We’ve all experienced it. We have an important task to do, and we know we should get started on it immediately. But we put it off. We delay. We do other, less important things.
Because we procrastinate, we make very little progress on what really matters. We don’t get anything of substance done. We ignore the very tasks that would be of most benefit to us.
We know we should be working on our most important task, but for some reason, we don’t.
Of course, this raises some important questions.
Why do we procrastinate?
And most importantly, how do we overcome procrastination?
In this post, we’re going to break down the what, why, and how of procrastination. We’ll talk specific strategies for overcoming procrastination, as well as examine the root causes of it.
The goal? To beat the beast of procrastination.
Let’s dive in.
What Is Procrastination and Why Do We Procrastinate?
Procrastination is when you unnecessarily put off making decisions or taking particular actions. For example, let’s say that you need to clean out your garage, but instead of doing what you need to do, you binge your favorite show on Netflix.
Even though you know you should be cleaning out the garage, you’re watching Twin Peaks.
What most people don’t realize is that procrastination is not an issue of time management, self-control, and discipline. Procrastination isn’t an issue that only lazy and undisciplined people deal with.
Rather, procrastination affects us all at one time or another.
Types of Procrastination
Generally speaking, there are four types of procrastination that people deal with on a regular basis.
- Anxious procrastination – If a particular task fills you with anxiety or dread, there’s a good chance that you’ll put it off for as long as possible.
- Fun procrastination – There are some tasks that you would simply rather not do. You would rather be having fun than accomplishing the task in front of you, and so you put it off for as long as possible.
- Time procrastination – If you have a deadline that’s far in the distance (or doesn’t have a firm deadline at all), it can be difficult to find the motivation to get started on it immediately.
- Perfectionist procrastination – Perfectionists may have a hard time finishing things because they want everything to be perfect. And so they put off finishing things indefinitely, believing that just a little more time will enable them to perfect the task in front of them.
Why We Procrastinate
Now that you know the overall what and why of procrastination, let’s get into some of the nitty-gritty reasons that we procrastinate.
There are dozens of reasons why we procrastinate. Some of the primary ones include:
Lack of Motivation
Perhaps the greatest, most common reason for procrastination is simply a lack of motivation. There are many times when, for one reason or another, we simply don’t want to do the job that is before us. Maybe we’re tired. Maybe the job bores us. Maybe we feel overwhelmed.
For whatever reason, we feel a distinct lack of motivation and thus procrastinate indefinitely.
Another common reason for procrastination is that the overall objective is abstract and unclear, compared to a goal that is clearly defined.
For example, a goal to read more books is relatively abstract. On the other hand, a goal to read one book per month is much more concrete and achievable.
Research has shown that goals which are abstract are perceived as much less achievable, leading to lower levels of motivation and more procrastination.
Rewards Are Far In The Future
Unfortunately, most of us struggle to appreciate and anticipate rewards that are far in the future. In other words, if we know we won’t reap the benefits of a particular action for a lengthy period of time, we are much less likely to want to perform that action. This, in turn, leads to more procrastination.
For example, if you have an exam in a month, it’s harder to be motivated to study right now because the reward for studying is so far in the future. This is one reason people tend to procrastinate with their studies.
Focusing On Future Options
Many times, we procrastinate because we want to keep our options open. In other words, we hope that a better course of action presents itself in the future. This can lead to indefinitely putting off making key decisions and taking critical actions.
For example, let’s say that you want to get in shape. You consider starting to work out at home but decide not to because you think that you’ll join a gym at a future date. In reality, it would be better to start working out immediately even if you decide to join a gym at a later point. The thought of a “better” option keeps you from working out at all.
When you’re presented with numerous options and choices, it’s easy to become overwhelmed and not make any decision. You have so many options in front of you that you become paralyzed, unable to make any meaningful choice.
This is especially relevant if the choices in front of you are relatively similar. It becomes much harder to choose when multiple options are very similar. For example, if you’re buying a car, you may have a hard time choosing because there are so many similar options available.
Anxiety and Fear
If a particular task sparks anxiety in you, there’s a good chance you’ll procrastinate on it. In fact, anxiety can create what’s called a “feedback loop”. You feel anxious about a task so you procrastinate, which makes you even more anxious which causes you to procrastinate even more.
For many people, looking at bills can cause anxiety. And so they refuse to give attention to their bills, which often causes more anxiety, which in turn leads to more procrastination and more anxiety.
Fear of Failure
If you anticipate failing on a particular task, you will put it off as long as possible. After all, no one likes to fail. The more likely it is that you will fail on a task, the more likely you’ll procrastinate for a lengthy period of time.
