‘I’m not a procrastinator’ I thought smugly. ‘I’m a person of action!’ Procrastination is not a problem for me.
Which is why I considered myself absolutely perfect for the task of writing a blog about how to overcome it. I could sit on my high horse – and show others how it’s done. Oh how wrong I was!
The research into the vast mounds of information on the subject began. And then more reading up on it. And still the blog hadn’t even been started. And then the more research I did, the more I read myself in the descriptions of the actions and psyche of procrastinators! Eeeek! Yes, while it’s true that I DO get a lot of things done – and the truth is that most of us do not procrastinate in every area of our lives (thankfully, otherwise we wouldn’t be functioning much) – yet still, with me there were distinct areas where I was definitely prone to procrastination.
First of all, let’s define procrastination. According to the dictionary, it’s ‘the action of delaying or postponing something.’ So if there are some things that we delay doing (things we know we ought to be doing), why do we do it?
According to Neil Fiore, author of ‘The Now Habit’, through his work with thousands of patients, he has come to believe that ‘there is one main reason we procrastinate : it rewards us with temporary relief from stress.’
The authors of ‘Procrastination: Why you do it, What to do about it now’ describe similarly that we ‘use procrastination to avoid uncomfortable feelings.’
According to Neil Fiore, the main causes of procrastination are : fear of failure, the fear of success, the fear of being imperfect (perfectionism), and the fear of impossible expectations (being overwhelmed). In addition to this, people procrastinate to avoid doing what they perceive as an unpleasant task. The authors of ‘Procrastination: Why you do it, What to do about it now’, Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen, also identified another purpose that procrastination can serve – people who resist threats to their autonomy – may procrastinate to ‘rebel’ against authoritative attempts to tell them what to do. For a procrastinator, it can become a way of wrestling back control.
So do you recognise yourself in any of these psychological factors that may be causing you to procrastinate?
Fear of failure : We fear failure when we think that we will be judged for our mistakes – and when we attach our sense of worth to what we do and how well we perform. This makes us do whatever we can to avoid the painful experience of failing, and thereby avoiding the accompanying feelings of worthlessness – so we procrastinate. We can then ‘not really try’ and justify to ourselves that the reason we didn’t succeed was because we ‘left it too late’ or ‘left it until the last moment’, NOT because we were incapable of succeeding.
Fear of success : Sometimes we don’t believe that we are worthy of success. We may have grown up in an environment where we were not valued, or given the attention or encouragement we needed, hence we grew up with feelings of low self-worth. We may believe inside that we are not capable – and so we fear success because it may bring pressure from others and the expectation on us will rise. Through procrastination, therefore, we are able to subtly avoid that success by sabotaging our own efforts to succeed.
Perfectionism: We can struggle with perfectionism if we believe at a subconscious level that we just are not good enough – so we do everything we can to prove to ourselves – and others – that we ARE good enough – by trying to do everything perfectly. This leads to procrastination when through our perfectionism we over-research or over-prepare for a task or project out of fear that it won’t turn out to be perfect.
Feeling overwhelmed: We can feel overwhelmed by a task or project when we think that it is ‘bigger’ than our ability to cope with it or do it within the timescales available – or at all. It just all feels like ‘too much’. Because we feel overwhelmed, it then just becomes easier not to begin at all, because we don’t know where to start and the task seems impossible. To avoid the discomfort of being overwhelmed, we tell ourselves that we’ll ‘do it later.’
Dread of an unpleasant task : Certain tasks are onerous to us, and we just don’t feel like doing them. We avoid them by procrastinating and doing something else fun instead!
Resisting threats to our autonomy:Some of us can have difficulty in complying when we’re told what to do – in fact, some of us hate being told what to do at all! If we’re asked to do something that we disagree with, or really don’t feel like doing, compliance can feel like subordination. For people who have difficulty ‘following the rules’ – this can cause you to want to resist – and instead of having to say ‘no’ – procrastination can serve as a passive form of resistance. In other words it’s like saying ‘Ok, I’ll do what you ask – but in my own time.’
If you see yourself in one or more of these descriptions of a procrastinator, there’s hope for you (and me!) yet. In fact, just recognising some of the psychological factors underneath our behaviour takes us forward towards becoming more conscious about how we think and why we do what we do – which immediately impacts on our ability to break this pattern of behaviour. The greater our awareness, the more we can start to counteract it. And the good news is that, research has found that the brain’s plasticity means we can rewire our brain to think in new ways which in turn leads us to form new behaviours. We’re not as stuck as we may think we are!
Steps to overcoming procrastination :
1. Keep a procrastination log
Awareness arms you with the right tools to defeat the enemy of procrastination and resistance towards the action you know you need to take. Authors Neil Fiore and Burka and Yuen all advise procrastinators to write down their procrastination habits for a week – in a non-judgemental, observational way. Write down when you procrastinated, what task/project you were meant to be working on, what thoughts you had and how you procrastinated (what activity did you do instead?).
You will start to notice patterns – it could be the time of day, the type of activity, or the same feeling of fear or dread that you get and the same thought processes. It will help you to identify which of the common causes (fear of failure, fear of success, being overwhelmed etc) are tripping you up.
2. Set yourself a small, realistic, achievable goal to accomplish in the next week
Success leads to more success. So for the procrastinator, small successes are vital. Usually as procrastinators, because we attach performance to worth, and are often perfectionists, we tend to set ourselves large unrealistic goals that we want to achieve all at once. Small goals are ‘not good enough’ – but these are exactly what is needed. Accomplishing a goal – and celebrating it – instead of berating ourselves for what we haven’t done – leads to feelings of satisfaction and then motivation to do even more. So find a small goal. Break it down into little steps. And work on it for a week.
3. Do things in small chunks of time – 15 minutes to 30 minutes
Burka and Yuen advise doing this as so often we procrastinate because we don’t want to start a large project until we have a big chunk of time available to do it. Yet we can wait forever for that big chunk of time! So doing it in a number of separate chunks of time means we get started quickly – and don’t expect ourselves to finish it all in one time period. We take advantage of small chunks of time and keep on making starts on it – until we find ourselves completing the whole task. We’ll be surprised at how much we can get done by doing it this way, and making use of time that otherwise would have not been used productively.
4. Engage in positive self-talk
Procrastinators can be very hard on themselves – and berate themselves for their procrastination, as well as being filled with guilt and regret. Combined with the fears that procrastinators already have, all of these negative emotions are very demotivating. It’s therefore very important to engage in positive self-talk – which people who are very productive do all the time. Depending on what some of your negative self-talk is, find positive statements about yourself that affirm and motivate you. Become aware of what you say to yourself – and begin changing the ‘inner critic’ inside your head to a voice of support who cheers you on.
Practising these 4 steps over and over will create new neural pathways in your brain…. it won’t happen overnight, but it can be done. Let me know in the comments below if you try any of these steps and if it helps you like it did me….
Here’s to beating procrastination for good!