Procrastination is something we all experience. You certainly know the feeling – staring at a blank page, having an assignment waiting for you, delaying to start a large project, and doing everything except what you are “supposed” to do. You carry around this heavy, dark cloud of procrastination, feeling miserable for hours or days, but you are still unable to make the first step toward getting it done. And even though you may be irritated, agitated, you can’t sleep… you can’t work either. Until finally, something happens, and you get it done. Often in a guilt-infused panic mode, at the last moment, but you get it done.
The quality of your work may suffer. The quality of your life definitely does.
But why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we procrastinate, even when we know we will feel bad about it? The answer to this question is not simple and goes much deeper than just “laziness” or “irresponsibility”.
Why do we procrastinate?
Contrary to what most people believe, procrastination is not about being lazy or lacking willpower. Since it’s such a widespread phenomenon, numerous researchers tried to get to the bottom of it and understand the roots and reasons behind it.
“Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
– dr. Piers Steel, a professor of motivational psychology at the University of Calgary
There are many potential reasons for procrastination, but the majority of results of scientific studies show that they come down to three groups of explanations, or can be a combination of them. They show that, usually, procrastination may be:
- a result of our brain’s natural tendency to be more drawn to instant gratification than long-term benefits
- a habit we use to cope with stress and provide emotional relief
- a way to protect our sense of self-worth
Procrastination is not a time-management problem; it’s an emotion regulation problem. So let’s get deeper into it.
I Procrastination is something our brain naturally does
The brain is pretty amazing. It is probably the most complex thing humankind currently knows. And yet, it can sometimes seem, well, a little lazy. The problem is, our brains are programmed to be more drawn toward instant gratification than toward future benefits. They’ll rather take immediate satisfaction than focus on a big picture and delay pleasure for the sake of long-term goals. In general, we struggle with tasks that require effort now in return to future possible benefits. That is why it can be so difficult to stick to long-term goals such as weight-loss programs or saving for retirement.
An interesting study from Stanford showed that, when we imagine our future self, our brain’s activity is similar to as if we’re imagining someone else completely. In other words, when you imagine yourself a day, a week, a month from now, it’s like you’re imagining, say, a mailman you saw once or twice. A complete stranger. So, in a nutshell, an emotional part of your brain doesn’t really care about your future self as much as it does for your present self. Not even close.
Looking from this perspective, procrastination makes sense. It explains why it’s so easy to procrastinate, and why it takes effort and active attention to break the pattern and actually start working on something you know is important for your future self, but your present self doesn’t like doing.
II We procrastinate as a way to deal with stress
Here is a funny paradox – although we know procrastination, long-term, increases our stress levels and brings a whole bunch of uncomfortable emotions, initially, we may use procrastination as a stress-relief habit.
When we feel stressed, drained, overwhelmed, or we have a low level of frustration tolerance (low ability to tolerate unpleasant feelings or stressful situations), our brains may use procrastination as a way to gain some strength and energy in the present moment. If you have something stressful going on in your life, if your brain is filled with overthinking, worrying, overplanning, anxiety, high expectations, etc., and you have something boring or challenging to deal with, your brain may be like: “Are you kidding me?! I can’t deal with this too! Give me some break!”. So, you turn to procrastination as a way to try to lower the level of stress by doing something you find less overwhelming. Watching cat videos is much less demanding than making 15 phone calls, isn’t it?
Since your brain is, as we saw, pretty shortsighted, it automatically turns to short-term stress relief, even though, long term, stress will increase due to procrastination. If this worked a couple of times, your brain may start adopting procrastination as a habit it can turn to when you need to deal with something you have no motivation for and your stress levels are high.
But what about situations when we procrastinate on things we love and value, those that are really important to us?
III We procrastinate as a way to maintain a good self-image
Here is an even funnier paradox than the previous one – when we really, really want to succeed, but are also very, very scared of failure, we may self-sabotage as a way to self-protect. In other words, we may use procrastination as both, a way to sabotage ourselves and, that way, preserve our good self-image. Let’s explain.
