If you’re a perfectionist (see below), the answer to this question will save you.
Prolonged bouts of procrastination can seriously harm your productivity and hinder your progress.
Procrastination plagues everyone doing almost anything. People procrastinate writing an article, studying for exams, paying the bills, sending an email, making phone calls, etc.
But what why do we procrastinate and is procrastination another symptom of laziness?
1. Are Procrastinators Lazy?
People often equate procrastination with laziness. After all, they seem a lot alike. Lazy people and procrastinators avoid working on their assigned tasks. They don’t make the progress they should make when they should and they let themselves fall behind. But the two differ substantively and conflating one with the other will interfere with the proper diagnosis. So let’s start with differentiating laziness from procrastination.
In its most general sense, laziness refers to a state of idleness. A lazy person has no desire to partake in any type of activity preferring to remain passive and unengaged. On the other hand, when a person procrastinates, that person is actively engaged in other activities. For example, instead of thinking through a business plan and making phone calls to potential customers, you find yourself occupied with doing laundry, checking your email, and even organizing and cleaning your work space. So unlike laziness, procrastination is the active deferment of more urgent tasks in favor of less urgent ones.
2. Why do we Procrastinate?
The “Monstrous Goal” Problem
People usually procrastinate because the tasks they set for themselves are, in one word, overwhelming. They’re overwhelming because they’re large, vague and unspecific. Consider these tasks:
- Create a profitable business
- Work on your financial goals
- Study for Finals
- Lose weight
- Teach yourself marketing
These tasks are unbearably large and they’re going to take you weeks and sometimes even years to accomplish. Moreover, within each task, there are tens or hundreds of implied steps that you need to take before you see any results. And while it might make you feel good to “plan” to work on these tasks and perhaps temporarily rid yourself of the guilt of constantly putting them off, the reality is it won’t take you long until you delay working on your tasks a second time.
People delay working on their tasks because they have false beliefs about what it takes to accomplish certain goals. They falsely believe that they should experience no unwanted thoughts or feelings while working, they should make fast progress in a relatively short period of time, and they should experience (unrealistically) consistent growth in performance, motivation, and even results.
People hold such romantic (and naïve) beliefs about the process because it feels good, and to a certain extent inspiring, to think that a goal can be achieved quickly and with little to no struggle. But such unrealistic beliefs fuel procrastination. As soon as you apprehend the enormity of the task you’re about to work on and as you encounter a few hurdles along the way, your brain begins to identify the goal you’re working on as a source of pain, and therefore as something that needs to be avoided.
Laserpoint your tasks.
Your mind can only work on things that are specific enough for you to focus on. If you assign an excessively demanding task, like commanding yourself to “work on your financial goals,” then you won’t get very far. Be exact as far as what you have to work on and for how long you’re going to work on it. And if you’ve been suffering from procrastination for some time, then I recommend dividing the length of time you say you’re going to spend on something by 2. So if you think you’re going to spend 2 hours, then only work for 1 hour.
That’s because you have conditioned your brain to (1) over-estimate how much you could accomplish within a certain time and (2) how much motivation you’ll have to do it consistently. You need to reprogram yourself to work efficiently by starting slow. So divide by 2 until you become a better judge of your strengths and weaknesses.
3. The 3 Archetypes of Procrastinators
Psychologists believe that there are different impressions of procrastination, and each type follows a particular action pattern; or what I’d like to call “fixed action-patterns” (FAP). The three types that I discuss below are not mutually exclusive and you might fall into more than one pattern. For each type, I offer actionable tips that you can use and implement.
1. The Superhero
This group of people suffer from what I call, the “Superhero Syndrome” because they tend to over-estimate their future work ethic. The future for them is a place where everything seems conducive to the accomplishment of their goals. They over-estimate their discipline, will-power, and persistence. They also believe they’ll have fewer distractions to deal with, and if they were to experience any, they’ll be more prepared to handle them then.
Statements typical of superheroes:
- Next week, I am going to write every day for 5 -6 hours a day until I finish my book.
- On the first of next month, I am going to start going to the gym 5 times a week for the next 6 months.
- Next month, I am going to read a book a day for the next three months.
- Next week, I am going to stop eating sweets altogether until I lose 20 pounds.
