Procrastination: the art of screwing up your life repeatedly for no obvious reason.
Now, the Oxford dictionary may technically give us another definition :
But that’s the really obvious description. It’s about as helpful as the tip underneath the definition telling you to avoid procrastinating in the first place. This is the kind of advice that only works on those people who have all their shit together i.e. almost nobody.
Telling somebody who chronically procrastinates not to procrastinate (that’s 1 out of every 5 people by the way) is as useful as telling a depressed person to “just cheer up”. We don’t know any other way how to be.
My Origin Story
I started my habit of procrastination young and early. When I was in school I’d wait till the last possible minute to start studying for an exam or do an assignment. Time works in a different way when you’re procrastinating:
I got away with it because:
a) I always, without fail, finished before the deadline.
b) I convinced myself that I liked the challenge and the adrenaline rush of performing under the time pressure. School was boring, so why not liven things up somehow?
Things worked out fine for me.
Until they didn’t anymore.
After college, when I decided the corporate world didn’t hold much interest for me and I’d be happier doing something on my own, my lifetime of procrastination came back to bite me in the ass. Up until then, I’d always had external deadlines to fear, team members and classmates schedules’ to be mindful of, teachers and bosses to impress.
Now all I had were my self-imposed deadlines. The complete unbridled freedom was a disaster. This was me, every day:
The Root Cause of Procrastination
People misunderstand chronic procrastination. They see it as a sign of laziness, as evidence that the person has no real ambition or drive.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Chronic procrastination tends to happen in overly analytical perfectionists who don’t handle their stress well. This is the PhD student who just can’t pick a topic because she secretly fears she’s out of her league. It’s the entrepreneur who keeps spending his mornings browsing inspirational quotes on Instagram rather than writing a business plan.
Ultimately, what procrastination boils down to is that it’s a form of stress-relief. Let me illustrate:
You’re walking around with a black cloud over your head- stressing out about what you’re going to do in life, about your job, about your relationship, about your money problems etc. – and you look down at your to-do list and see you have 10 phone calls to make, tax returns to file, and knives to sharpen.
You think “I can’t handle this right now. It’s just too much.”
So you watch a video of a dog singing instead, just for a minute of course. Oh wait, it’s already been an hour. And now it’s too late to make those phone calls, so… you can get it done tomorrow. Yup, that’ll work better; you’ll be refreshed and ready.
The tax returns can wait until next week, and the knives will wait for their sharpening till the end of time.
The anti-procrastination mindset
While I’m still in a battle against my bad habits, I’ve made a lot of progress in the last few months. I’m sharing here the top 4 mindset changes I’ve made that have helped me stop procrastinating.
1.Procrastination is a habit, not a state of being
You’re somebody who has a habit of procrastinating; you’re not a procrastinator. Once we identify with something, we get attached to it, and we won’t let it go, even if we know it’s bad for us. Exhibit A of getting too attached to unhealthy labels:
On the other hand, a habit is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned once we figure out our patterns. Any habit has 3 components to it:
- The trigger: For procrastination, the trigger is always some kind of stress.
- The routine: We avoid doing things that will cause us more stress i.e. we procrastinate
- The reward: We get temporary, but guilt-ridden relief at having avoided the stress.
It may be difficult to cut out our stress triggers (more on that in the next point), but we can change our routine of avoidance, and get a different, more fulfilling reward.
The important thing here is to internalize the belief that change is indeed possible and within our grasps. Procrastination is not coded into the DNA of our cells. It’s a bad habit we’ve picked up over the years and can discard when we realize just how much it’s screwing us over.
2. We must deal with external and internal stress triggers
It is basic common sense that we can’t defeat an enemy that we don’t even know exists. Take it from Yoda:
External Stress Triggers
For most people, their sources of stress are quite obvious and external. Maybe they’re procrastinating on a work task because it means having to ask that team member they dislike for help. Maybe they’re putting off a date with their boyfriend because Prince Charming is turning out to be a frog after all.
These kinds of stressors are difficult to eliminate- when we get rid of one, another one pops rights back up. We just have to acknowledge and manage them as they arise. This is where yoga, meditation, journaling etc. come in – they help us manage our stress in a way that’s good for us. Nope, getting drunk or high doesn’t count.
Internal Stress Triggers
People who make a lifestyle out of procrastinating have all these external stressors too, though the root cause of their procrastination is usually quite different. It has to do with how they see themselves. To put it in a nutshell, they have a deep fear of being seen as “not good enough”.
You see, for all their analytical abilities, those prone to chronic procrastination still indulge in faulty, simplistic thinking:
My performance on a task = My ability = My worth as a human being
This is the kind of thinking that turns “I got a B- on this test” into “I am stupid” and “I am a complete failure as a human being.”
