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The Self-Inflicted Mental Wound That Holds You Back

Why you keep dragging your feet, and 8 things to do about it

“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do the day after.” —Oscar Wilde

Photo by Cedric Fox on Unsplash
Delaying an important task is an emotional response to avoid dread that only adds insult to injury.
Source: Photo by Cedric Fox on Unsplash

Remote working might not be the most dangerous thing in the world, but it sure can scare the pants off you when you avoid getting your work done. And your mind’s natural hard-wired response is to avoid any threat or source of fear.

Oh, It Hurts So Good

It’s ironic, isn’t it? You have ambition and drive, yet you find yourself stalling or postponing action on the project due tomorrow morning. Instead of planting yourself in front of the screen, you watch yourself organize your desk, 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 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 realize 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 self-talk beats you into smithereens. You start to attack yourself, call yourself more ugly names, and feel lousy. Now, you must reckon with a second layer of pressure that adds insult to injury.

Fear of Judgment and Failure

From a bird’s eye view, procrastination is a self-defeating behavior pattern, but as strange as it sounds, it serves a psychological purpose. Studies show that it’s a form of short-term mood repair. At its core, procrastination is an emotional response to a distressing issue, protecting you against the fear of failure, judgment by others, and self-condemnation. You’re doing something against your better judgment, 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 show that people who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being. Procrastination 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 workers say, “If I don’t try, I can’t fail.” Postponing seems to bring 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 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 success and adds to chronic stress.

8 Actions You Can Take

1. Break Things Down Into Micro-Steps.

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 complete your task. Taking the first step to any task can be the hardest part. But once you complete the first part (perhaps just sitting down and opening your computer) it can get you going.

2. 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, which provides shock absorbers against self-recrimination 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 challenges and obstacles.

3. 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.

4. Chill Your “Musturbation.”

If you’re like most people, you have a relentless faultfinder that lives in your brain, ruling your mind, 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. “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 it will get out of the way.

5. 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 you. Stepping back and observing this part 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 let you separate from the booming, eviscerating voice that tells you to avoid the threat. Refer to your procrastination in the third person and befriend it by talking to it so it doesn’t dominate your decision-making. Studies show that this strategy helps you to untangle and feel separate from the procrastination. When you practice this approach, you notice a heightened ability to scale the obstacles that procrastination puts in your way.

6. 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.

7. Set Priorities.

Simply choosing one item from your to-do list that you can accomplish quickly and completing it can give you a jump start 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.

8. 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 and concentrate more on the gains of the final outcome and less on the short-term relief in the present. When a task 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. In the end, considering the long-term benefits moves you closer and quicker to the finish line.

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Ferrari, J.R. & Tice, D.M. (2000). Procrastination as a self-handicap for men and women: A task-avoidance strategy in a laboratory setting. Journal of Research in Personality. 34 (1), 73-83.

Jaffe, E. (2013). Why wait? The science behind procrastination. Association for Psychological Science.

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.