What superheroes don’t realize is that it’s not their current circumstances that’s holding them back. It’s their desire to escape the unwanted feelings that they’ve associated with their work. The longer they put off their tasks, the longer they believe they can go without having unwanted feelings. But as Peter Bregman correctly points out in his article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR); “avoiding our tasks doesn’t help us avoid the feelings; it simply subjects us to them for an agonizingly long time. “
There are two solutions to this. The first is to understand how to use the first 20 minutes of working on your task to your advantage, and the second is do not what’s easier, but to do what’s more exciting.
Let’s take up the first solution.
The first 20 minute for many people, unfortunately, is the time during which they give up. However, if you force yourself to break through this barrier and pass the 20 minute threshold, then you’re your way to continue working for at least another 30-45 minutes, if not more. That’s how it works for me. This phenomenon happens because once you prove to your brain that it’s possible to do work despite the presence of unwanted feelings, your brain will sort of agree with you and thus help you pursue that which it believes to be within its reach.
Have you noticed that your brain tells you not to enter the pool; not even for 1 minute, when the water is cold? But once you’re in the pool, your brain quickly adapts and you find yourself enjoying the water for the next hour or two. The same goes for going to the gym. If you’re not in the mood to go to the gym, but you somehow force yourself to get there; you’ll often have a great workout even when your brain first told you not to go. What we can learn from this is that once you get past a certain threshold, your brain adapts and even embraces the task you’re working on. So use the first 20 minutes to your advantage and push through.
Second, a few excellent bloggers have suggested some pretty good ways to help people get past procrastination. Most prominently, Leo Babauta of zen habits, recommends starting with a task that’s so easy that you can’t say no to it. He further recommends that you do that as part of daily training; that is to do it every single day until you’re done with the task. This is a great technique to experiment with and I strongly recommend that you give it a try. Along the same lines, you might also want to consider doing “tomatoes”: a time-management technique that allows you to break down your work into 25 minute intervals. After each 25 minutes, you have the option of a 5 minute break or a 10 minute break. The best part, it’s free.
I, unlike Leo, find that starting on the task that excites me the most, not only has me looking forward to working on it, but it also helps build the momentum I need to keep working through the rest of my tasks. For example, if you’re writing an article, then start with the part that you’re most excited about and work outwards. If you’re at the gym, then start with your favorite exercise or machine and then branch off into the rest of your workout routine. This technique has been of tremendous help to me.
2. The “I’m No-Good” Person
People also procrastinate because they have limiting beliefs about their abilities. They’re unsure whether they have what it takes to successfully take on and complete certain tasks. They falsely believe they’re no good.
They say to themselves:
- I can’t do this.
- Last time I tried this, I failed.
- I am not smart enough for this job.
- I never did well in high school or College. I am not cut out to work on this.
Notice here that these statements are overgeneralized assessment of one’s abilities. This is the belief that one failure is enough to compartmentalize the person’s talents and abilities and put a cap on what they’re capable of. But in thinking this way, they give these thoughts undue credibility and turn a single failure into a reference for their future performances. In other words, they condition their brain to fear taking action and to produce discouraging thoughts by default.
For example, the thought “I am not smart enough,” will arise each and every time the person encounters a challenge, even if the person has above average intelligence. That’s what limiting beliefs do. They trick us into underwriting our skills and talents and in turn perpetuate procrastination.
Anticipate how to solve problems.
You can’t predict all the challenges you might encounter while you work, but the most common intruder is negative thoughts. Be emotionally prepared to diffuse them, not resist them. Your brain is wired in such a way that it favors temporary and immediate pleasures even if these things will harm your goals in the long run, so it will tell you to watch TV and to delay taking action on your goal. Resisting these impulses and fighting against them will increase the likelihood of procrastination. I found that it’s best not to challenge these thoughts or suppress them. Acknowledge their existence and invite them to be your guests. They will lose interest and stop interrupting you. I’ve written a detailed article on how to effectively address negative thoughts using various techniques from psychotherapy. You may want to check it out here: 2 Proven Exercises to Neutralize Negative Thinking.
3. The Perfectionist
Perfectionists expect a lot out of themselves. They set extremely high standards and tend to be overly concerned with how their work is perceived.
While perfectionists really care about their work and want it to add tremendous value to their audience, this kind of thinking can paralyze them from taking consistent action. In fact, the fear of not meeting their very own excessively high standards can be so debilitating that it can stop them from ever finishing and from leveraging themselves and their ideas.
Their obsession with producing flawless work does not only have a negative impact on their productivity levels, but can also stop them from seeking help when they need it. Instead of asking a friend for quick feedback on an article you’ve written, you spend hours upon hours writing and re-writing until the article is “good enough.” Believing your work must be beyond criticism is a recipe to delay taking action on your tasks indefinitely.
