We have to take action to achieve our goals. However, how many of us plan to take action but struggle to actually follow through?
If we know what we have to do, how come it is so hard to do it? And how can we stop procrastinating before it harms us and those around us?
Signs you may be struggling with procrastination
- Waiting until the last minute to do important tasks
- Postponing small tasks repeatedly
- Struggling to find excuses
- Stepping away from work for frequent snacks
- Getting easily distracted
- Sleeping more than you need to for no good reason
- Accomplishing a lot of little things instead of your biggest goal
Here is an iconography of the most common types of procrastinators. Have a look. You may find an animated version of your procastinator-self.
Everyone procrastinates sometimes, but it’s time to take action if you feel unable to change despite negative effects on your life.
I know I have a procrastination problem. Why can’t I stop?
Procrastination is not uncommon, quite the opposite. We’ve all become entangled in its web at some point. But the fact that it’s human doesn’t make it less destructive. You know that already.
The only thing we gain after a day of procrastination is a toxic dose of self-blame and an overwhelming desire that tomorrow we will find the willpower. Tomorrow we will tackle what we didn’t accomplish today. But there’s always another tomorrow.
Contrary to common belief, procrastination usually has little to do with laziness, apathy, or passivity. In fact, procrastinators are often perfectionists who cannot dare to start a task if they can’t complete it perfectly.
Choosing not to stress, but causing more stress
In order to stop procrastinating, it can help to look at procrastination as an active process: you choose to do something easy instead of something important. We choose to watch Netflix instead of writing that essay, even though a piece of our mind is always on that essay while trying to distract ourselves with Netflix.
We can’t enjoy the movie we are watching and we can’t start writing. It’s a catch-22, no-win situation.
Knowledge is power: let’s dig a bit deeper into other possible causes of procrastination and disentangle the web, strand-by-strand.
If we don’t clearly understand what we are supposed to be doing, it’s easy to end up doing nothing.
Complex tasks are scary and seem unreachable. You might know where you want to go, but knowing how to get there can be just as important. Hawaii is your destination. Before you start packing, it’d be nice for you to know that it is an island and you can’t go by train and that you don’t need a winter jacket. The same goes for day-to-day tasks.
Procrastination can be one of the most significant barriers to achieving our goals. Thus, if we want to sabotage ourselves, whether intentionally or unintentionally, procrastination is an excellent tool.
Self-destructive behavior might be an unconscious coping mechanism. Arm yourself with information about self-destructive behaviors, and ways to recognize and overcome them.
Executive functioning entails high-level cognition such as planning, prioritizing, and impulse control. This function allows a person to coordinate their resources in order to achieve a goal. That means, executive dysfunction occurs when a person’s executive functioning skills are weakened. This can be the result of a myriad of factors, including brain tumors, injury, stress, or other mental struggles, such as ADHD or OCD. Here you can find more information about this topic.
Pathological demand avoidance
Similar to executive dysfunction, PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) is a well-recognized autism symptom that involves the avoidance of routine tasks. If you think you might have autism, consider doing more research. It could be that there is an extra layer to your procrastination struggles.
Physics tells us something about procrastination
If you’re struggling with procrastination, you may just need some extra help. You can’t expect yourself to change without support.
Newton’s first law, also known as the law of inertia, states that if a body is at rest or in motion, it will remain at rest or keep moving without the help of extra force. This applies to bodies and objects, but also to states of mind.
The takeaway? After you get started, it’s easier to keep moving. Trust Newton.
Consider using the tactics below to procrastinate less–and remember, things won’t change overnight. It’s not easy to break your inertia, so give yourself a break in this process.
A bullet-proof action plan against procrastination
Overcoming procrastination can be a matter of trial and error. We are good at what we practice. So try the steps below if you’re sick of avoiding your personal “impossible tasks.”
1. Make it simple
Life is full of endless lists of endless things to do. If you don’t know where to start, you may have trouble motivating yourself.
Knowing what is important, what comes first, and what comes next, can make it easier to tackle your to-do list. Facing a confusing web of tasks is difficult for even the best of us.
Before starting to cross items off your list, disentangle that web.
First of all, prioritize items. You could use these categories to sort out your tasks:
- Urgent and important
- Urgent, but not important
- Important, but not urgent
- Not important or urgent
Secondly, break complex tasks into small milestones. Instead of aiming for a vague and complex goal like “reorganize my house,” you could aim to first clear the trash from each room, then organize parts of the house in order of how often you use that area. This way, you can still feel accomplished even if you have to take a break.
Thirdly, consider using a calendar to spread out your smaller milestones, so that they are less overwhelming.
2. “I will just do this for 5 minutes”
Trick yourself into starting. Once you’re already working on the task, it would be easy to keep going. The five-minute rule is a cognitive-behavioral technique for breaking procrastination and increasing productivity.
Your brain will no longer perceive the task as a threat if you break it down into little, manageable five-minute chunks. After you’ve deceived your brain into starting, those five minutes can quickly turn into thirty or longer.
3. Create a sense of urgency
We act faster if we think that our task is imminent, or that the deadline is looming fast. Consider adding deadlines to your calendar a few days ahead of schedule. Alternatively, remind yourself that others are urgently counting on our performance–if we let this task slide, others will face negative consequences.
Creating a sense of urgency turns “tomorrow” into “now”.
To start, these are some thoughts that could help you get going:
- Time is a limited resource. You cannot buy many things on this planet, but you cannot buy “more time”.
- “Without a sense of urgency, desire loses its value”. Jim Rohn
- “What’s missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency.” Barack Obama
- “Urgency makes the difference between practitioners, proclaimers, and procrastinators.” Richie Norton
You can find more info on creating a sense of urgency here, and here.
4. Become process-oriented
Certain tasks can become part of your daily landscape, part of your routine. Be process-oriented instead of goal-oriented.
Try to think about the difference between
1. I want to run every day.
2. I want to win the 5km race.
Even if you want to achieve number 2, it’s likely you have to embrace number 1: to even get into a race, you’ll need to run every day. It’s likely that if you run every day, you’ll have a chance of winning the race. Goal 1 is more realistic, and therefore it’s less intimidating–so you have an easier time following through.
Having doable goals is important. If your end goal is vague, try to reframe it in terms of the process that will help you reach your goal.
For instance, maybe you want to become a person who reads. But how will you get there, realistically? A more helpful goal would be to read two books a month. If you’ve read over 20 books in a year, that makes you a reader! But it’s a lot easier to read two books a month than to magically become a different type of person.
The goal is not to be the greatest at what you’re trying to do — it’s to tackle the problem in a consistent way. You’ll eventually see results.
If you want to gather more info about habits and routines, James Clear has great insights.
5. Remember that change–no matter how small–is what matters
Forgive yourself for your procrastination habit. Keep in mind that we are not our mistakes, nor are we our past. We are what we choose to create in the present. You can choose differently.
Research demonstrates that we perform better in the present when we forgive ourselves for the mistakes of the past. It helps to treat ourselves with compassion. There is no need to carry the weight of guilt on your shoulders.
Looking for more tips on stopping procrastination? This Twitter thread has a helpful visual guide.
By understanding your procrastination, you can manage it
Procrastination, for the majority of us, is about emotions: we struggle to deal with something difficult in the present, so we find an easy fix that eases our discomfort in the present but hurts our future self.
Remember when you got into that dark room and saw a shadow and imagined there was a monster sitting on a chair? To overcome our fears and insecurities, the best we can do is to turn on the light. There is no monster in the room: a raincoat hangs from a chair. Impossible tasks can be broken into doable and even easy chunks–so that you stop procrastination, before it stops you.