Do you leave tasks until the last minute? Pay bills late? Cram all night for exams or presentations? Delay applying for jobs until the deadline has passed? We’re all guilty of it, to one extent or another – that is – putting off until tomorrow what could be done today; faffing, time-wasting, procrastinating – whatever you want to call it. Procrastination needn’t necessarily be a problem though, of course. So what if I watch a film with my kids instead of decluttering my bookshelves? – that’s a task that can definitely be postponed for a bit. And what if you do always work best with the adrenalin rush of last-minute pressure? Why fix something that’s not broken? Only you can know if your procrastination is an issue – and it can become so when it starts to hold you back in life, and stops you from achieving your wider goals. If you’re not careful, it can become the ultimate form of self-sabotage. If we want to achieve, then by definition, we have to ‘do’. We need to act carefully and decisively. But many of us are choosing to risk our own success and causing ourselves extra pressure and anxiety by constantly (and knowingly) deferring planned actions. But why?
Are we just bad at managing our time? Disorganised? Scatterbrained? Lazy? Well, not really any of those things. People who procrastinate are as (if not more!) aware of the pressures of time and deadlines as anyone else and can be intelligent, capable, well-intentioned and conscientious. They just don’t seem to be able to do things when they’re meant to be doing them. There’s got to be something else at play.
The first major problem is a lack of self-regulation. We put off unpleasant or harder tasks in favour of easy and more instantly gratifying rewards; we go for the quick fix over the long slog. It’s the constant thoughts and justifications that pop into our heads whenever we have a serious chore to do – “Actually, I think i’ll be in a better frame of mind to work on my presentation tomorrow, so I’ll relax with this lovely glass of wine now instead”. And that’s not our fault. It’s evolutionary! Our primitive brains are hard-wired to react to our present conditions and surroundings, primarily to keep us safe from imminent danger and preserve our comfort. The cognitive, thinking function of our brains does the long-term planning, the looking at the bigger picture, the reasoning. The cognitive brain might plan to work on a presentation on Thursday evening, and to revise it on Friday, knowing that we need to make a good impression on a boss or client for our future career prospects. When Thursday evening comes however, the primitive part of our brains overrides the cognitive. It wants fun and relaxation, right now, in the shape of a large glass of wine and a sit on the sofa. It’s like a spoiled toddler that only wants fun things and wants them immediately. Or he’ll scream.
A second cause of procrastination is something deeper. If we analyse the underlying reasons we might be delaying tasks, many of us can identify a feeling of fear as a root cause. A fear of failure, a fear of the responsibility and greater expectations of achieving something, a fear of not being perfect, of making the wrong decisions or of being judged. And procrastination is the ultimate avoidance tactic; we are avoiding facing our fears. But by doing so, and by postponing action, we only really serve to increase our anxieties and self-doubt when we end up being under intense last-minute pressure as a consequence. It becomes a vicious circle of stress and disappointment – a pattern of repeated behaviours.
So what can you do to free yourself from this procrastination loop?
- Identify when you’re procrastinating.
The first battle is to recognise when you’re doing it, and call yourself out on it. Make a concerted effort to step back and reflect on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Are you spending hours scrolling through emails that aren’t urgent or checking the news every hour? Do you keep shifting something significant down your to-do list? Do you notice yourself doing unimportant easy tasks rather than tackling big projects? Do you get distracted easily and take frequent breaks that aren’t really required?
- Identify your motivations.Think about why you might be procrastinating. Are you giving in too easily to your primitive, instant gratification-seeking brain and sabotaging the efforts of your cognitive brain? Or is there a deeper underlying reason to your delaying tactics? Is it that you feel overwhelmed by difficult tasks and don’t know where to start? Are you afraid of failing or doing something wrong? Are you a perfectionist?
- Confront and tackle your habits.
Choose an appropriate strategy for tackling your procrastinatory habits. If you constantly find yourself giving in to instant gratification, understand that it’s your primitive brain making you feel those urges. Acknowledge those feelings, but understand too, that your reasoning brain can choose to let them go. It can ignore those urges, it can focus on the bigger picture and carry on doing what it planned to do. You are in control. To help you, make sure you start planning tasks properly ahead of time. Understand your long-term goals and how your tasks fit in with those. Make a commitment to carry them out (to yourself, and others if it helps). Start with an easy task so you can do it quickly, then tackle something big so that you get tricky tasks out of the way early. Promise yourself rewards for achieving a goal and avoid distractions like social media notifications, the radio, TV – or other people. If you manage to ignore the instant gratification urge and get on with your task until it is completed – the delayed gratification will bring you double the rewards. A task done, the burden lifted, a step taken towards the realisation of your wider ambitions, and a boost of pleasure and dopamine at having taken control and achieved something. If you procrastinate because you feel overwhelmed by the scale or difficulty of your tasks or fear failure, there are some other techniques you can try. Firstly, try to separate your feelings of self-worth from your actions and achievements. Sure, these things are important – but they are not the only things that give you your identity and value. There’s your character, your life experiences, your family, your humour, your kindness, your hobbies, your friends. Try to see a task or action for what it is rather than as a massive reflection of your position in and value to society. This should lessen the fear and help you get started when you feel paralysed by inaction. Similarly, If you feel overwhelmed by tasks, split them into smaller, more manageable chunks. Focus on one at a time for short periods and reward yourself as you go along.
- Get help.
It sounds serious, but it needn’t be! A few people might find themselves so paralysed by procrastination due to serious underlying issues like OCD or low self esteem and depression, that professional help could be invaluable. Treatments like CBT have been shown to be very successful in helping people with these issues. But if you just find that putting things off that you should be doing has become a bit of habit that you feel might be holding you back in life, try taking the above steps first. Get support from a friend or family member by asking them to hold you to your commitments, join an on or offline support group (there’s nothing like a bit of peer pressure to help motivate you), hire a coach to help you break procrastinatory habits and form good proactive ones, or use technology to keep you on track. There are multiple organisation tools available – or apps like Zero Willpower, Simple Habit, Procraster and Mindly to name but a few, can all help you conquer procrastination and boost productivity.
Check out this week’s podcast for more thoughts on the benefits of delayed gratification as a way of beating procrastination.