The need to be perfect drains you of your power. – Zen proverb
Another common trap that perfectionist seem prey to is “over-preparation.” They spend an awful lot of time preparing and organizing their work space at the expense of working productively. They will invest time and money into buying the right desk, the right side lamp, the right chair, the right pen/laptop. And before they sit to work, they make sure their favorite music is playing in the background and sip on their favorite beverage as they open up their work documents. Now if this is what works for you, I think that’s great. But for most people, this investment inevitably leads to procrastination.
The paradoxical thing about over-preparation is that it’s another expression of procrastination, but it’s more subtle. You procrastinate when you over-prepare because you’ve raised the stakes and now the pressure is very high to get quality work done. After all, you spent a lot of money and energy trying to control your environment, and to justify the costs, you command yourself to produce high quality work. The harsh commands you place on yourself; whether consciously or subconsciously, will provoke your stress levels and ultimately lead to avoidance and procrastination.
College students are particularly prone to this pattern of procrastination. A lot of them spend so much time “getting ready” to do their homework that they eventually never get to it. In fact, University of Calgary psychologist Piers Steel, reported that 80 percent to 95 percent of college students procrastinate, particularly when it comes to doing their coursework. This is an astoundingly large percentage, but it doesn’t personally surprise me.
Consider how the typical student “gets ready” to do homework. First, they stop to grab a bite before they get to the library and spend a good 20 minute eating with their friends, they then head to Starbucks and wait in line to get their coffee; they might also convince themselves that they should buy a snack to go with the coffee (since they plan to spend several hours at the library), they might bump into a few friends on the way and spend a few minutes chatting and catching up. And when they finally get to the library, they spend time looking for a “good” study area and when they find it; they sit down and set things up, but just before they start, they check their email and social media and then shut everything off, and only then they believe they’ve ensured a distraction free study environment. But, and as you may have guessed, 20 minutes in and they’re ready to stop.
Because, again, the stakes are so high to get work done.
They’ve spent a lot of time and energy getting ready, and the brain reacts negatively to various forms of high stress including high expectations to make progress. Many students, however, don’t realize how their brain works under stress and some are genuinely shocked when they experience task-aversion feelings 20 minutes into their study session.
So here are two solutions for the perfectionist.
1. The Bathroom Lesson
People will readily work and rather productively in stress free environments. Humor me and consider the following question. Why do some people bring their work with them when they’re sitting in the bathroom? The answer is simple. There’s absolutely no expectation to get work done in the bathroom, and since the pressure is so low to do work, your brain doesn’t mind doing the work; whether writing a quick draft of an email, or just reading up on your company’s or university’s new policy. Okay, so let’s set the bathroom scene aside for now (sorry!), but the takeaway point is that the more you invest into “getting ready” to do work, the more likely you are to procrastinate, and the less time you spend into setting up your work space, the faster you’ll get to work and the less likely you are to procrastinate. My advice to you is: Don’t get ready, just pull up your tasks and go.
2. Be Mediocre; at Least in the Beginning
Start by asking yourself to do mediocre work. Yes. Don’t ask yourself to do quality work just yet. Again you want to create a low-stress space, so take a non-judgmental approach to your work and set low stakes that you can’t miss. Imagine how productive you would be if you told yourself you have to write a best-selling novel… it would be incredibly hard to write anything with the burden of this thought in your head. On the other hand, if you tell yourself to write a rough, rough first draft with no care for grammar and structure, it’s much easier to get started.
4. Lack of Motivation and Doing Work
Most people usually wait until they are in a good mood to start tackling their work tasks. They have the false belief that they should not encounter negative thoughts or feelings when they want to work. But I find that there are other more intelligent ways to respond when you’re not “in the mood” to do work.
Personally, if I am not in a good mood, then I pull out my laptop and work on what excites me; like writing articles for this blog, and it helps me get in a better mood. Notice that I’m advocating the reverse of what most people think about the relationship between work and moodiness.
Simply put, I suggest that you work on your goals to enhance your mood as opposed to waiting for inspiration to strike to work on them. I say so because I believe working on my goals and being meaningfully engaged in realizing them is very, very fulfilling. If you don’t feel good when you work, and you no longer experience an intrinsic motivation to pursue those goals, then you should take a step back and reconsider what you’re doing. You should get “buzzed” from doing what you love. And if you don’t feel that way most of the time, then you should do some soul-searching until you find your true purpose.