Fast fact: If you’re human, you procrastinate. There’s no avoiding it. But by understanding what procrastination is and why we do it, we regain the power it has over us.
What is procrastination?
At its basic level, procrastination is ‘the act of putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.’
It is a habit that’s worse for some than others, and like any habit, the first step to kicking it is awareness. What are you doing when you procrastinate, and why?
What psychologists know about procrastination:
- Procrastination is not inaction. It is a decision not to act. It’s a choice to do something else rather than the task that needs doing. You have power over your choices.
- Procrastination is counterproductive. We delay doing something despite knowing that we will be worse off for doing so. We know that we’ll be stressed, anxious, fail the exam, miss the deadline, have the housework pile up. We know that we’ll suffer but we procrastinate anyway. Acknowledge this whenever you find yourself procrastinating.
- Procrastination is not rational, it’s emotional. This is where our attempts to stop procrastinating go wrong. We assume procrastination is rational. We assume that we’re delaying action because we lack the right strategy for getting the task done. We think we just need the right list, the system, the right tool, the right circumstances or the right moment. We believe that when everything is in order we’ll stop procrastinating and we’ll ‘just do it.’
Why do we procrastinate?
But when we procrastinate we’re not putting off doing something. We’re putting off feeling something.
When we procrastinate we avoid feeling anxious, or inadequate, or disappointed, or resentful or unsure.
We’re worried that when we start studying we’ll feel overwhelmed by what we don’t yet know.
We avoid writing to the bank or preparing the meeting agenda or cooking the dinner because we resent the fact that it’s impinging on our freedom.
We delay the conversation because we know it will be upsetting.
We dodge housework because the very prospect of cleaning the bathroom bores us to tears.
We don’t start the new project because we want so much for it to be brilliant – and we’re terrified that we won’t succeed.
So we make the choice to do something else instead. Something soothing. Something that doesn’t make us feel.
We make the choice to procrastinate.
How to beat procrastination
The trick to defeating procrastination is understanding the emotion driving it and to wrangle that first.
Here are some tips:
- Ponder the emotion. Figure out the emotion driving your procrastination. Is it anxiety? Fear? Frustration? Boredom? Acknowledge it and you reduce its power.
- Engage in some positive self talk. ‘I can do this.’ ‘It will be okay’ ‘I’ve done harder.’
- Be clear about what the task requires. Break it down into small steps. This helps a lot with overwhelm.
- Get started. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Imperfectly done is better than perfect but never started.
- Remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling, avoidance is not the answer. If the task needs doing, it needs doing now.
- Replace the bad feelings with good. Imagine how great you will feel once the task is done. Focus on that.
- Reward yourself when the task is done. This is a great motivator.
Beating procrastination takes practice. It takes awareness of what you’re doing and why and it’s important to recognise the feelings that drive it.
Top tip: Don’t beat yourself up if you procrastinate. Recognise it for what it is. Wallow in it for a minute or two and then get down to getting stuff done. You do have the power to procrastinate less.
Last week: How to Set Goals that Work
Next week: Slow Down: Simple Living for the Mind