Procrastination, in this instance, is more than stress-relief. It’s also a self-protective strategy. This kind of person would rather have people think he/she lacks effort, rather than ability. It gives them a built-in excuse if they don’t do well (“I didn’t do great on this paper because I had only 3 hours to write it”), and an ego-boost if they do exceed expectations (“I got an A+ even though I only had 3 hours- wow I must be really smart!”)
This also means that rather than lacking motivation, those who chronically procrastinate tend to be overly motivated: they have both a strong need to succeed and a strong need to avoid failure. These are opposing motivations. They are caught in the middle of their hopes and fears, which leads to all their “I’m feeling stuck” or “I just feel lost” moaning.
3. Mentally readjust: self-worth, forgiveness and perfectionism
It is important to realize that everybody, and I do mean everybody, has something in their life that they feel inadequate in. Our number one motivation in life is to be seen, by ourselves and others, as capable, competent and able. This also makes the fear of “not being good enough” a driving force that unites us all.
Once we have introspected and had the honesty to admit to ourselves what’s really going on, we can adjust our thinking. We must realize that it is not our performance or our abilities that decide our worth as a human being. People like others for their human qualities: kindness, thoughtfulness, warmth, how good they make us feel etc, and not for having a 3.99 GPA or being the best or succeeding at everything.
If you do have a problem of pinning your self-worth on how well you perform at something, then it helps to mentally re-frame the task as an experiment. If we’re just exploring things and testing them out, we don’t need to do well at them.
We must deal with forgiveness right after mentally readjusting our self-worth. We have to forgive ourselves for whatever flaws we may have, and forgive ourselves for procrastinating in the past. This is not some hippie mumbo-jumbo; it is important. According to research, forgiveness and self-love are the best remedies for procrastination: a study showed that students who forgave themselves after procrastinating on their first exam were less likely to delay studying for the second one.
For the perfectionists – time to give up on this too. It’s doing more harm than good. We still need to do our best, but best isn’t the same as “perfect”. It just needs to be “good enough”. My new motto when writing is “Just get it written, don’t worry about getting it right.” I could rewrite stuff a hundred times and still fall short of what I mean, but what counts for me now is having something written down at all.
4. We need to prove to ourselves that we can do it.
If reading a blog post on overcoming procrastination was all it took to cure ourselves, it wouldn’t be the widespread problem that it is. The only real way to stop procrastinating is to show ourselves that we can do it, not tell ourselves to do better.
Until we see ourselves actually make changes, all our promises to ourselves will remain empty words that we don’t believe even when we’re saying them.
And how do we prove to ourselves that we can do it? By reminding ourselves of the times in the past that we’ve managed to exceed our expectations and do something difficult. Keeping those memories alive as motivation, we then must stop all the dreaming and the planning, and start doing. Realize that people who procrastinate love to plan, because planning involves not doing.
We may be visionaries who fantasize about our big dreams, but until we start implementing what’s in our minds, we shouldn’t get to dream, or even talk about our dreams. We can’t just be the architect who draws the plan for the house. We also need to be the construction workers laying down brick after brick methodically, day after day, until the house is built.
Then, and only then, do we get to think about the house-warming party.
Practical tips on how to stop procrastinating:
Now that you know why you procrastinate, you might be wondering how you actually stop yourself procrastinating. I hear you. Use this mind-set change with the practical tips and tricks out there that overcome procrastination. Here are some that I’ve found useful:
1. Reflecting on how a goal/task benefits us
We procrastinate because our fears are winning out over our hopes. However, when we are guided by our vision, many of the things that tend to hold us back become smaller and less significant. We need to remind ourselves of :
- Why we are performing the task in the first place
- The benefits it will bring us once completed
- How it aligns with our overall vision/beliefs in life
2. Using the 5-4-3-2-1 Rule
I use this rule to help my writing. The moment I open up my laptop, I count 5-4-3-2-1, and I open up my word file and start typing. I type whatever comes to my head, even if the words don’t make sense. It gets my hands moving and my brain working to eventually produce something intelligible.
The reason that this rule works is that we’re shutting down the rational, analytical part of the brain. Looking at all the possible approaches and figuring out the best solution is usually a good thing, but not so when you’re trying to avoid procrastination.
When we shut off the rational mind, we move to the fast-thinking part of the brain. It is responsible for no-brainer decisions, like jumping in a pool to rescue a drowning child. The idea is to give yourself no time to (over)think and start procrastinating.
Once we start doing and get ourselves going, we usually discover we don’t have a problem continuing. Once in the zone, people who procrastinate don’t normally have a problem with finishing what they’ve started. Their problem is in starting at all. So we need to get ourselves in the habit of showing up, and starting, every single day.