The self-worth theory of motivation asserts that one of our primary needs, as human beings, is the need to be accepted, by ourselves and others, and the primary way we see this happening is through achievement. In other words, we feel the need to be seen as competent and capable, because this gives us a sense of self-worth, and we are ready to sacrifice our other needs to preserve that image.
Basically, many of us have a simple model in our head that our performance determines our inner capabilities and our skills, which determine our success, and this success determines our self-worth, how we think about ourselves. Naturally, when this is the case and we are facing an important task, our anxiety and fear of failure skyrocket. Performing well on a task becomes crucial because, if we fail, it is not just the work we did that is at stake, it’s our self-image as well. But we still want to do it, it’s something we value and find important. So we have two strong forces battling inside us – a driving desire to achieve and a paralyzing fear of failure.
When the desire to succeed and the fear of failure clash…
We can strive for success, really want to do something, but at the same time be afraid of failure and what it means for us. When we are overly striving both away and toward something, we can feel stuck. This is exactly how people often describe procrastination – as being stuck, against a wall, feeling like having an obstacle they can’t get over.
When this is the case, we may use procrastination as a “middle ground” between these two motivations, a smart strategy to protect the picture of ourselves as capable individuals. If we procrastinate on a task that we value and care about, there are two scenarios:
- If we fail, we have built a good excuse for ourselves – “Well, I didn’t have enough time to do it better. It’s probably not an accurate representation of my abilities”.
- If, on the other hand, we succeed, we can say to ourselves how capable we are – “Wow, I succeeded despite such a short time I had”.
It’s a win-win situation. Except it is not, because we sacrifice our peace of mind and, often, the quality of our work.
So, how to fight this?
How to stop procrastinating?
The first step toward overcoming procrastination is to be aware of it. Procrastination comes in many disguises, from guilty Netflix nights to being “busy” and doing seemingly important tasks to avoid what is really important. It’s not always easy to recognize procrastination for what it is, until it’s too late. To overcome it, you first need to stop and notice it. The second and crucial step is unraveling what lies behind it. What is your, individual reason for putting things off? From there, you can take some steps toward managing those reasons and get rid of procrastination. Here are some suggestions and tips.
I Fight procrastination by training your instant-gratification brain
Sometimes, when it comes to doing things that we are not motivated or we don’t like doing, we need a little extra push to get things going. Two things can be helpful to overcome our brains’ automatic tendency to grasp for instant satisfaction:
Re-balance the cost-benefit analysis
Instead of letting the emotional part of your brain run the show, turn up your logical, rational side. Consciously make the benefits of taking action feel bigger and disadvantages of the “pain of doing it” feel smaller. So, you want to focus on the reward of taking action or finishing a task and make it outweigh the pain of tackling it. For example, you can visualize how great it feels to tick it off of your to-do list, or tie finishing each step of a task to a treat, to something you’re looking forward to. Try experimenting and see what works for you to re-balance things and get started.
Bridge the gap between your present self and your future self
Be aware that your brain is short-sighted and that it sees your future self almost as a stranger. Thus, keep reminding yourself – it’s still going to be you. You, with your kind of thinking, your memories, your experiences, your problems, and if you don’t take action now, you’ll probably have another set of problems to deal with. Imagine if you had to face those problems right now – how would you feel? Really try to bring that feeling into the present moment. Uncomfortable? That’s exactly how you’re going to feel if you let the consequences of your inaction for your future self to deal with.
In a similar manner, when you set goals, while it’s important to imagine long-term benefits, make sure your present self knows what’s in it for them too. Find a way to make the process more enjoyable short term. Play with little rewards and see what feels good each step of the way.
II Beat procrastination when you are stressed and overwhelmed
Like any habit, procrastination can be broken, or changed. In short, every habit has three parts: trigger, response, and reward. In the case of procrastination, the trigger is stress. Your response is avoiding the task. The reward is a little bit of stress relief. What you can change in this cycle is your response. You are always going to have stresses in your life – you can’t change that, but you can acknowledge it and change the way you respond to it.
