the standard of being good enough. Perfect? Nah. Good enough? Yup, I’ll go with that.
During this time of pandemic, we need to lighten up on ourselves and scale back our expectations, saying to ourselves, “I may not be at my best, but what I am able to accomplish will be good enough.” During stressful times, we need to focus on coping, not climbing mountains, and not judge ourselves harshly for failing to meet unrealistic expectations. We need to realize that it’s okay to be a “good enough” parent, partner, or employee. As the celebrated author John Steinbeck was reported to have said, “And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good." Or as the popular philosopher and Yankees great Yogi Berra put it, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
So, let me offer some tips for changing procrastination into precrastination:
10 Tips to Get Started With Getting Started
Once you accept yourself as an imperfect human being trying to do your best, and whose efforts sometimes fall short of expectations, you remove a major impediment to getting yourself back on track. So here are 10 tips designed to turn the prefix “pro” in procrastination to “pre”:
1. Focus on what you can do TODAY, not on what you didn’t do yesterday. Don’t become mired in the past. What’s done is, well, done. Make today count.
2. The trick to getting started is... getting started. Establish a regular work routine rather than just waiting around for inspiration to strike. Before getting started, arrange your workspace so it is free of distractions. Leave your phone in another room. Plan to start with small steps, anything to get the ball moving. Need to draft a report? Start by organizing your files in desktop folders on your computer. Once you get started, you may find that things begin to fall into place. Once a process starts in motion, it tends to stay in motion. This harkens back to Sir Isaac Newton’s First Law of Motion: a body at rest tends to stay at rest unless acted upon by an outside force, while a body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. If you are a body at rest, start by putting the Newtonian ball in motion by just getting moving.
3. Break down larger tasks into more manageable subtasks. Create a list of subgoals or subtasks. Accomplish the subgoals and the final goal becomes achievable. Focus on the present subgoal. Don’t worry about subgoals further down the list.
4. Start with small, easily accomplished subgoals, and build up from there.
5. Credit yourself for whatever you accomplish today, however small it may be. Don’t focus on things you still need to do. Credit yourself for what you did do. Don’t begrudge yourself for what you didn’t do. Just carry over any unfinished tasks to the next day.
6. Break down tasks into 15-30-minute morsels. Don’t bite off more than you can swallow at any one time.
7. Give yourself a 10-15-minute break every hour. Reward yourself for accomplishing a designated task by then (and only then) engaging in a more desirable activity. Think video games, Facebooking, reading, texting, watching TV, etc. You choose the reward, but the trick is to connect it to the completion of the designated task. Say you are preparing for an exam. Plan a study schedule in 30- or 45-minute intervals and make a desirable activity contingent on completing the desired activity (studying).
8. Don’t get down on yourself if your mind drifts. Minds are built that way. Just bring your attention back to the task at hand.
9. At the end of the day, jot down 2-3 things you accomplished that day and 2-3 other things you plan to do tomorrow. Then expand the list to more things. Create a schedule in advance so you will hit the ground running each day.
10. Apply the "good enough" standard to yourself. You don’t have to be perfect. You just need to be good enough. Setting unrealistically high standards prevents you from trying because of the fear of not meeting the unreasonable expectations you place on yourself.
(c) 2021 Jeffrey S. Nevid
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