3. Breaking down big goals
What the mind especially hates is an unclear and complex goal like “learn French” or “become a coder”. Anytime you decide it’s time to “learn French”, you will also decide it’s time to rearrange the files on your desktop, and go check up on your dog- has she eaten today? French will remain unlearned.
Vague goals are designed to maximize procrastination. They’re too overwhelming to know where to begin. So, quantify your goals, break them down into stages and daily tasks to complete and give yourself a deadline.
For example: “Learn French” becomes: “Be able to have a 5-minute conversation in French with a French colleague two months from now.”
How do you get there? You might resolve to break down your French learning into 3 stages: listening, speaking, and reading. Under listening, you might watch a minimum of 30 minutes of French media daily. Under speaking, you could work on your pronunciation for 15 minutes a day.
The two key rules of goal-setting
Whatever goals and sub-goals you set for yourself, you must follow two key rules:
- You have to work towards your goal every single day. Habits, good or bad, are built on daily practice. Yes, this sucks in the beginning but eventually, you don’t think about it (that’s when you know something has indeed become a habit)
- Set your deadline as close as you can manage. The time-frame needs to be realistic but still challenging. Remember Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion” i.e. it is the reason why you can take 3 days to write one paragraph for a report, then finish the rest of it in the 2 hours before it is due.
Moral of the story: We don’t take goals seriously when they’re too far out in the long term. We’re short term focused, so we need to make our goals and tasks short term as well.
4. Using fear strategically
The fear of public embarrassment or shame is an excellent incentive to get you off your ass. It’s why we take external deadlines much more seriously than the ones we give ourselves. So if you don’t have external deadlines – create one.
I’ll do it right now to demonstrate. I promise to have my next blog post (for which I don’t even have a topic picked out yet) out 1 week from the day this article is published. If I don’t- well, you can completely ignore everything I’ve ever written.
Update: I did publish my next post by the deadline. Fittingly enough, it’s about motivation. Guess you have to continue reading after all.
In case you’re not in the position to publicly announce your goals or deadlines, then tell at least one person that you’re close to who’ll hold you accountable. If you have no one that fits the bill, then you can contact me with your goals – anonymously or not, I don’t care. Just the simple act of telling someone your goal will make it more real, and more serious, for you.
5. Giving ourselves incentives and rewards
We’ve talked about recognizing our triggers and we’ve discussed how to build a new ritual. Time to deal with the third component of a habit: the reward.
When procrastinating, we avoid the immediate stress of doing whatever it is that we don’t want. That instant gratification matters more than the pain and panic later when our deadlines are due and we’re nowhere close to completion.
So we need to flip that around. We should plan rewards for ourselves when we don’t procrastinate. It could be as simple as “If I work on this excel sheet for an hour, I’ll give myself 15 minutes to listen to my favourite music” or “If I do 30 minutes of yoga today, I can watch an episode of my favourite TV show tonight.” We pay attention when there’s something at stake.
6. Thinking about how much progress we’ve made
The difference between people who give up on things easily and people who carry on even through difficult challenges is not a lack of ability. It’s how in control they feel of the task.
“Comparing people who tend to give up easily with people who tend to carry on, even through difficult challenges, researchers find that persistent people spend twice as much time thinking, not about what has to be done, but about what they have already accomplished, the fact that the task is doable, and that they are capable of it.”
So every night, spend 5-10 minutes thinking about what you’ve accomplished that day. Review your achievements, cross off items on your to-do list. Then reflect on how easy tomorrow is going to be for you.
And then prove it to yourself, every day.
What’s at stake: why we MUST stop procrastinating
You can probably tell I spend a lot of time thinking about procrastination. Why is it so important to me that I write a 3000+ word blog post on it?
You see, the truly crappy part about chronic procrastination isn’t the last-minute panicking and anxiety about whether we’ll meet our deadline. It’s not even the fact that we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves out of fear and so will never live up to our potential. It’s that it takes away the most valuable resources we have – our time, and our control over our life.
Overcoming procrastination means taking back control of your life.
While everybody may not make a lifestyle out of procrastination, everybody is procrastinating on something. Taking a trip around the world, or getting in shape, or becoming a Taekwondo Master? These are all the additional things that make a life well and truly lived that we may be putting off because we tell ourselves it’s not the right time. Spoiler: It will never be the right time.
To make things easier for you, I’ve created a worksheet to help you purge procrastination from your life. Access it here.
I understand you may have read this entire post just because you were procrastinating on something else. Enough of that now. 5-4-3-2-1 go do what you were supposed to do!