Fear of Greater Expectations
For some people, procrastination stems from the fear of having greater expectations placed upon them. They fear that if they do a task in a timely and efficient manner, people will always expect them to perform that way. They may even have greater responsibilities laid upon them.
And so they procrastinate as a way of keeping expectations relatively low.
As noted above, perfectionism can be a big reason for procrastination. If a person thinks that more time will allow them to do a task more effectively, they may constantly work on the task without ever trying to finish it. This form of procrastination is particularly insidious because it can feel like you’re doing work when in reality you’re putting off finishing your task.
More and more, technology is leading to us being distracted. Our phones buzz, our email chimes, and we receive dozens of chat notifications. This distracting technology has the potential to take us away from the task in front of us. We can procrastinate because we want to look at Facebook for just a few minutes longer or we just want to answer a few more emails.
Negative Effects of Procrastination
In addition to the obvious negative effect of not getting anything meaningful done, there are a number of serious side effects of procrastination.
Anxiety, Avoidance, and Shame
First, and perhaps worst of all, procrastination creates a negative cycle of anxiety, avoidance, and shame. When you procrastinate on a critical task, it creates anxiety around that task. You know you’re not getting done what you should be getting done and so you feel anxious about it.
This, in turn, leads to you avoiding the task because you don’t want to feel the anxiety associated with it.
Then you feel a sense of shame because you’re not accomplishing anything meaningful. This shame pushes you to reconsider the task in front of you, which then creates more anxiety, avoidance, and shame.
Procrastination is a vicious cycle.
Ruminative/Automatic Negative Thoughts
Ruminative thoughts are thoughts that keep cycling through your head again and again. You can’t seem to make them stop and they make you feel bad about yourself.
When you have a task hanging over you, you constantly think about the fact that you’re not getting it done. The negative thoughts surrounding the task come to your mind, again and again. These ruminative, negative thoughts fuel the anxiety and dread that come with procrastination.
Increased Levels of Stress
As the vortex of negative thoughts swirls in your head, you begin to feel increasing levels of stress. You know that you should be working on your most important tasks, but you can’t seem to make yourself do it.
The longer you put off your task, the more stress you feel. The more stress you feel, the harder it is to get moving on the job in front of you. This stress compounds the anxiety, avoidance, and shame cycle.
Worse Mental and Physical Health
As the stress levels begin to rise as well as the anxiety, avoidance, and shame cycles, both your mental and physical health start to decline. Your mental health worsens as you find yourself obsessing over the task you’re putting off.
Your physical health is compromised as increased stress causes cortisol levels to spike, which puts your body into fight or flight mode.
The Association for Psychological Science highlights some of the negative effects of procrastination, noting:
Evidence suggests that putting off important tasks causes stress, and this additional stress contributes to negative psychophysiological impacts on the body which increase our vulnerability for illness. Previous research has linked chronic procrastination to a range of stress-related health problems such as headaches, digestive issues, colds and flus, and insomnia.
Long Term Self-Esteem and Depression Issues
Over time, the negative effects of procrastination begin to compound, building upon themselves. Your self-esteem begins to suffer. You begin to think that you’ll never accomplish anything, leading to you feeling like a constant failure.
Procrastination can even lead to depression. As the number of tasks you’re putting off mounts, a deep sense of frustration and futility can come over you, causing you to think that it’s pointless to even try to get anything done.
As the procrastination cycle continues over the long term, it can lead to chronic procrastination. Putting off one thing causes more tasks to pile up. As the tasks pile up, the thought of trying to tackle any of them simply becomes overwhelming.
This leads to a habit of procrastination in which multiple things keep getting put off. The habit of procrastination only causes the cycle to deepen, making it harder to pull yourself out of it.
How To Overcome Procrastination
The good news is that procrastination can be overcome. No matter how long you’ve put off tasks, you can start to make progress on them today. Here are some winning strategies for overcoming the beast of procrastination.
Tackling The Emotional Problem
First and foremost, it must be acknowledged that procrastination is primarily an emotional problem. Yes, there are elements of time management and priority setting, but the primary driver behind procrastination is emotional.
As noted above, procrastination creates a cycle of anxiety, avoidance, and shame, which then causes increased stress, as well as declining mental and physical function.
So how do you deal with the emotional side of procrastination? Several ways.
First, you must consider both your present and your future emotions.
When you procrastinate, your present emotions surrounding a set of tasks are primarily negative. You feel anxious about starting them and shame over the fact that you haven’t completed them.