So, instead of seeking stress relief by avoiding a task (and then beating yourself up about it and becoming more stressed), you can:
1. Take the time to notice what’s going on underneath
Stop and acknowledge what is really stressing you out and taking your energy.
2. Avoid self-criticism
Forgive yourself for wanting to avoid the stress by procrastinating. There is no need to criticize yourself; that will increase the stress.
3. Identify the first step and use the “5-minute trick”
When we have to deal with something complex, it can be difficult to start because it can seem overwhelming. Finding the smallest first step that you can start with is usually helpful. A goal or a task like: “Learn Italian” is huge, and facing it in that form can feel paralyzing. On the other hand, “Search for an Italian language teacher and contact them” or “Go to the bookstore and buy an A1 Italian language workbook” seem much more manageable. To make it even easier, commit to working on the first (or any) step for only 5 minutes. Usually, you will find yourself continuing beyond that, but it’s a good place to start, because that is the most difficult step.
4. Find another way to get stress relief
Your brain needs some energy, and is trying to get it in an inefficient way – through procrastination. Make sure to compensate, but from a different source, something that is better and healthier for you. Promise yourself that after the work you do, you will do something to recharge yourself. This is not self-indulgence, but a reasonable way to look at your needs and provide yourself with enough energy to continue functioning efficiently.
To sum up, these steps may go something like this: “I procrastinate – I may be stressed about this and this and that – It’s okay, I need some relief, and my brain is trying to do this by turning to procrastination. Let’s change that. I will work on this for a limited amount of time, and instead of inefficiently trying to get some energy through procrastination, I will provide it to myself by doing this and this and that afterward”.
III Overcome procrastination when it comes from fear of failure
People who are very fearful of failure (and many high-achievers and perfectionists fall into this category) often have a kind of simplistic model in their mind: performance = ability = worth. Sometimes we procrastinate on things that are important to us, that we love and value, because we are scared to make a mistake and what that would mean for us and our self-image.
If you recognize yourself in this, here are a few things you can do:
1.Notice it for what it is and don’t let it slide
Ask yourself what is going on, what you’re afraid of. What kind of uncomfortable feelings does this task inflict on you? Then think about how realistic this kind of thinking actually is. Are you focusing on the negative or catastrophizing? Is some kind of black and white thinking present? Do you impose some “should” or “musts” on yourself? Talking to a therapist about it can also help.
2. Change your self-talk and tame your expectations
Catch criticism or perfectionism and realize it’s not helpful. Instead, you can look at things as an opportunity to experiment. Have a kind and friendly attitude toward yourself and approach a task with curiosity: “Let’s see how this will go” instead of “Everyone will think I’m a failure”. Self-compassion is incredibly helpful in this, you may want to incorporate it into the way you think and treat yourself.
3. Focus on your values instead of on your fears
Think about your values, what is important to you, and connect them with a task you do. How can you make this task less scary? Instead of focusing on what you are fearful of and why you don’t want to do the task, come up with a list of why you want to do the task, what is drawing you toward it, what is motivating you.
4. Challenge the performance–ability–worth relationship
You are more than your accomplishments. You don’t appreciate your friends because of their performance, academic or career success, but because of their other qualities, such as kindness, humor, loyalty, their ability to listen, their quirks and uniqueness. Our abilities and performance are connected, that’s true, but not always; there are many factors that determine our performance. We don’t always perform perfectly, even though our abilities may exceed what we show at the moment. It goes vice versa as well – admit it, there were situations in your life when you got lucky and got an A on a test when you really didn’t deserve it.
Be mindful of your natural brain’s tendency to procrastinate and rebalance things.
Be gentle with yourself and find a way to de-stress in a healthy way.
Acknowledge the fear, and take it along for a ride. You got this.
Do you have some useful tips on how to deal with procrastination? Share them with us in the comment section below! If you like this blog post and find it useful, please be free to share it with others.