Procrastination is where we put off, delay, avoid or postpone our tasks and responsibilities, despite the negative emotions and consequences this causes. When we procrastinate, we experience anxiety, distractibility, increased stress, guilt and regret. Likewise, it’s common that we might encounter poorer task performance, missed opportunities, and begin avoiding the people who depend on us. During this time, we tend to complete unimportant, non-urgent tasks to avoid completing the tasks that need doing. For example, instead of starting that essay that’s due in the next few days, you might find yourself decluttering your wardrobe. These tasks are easier for us to complete, however, lead to increased feelings of guilt and anxiety. But, why exactly do we do this?
Why Procrastination Occurs
On the surface, procrastination can look like laziness, a lack of self control, or an inability to delay gratification. While delayed gratification can sometimes play a role, there’s actually something more complex going on, as researchers such as Joseph Ferrari have identified. Procrastination occurs for a number of reasons, such as a fear of failure, or low self esteem where we fail to believe we’re capable of achieving. Similarly, we can hold irrational beliefs that lead us to self sabotage. For example, believing we’re incapable of achieving good grades, so instead of putting in our best efforts, we self sabotage by procrastinating. Procrastination allows us to temporarily avoid the negative emotions of ‘failure’.
However, this loop only leads to further negative feelings. Another reason for procrastination is perfectionism. In this case, nothing you do feels good enough, and your expectations are set so high, that it can be intimidating to start on the task. You’ll fear disappointing yourself and those around you when you see the end result. From this, we can see that procrastination appears to arise from a negative or low mood, that is caused by such fears of failure, and a need for perfectionism. It’s not laziness that prevents us from getting on with tasks but genuine fears and worries.
How to Stop Procrastinating
Identify your why
As mentioned earlier, there’s often a range of reasons for our procrastination. This makes understanding why we are procrastinating an important first step to overcoming the cycle. What negative thoughts and feelings are currently fuelling your procrastination? Sometimes, this might be feelings of overwhelm and anxiety, or negative thoughts about our ability to perform. Alongside this, we might find that these thoughts and feelings are related to other aspects of the task at hand. For example, not knowing how to do the task, or finding it tedious, complex and overwhelming. This can contribute to those negative feelings. If you can identify what you’re thinking and feeling, and how this relates to the task at hand, you can pick the ideal solution to overcome this cycle. In addition, a continuous cycle of procrastination can actually be a sign of something more important, maybe you need a real break, or are experiencing dissatisfaction with your studies. This highlights how important getting to the root of the problem is.
Address Negative Thoughts
After identifying your why, it can be useful to address the negative thoughts you might be having. Often, we feel that we must or should be completing a task, this can make us feel resistant. To overcome this, we can reframe the tasks as something we want to do, which makes it more appealing. Likewise, instead of focusing on how you must avoid procrastinating, or how you need to complete the task in a certain way, you can focus on what steps you’ll take to complete the task, and how each step forward will result in progress. Simply being able to view tasks in a more positive light can make the process feel less daunting. Additionally, learn to forgive yourself, and reflect on your why instead of punishing yourself. This will only lead to further procrastination, so give yourself space to start fresh.
Make Starting Easy
Typically, the complexity and size of a task can be the reason we procrastinate. To avoid procrastinating, it’s ideal if we can break tasks down into small, realistic and actionable steps that are easy to get started on. If we know exactly what needs doing, this makes larger tasks feel less daunting, and makes it far easier to get started. Simply starting is one of the most difficult aspects of completing a task and can fuel procrastination the most. To make starting easier, you can use the 2-minute rule, where you aim to condense a task or habit into a 2 minute slot. While you won’t be able to complete much in 2 minutes, you learn how to show up. Instead of procrastinating for 2 hours, you’ve spent 2 minutes loading up your word document, or readings. You’ve already overcome that fear of starting.
Alternatively, if you want to make it more likely that you'll get into a workflow, you can try the 10-minute rule. You aim to work for 10 minutes, and after that decide whether you want to continue. Usually, you’ll find it easier to continue when you’ve made it past that obstacle of starting. It’s less daunting to work for 10-minutes and allows you to focus on the moment, rather than the end goal. It’s important that we’re able to make imperfect starts, because you can edit a bad page, but not a blank one. Moreover, motivation often arises after we start a task, not before, and being in the middle of taking action is a lot less painful than managing all the negative emotions that arise during procrastination.
Immediate Consequences and Rewards
Have you ever wondered why you procrastinated on completing an assignment for weeks, only for it to be completed within hours before the deadline? This is because the consequences that existed in the future, suddenly became consequences that existed in the present. Our present self, which values instant gratification, is the one who needs to take actions that benefit our future self. However, this present self needs to see rewards, and consequences immediately to take action. How can we bring the rewards and consequences of the future to the present?
First, you can make the task you’re completing more appealing. One way of doing this is temptation bundling. This means we take the task at hand and pair it with something we enjoy doing. For example, you might only listen to music while writing up assignments. Or, you only visit your favourite cafe while completing your readings, or drafting your next piece of writing. This allows you to pair the things you want to do, with the things that need doing. Naturally, the better you feel while completing tasks, will mean you’re less likely to procrastinate overall, as you associate doing with more positive emotions.
Second, make the consequences of not completing a task more immediate. You can do this by having someone else hold you accountable, or publicly declaring your goals. This means that by not completing the task as you promised yourself, you’ll have to experience some immediate discomfort. It’ll be harder to say no to the task or let other things get in your way if you know that the consequences are around the corner. You can also set yourself deadlines, that someone holds you accountable for, this is particularly useful for the microtasks you’ve set up and keeps you on track. To hold yourself accountable, and also feel an immediate sense of satisfaction, you can implement progress tracking, such checking off to-do lists, or tracking your working time.This presents immediate results, and you can reward yourself after hitting these milestones. This allows you to build momentum and strength to tackle larger tasks. Measuring progress, rather than task completion, can be particularly useful for large tasks such as writing a long essay, or completing a research project. You can reward yourself for each hour of work completed, or after a certain word count.
Limit Distractions, Decisions and Choices
In order to set ourselves up for success, we need to limit the amount of decisions that need making, and choices we have to pick from. Throughout the day, it gets harder to make the right decisions, this is known as decision fatigue. This makes procrastination more likely because it gets harder throughout the day to choose those important tasks, over those more appealing, easier to complete tasks. However, if we can eliminate distractions, decisions and choices early on, we can easily choose to get on with those important to-dos. This might be using focus tools to limit screen time, or access to distracting websites, or moving to a completely distraction free environment. It could be limiting how many decisions you need to make during a work day, such as choosing an outfit the night before, or knowing what breakfast you’re going to eat. This pre-defines your future actions and makes following through easier.