To overcome these negative emotions, consider the positive emotions you’ll have when you begin to work on one of your most important tasks. You’ll feel productive, happy, and like you’re actually doing meaningful work. You won’t be bogged down by the anxiety, shame, and stress that you’re currently feeling.
You may even enter flow state, in which you lose track of time and are totally and joyfully immersed in the project at hand.
As Caroline Webb notes in the Harvard Business Review:
...by taking a moment to paint ourselves a vivid mental picture of the benefits of getting it done, it can sometimes be just enough to get us unstuck. So if there’s a call you’re avoiding or an email you’re putting off, give your brain a helping hand by imagining the virtuous sense of satisfaction you’ll have once it’s done—and perhaps also the look of relief on someone’s face as they get from you what they needed.
The second step in overcoming procrastination is to practice self-forgiveness and self-compassion.
Beating yourself up over the tasks you’ve put off will NOT help you make progress on what matters. In fact, the more you punish yourself for procrastination, the more anxiety, shame, avoidance, and stress you’ll experience.
On the flip side, the more you can forgive yourself for procrastinating, the easier it will be for you to tackle the tasks in front of you. Research has shown that self-forgiveness and compassion are key when it comes to overcoming procrastination.
The third step in overcoming procrastination is to implement mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the practice of being totally focused only on the moment and not letting yourself think about the future or the past. If you think about the future and all that you have to get done, you’ll become overwhelmed and may be tempted to throw in the towel.
If you think of the past and all the times you’ve procrastinated, you’ll find yourself in the shame cycle that has immobilized you so many times.
The key is to only consider the present moment. What one action do you need to take right now to make progress on your most important task? Focus solely on that action. Don’t think about all that you need to do or all that you’ve failed to do. Focus only on what’s immediately in front of you.
Tactical Strategies For Overcoming Procrastination
In addition to tackling the emotional side of procrastination, it’s also essential to tackle the strategic, tactical side. You need practical ways to make the work in front of you seem less daunting and overwhelming.
Here are three ways to make your work easier.
1. Break Big Projects Into Smaller Chunks
One of the most effective ways to stop feeling overwhelmed by big projects is to break them down into much smaller, easily achievable tasks. For example, let’s say you have to write a ten-page paper. Instead of trying to write the entire paper in one sitting, break the paper down into smaller, one-page sections and only tackle a single page at a time.
This makes writing the paper seem much easier.
Using the Pomodoro technique can be especially helpful when trying to break big projects into bite-sized pieces. The Pomodoro technique works like this:
- Work for 25 minutes (or a similar amount of time) on a task.
- After 25 minutes (one Pomodoro) take a five-minute break.
- After you’ve completed 4 Pomodoro sessions (100 minutes total), take a 15-minute break to let your brain recharge.
- Repeat the process.
When you combine breaking down big projects into smaller pieces with the Pomodoro technique, you can make a surprising amount of progress on the tasks that are most important to you.
2. Prioritize Your Actions
Once you’ve broken your big project into smaller actions, ruthlessly prioritize those actions by importance. Focus only on your most important action. Don’t shift your focus until you’ve finished that task.
Then, move on to your next most important action.
In his book The One Thing, Gary Williams says:
Achievers...have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.
For example, when it comes to writing a paper, your most important action may be writing the introduction. Don’t move on from that action until you’ve finished the introduction. The move to the first paragraph, or whatever you consider to be the next most important action.
3. Time Blocking
Time blocking is the process of blocking off space in your calendar during which you will only work on a single action. Time blocking puts a deadline on actions, forcing you to work on them (and work relatively quickly) even if you don’t feel like it.
By blocking off time in your calendar and doing focused work on your most important action during that time, you can gain significant momentum on the tasks in front of you.
For example, you may decide that from 10 AM until 11 AM, you are only going to work on the introduction to your paper.
Tools For Overcoming Procrastination
There are a number of specific tools that can aid you in your battle against procrastination. While these can never replace the emotional and tactical strategies above, they can serve as helpful supplements.
A Pomodoro timer, either physical or digital can help you effectively manage your Pomodoro sessions.
Freedom allows you to block distracting websites and apps, which in turn can enable you to focus exclusively on one thing at a time. The pause Chrome extension, in particular, encourages mindful web browsing.
Procrastination doesn’t have to rule your life. Yes, it can be difficult to overcome, particularly if it’s an ingrained habit. But by strategically attacking the emotional, tactical, and practical sides of it, you can slowly but surely become more productive, have more self-confidence, and feel good about the progress you’re making on your most important tasks.
Don’t procrastinate in your fight against procrastination. Start taking decisive action today.