How to mind the gap between what you intend to do and what you actually do.
Most of us procrastinate, we put stuff off, ignore things and are generally skilled at finding something more enjoyable to do. It’s not unusual and often it doesn’t impact our lives too much. However, some of us become chronic procrastinators and it can create real problems. It can stop us from reaching our goals, reduce our confidence and self-trust, increase anxiety, and lower our mood and most of these things….lead to more procrastination!
Whether you procrastinate by finding other important tasks to do (aka anything except the thing you need to get done), by falling into a doom scroll on social media or by overtly saying “I’m not doing it!” procrastination is defined as “voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse of for the delay” (Steel, 2007). The question is, if we expect to be worse off, why do we do it?
Why do we do it?
There are typically 4 main reasons that cause us to procrastinate (and none of them are because you are lazy) and depending on which one is relevant for you, there are different ways to address it.
Reason 1. Your brain has given you a ton of convincing reasons you don’t need to/shouldn’t/can’t do the task now and you have been convinced by it faster than you can say daytime television.
You might be used to listening and simply following what your brain tells you. If I’m thinking it, it must be true/right. This is common, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Whatever your brain tells you about the job you need to do there are a few things to remember to stop it derailing you.
a) It’s your brain’s job to find problems and then try to fix them. This usually means encouraging you to avoid it. BUT your brain is often a little oversensitive with this task and will pipe up even when you don’t need it to. It works on a better safe than sorry principle. So, just because its saying something to you, it doesn’t mean you need to listen. It’s a little like your smoke alarm in your house. It will sound an alarm if your house is on fire, but it will sound the alarm in just the same way when you’ve just burnt the toast. Your job is to notice it and then decide when you need to pay attention and when you can over-ride it.
b) Practice noticing and naming the thought. Take your thinking out of your head and into your life so you can get some space from it. Try adding the words “I’m having a thought that…” before saying or writing your thought down. “I’m having a thought that I can’t do it” feels very different to “I can’t do it”. This will allow you to step outside of your thoughts and chose how to respond to it rather than just following it.
Reason 2. You are avoiding difficult feelings. This is by far and away the most common cause of procrastination. Whether it is a feeling of anxiety, fear, uncertainty or even just boredom we are often pulled away from what we need to do because we are trying to avoid feeling something unpleasant. Fear is a very powerful emotion and the idea of finding a task difficult, struggling with it, not getting something right, or not being good at something is a feeling many of us want to avoid.
If we are scared of doing something wrong, it is easier to just not do it. The trouble is, when we do this, we don’t give ourselves the opportunity to learn, we can become self-critical of our lack of action and we can lose trust in ourselves to ‘do life’ well. None of this helps build our confidence and therefore the anxiety and fear about our performance grows even bigger. To address this we, need to get good at:
a) Noticing and naming our emotions. Using a tool like the feelings wheel (which you can find here) can help with this.
b) Spend some time imagining how you will feel If you get to the end of the day and haven’t done the task and then try to imagine how you will feel If you do.
Reason 3. You don’t see the value in doing the task. I get it, why should we be motivated to do something scary or boring and mundane? The key is to look not at the task but at the value that sits underneath the task. Ask yourself a few key questions:
- If you do it, what is it going to help you be more of?
- What goal might this be taking you closer to?
- How could doing this benefit your wellbeing, career, relationships etc?
This can be hard to find sometimes. If you are sitting and thinking…”Emma, paying my bills is necessary but isn’t part of my values” I hear you. BUT if you peel things back a bit, paying your bills on time might work towards values of being organised, capable, reliable, responsible and these might be part of what matters to you. Booking that dentist appointment or making that call to your parents might help you be more caring about your health or more considerate in your role as a son or daughter.
Finding what value sits underneath the task can be really helpful in motivating you. Because honestly….why would we want to deal with the difficult thoughts or feelings unless it is for something that matters.
Reason 4. Your goal is not realistic. What you need to do requires more resources than you have. This could be time, money, energy, attention, or skills. In some way the task is too big and needs reducing.
If we are finding things tricky to achieve it is often helpful to create a series of steps to get to it rather than one big goal. This could be by:
- Breaking it down into smaller chunks and doing one bit at a time. Stepped approaches are less overwhelming, more structured, and far easier for us to complete than large tasks. We get a sense of satisfaction as we move through the tasks which helps us to keep going. You could break it down by task e.g. I will clean the worktops as step 1 and then move to step 2 or by time e.g. I will spend 20mins doing it and then stop if I need to.
- If the task is beyond your skill set it may be that you need help to get started and seeking support/expertise is what is needed. Sometimes this is in the form of moral support – having someone come over to help you get going and sometimes we might need to seek help from a coach, friend, mentor or colleague.
- Maybe the standard that’s been set is too high or harsh and its overwhelming. You need to lower the bar to start with e.g., “I need to produce an amazing essay to get a top grade” needs to be toned down to “I need to produce an essay on topic and hand it in on time”.
- Perhaps the logistics of the task is making it harder than it needs to be e.g., time of day or part of the week you are trying to achieve something is too tricky and you could make it easier by picking a different time when you have more energy/time/space/quiet e.g., going to the gym after work is too hard but, in the morning, I have more energy and motivation.
If your task is unrealistic, the key is to make it ‘startable’ and then to take one step at a time.
So next time you find yourself procrastinating. Run through these reasons and figure out what is getting in your way. Remember though -some procrastination is perfectly normal - we aren't aiming to be perfectly productive robots!