Podcast Host @ LinkedIn|Human Development Expert| Writer|Keynote Speaker
Procrastination deserves more of our curiosity. Most of us have experienced it but our stories about whom it implies we are and why we do it are more assumptions than truths. This week, In the Arena, we’re focusing on making procrastination clearer and a little less judgmental.
I almost didn’t write this newsletter. To be clearer, I almost procrastinated writing it. Again. I’ve had a complicated relationship with that word for most of my life, I think many of us have. When I think of procrastination, I immediately have an image of a lazy, irresponsible human; someone who is unwilling to show up and work.
But there’s a clear contradiction to that narrative of the lazy, irresponsible human: it simply isn’t me. Looking at my last 35 years on the planet, I can identify more times than not that I’ve gotten things done and been an active participant in my own life. I also think we’ve allowed words like“lazy” and “irresponsible” to become dangerous catchalls for more complex challenges, but that’s for another newsletter.
If you’re someone who has procrastinated (that’s most of us) or watched someone else do it, consider what your narratives are about it. What do you assume it means about you or them? How do you judge yourself or others when you observe it?
And the most important question: how are those judgments and assumptions working for you?
I don’t imagine they make you or others feel or work any better.
So what do we do? We start with getting clear on what procrastination really is and what it isn’t, so we can respond better when we see it in others or do it ourselves.
What is procrastination?
The idea has been discussed for centuries and one of the first studies documented was in 1997 and published in Psychological Science. It’s defined by putting off intentionally and habitually.
While we’re all familiar with the “what”, we don’t investigate the question of “why” enough. Here’s why I thought I procrastinated:
- I’m lazy
- I can’t focus
- I’m too busy
- I’m not responsible
- I don’t manage my time well
What we’re missing about procrastination…
In his article, “5 research-based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination”, writer Chris Bailey says, “on a neurological level, procrastination is not the slightest bit logical — it’s the result of the emotional part of your brain, your limbic system, strong-arming the reasonable, rational part of your brain, your prefrontal cortex. The logical part of your brain surrenders the moment you choose Facebook over work, or decide to binge another episode of House of Cards when you get home.” Liz Fosslien also illustrates this beautifully.
There are a few examples that then turn out to be much more true based on research. Procrastination is complex and its likelihood is influenced by components like task characteristics, personality, emotions, and environment. Here’s what that could sound like in your everyday life:
- I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing and to what extent
- There are so many distractions around me
- I associate little to no joy with this thing I have to do
- I want to do it, but I’m afraid I won’t do it well enough
- I’m already overwhelmed and can’t add anything else to my plate
- The reward for completing this is too far away, so why do it now?
- I’d rather remove stress and feel better now than experience the discomfort of the task
How to Overcome Procrastination
Based on this, here are Bailey’s 5 research-based strategies to overcome procrastination and a few of my examples:
Reverse the procrastination triggers: Make the task more approachable by getting clearer on what it is you really need to do or make it more attractive by making a game out of it. When I don’t want to clean my apartment, I do something I call “flash cleaning.” This means I set a five-minute timer and clean as fast as I can from room to room until the timer buzzes. It’s more fun and I get the cleaning started.
Work within your resistance level: When I have to read an entire book for an upcoming interview and I’ve pushed it off, the task becomes bigger and more dreadful. The idea of sitting down to read 200+ pages feels impossible- I notice massive resistance to it. So instead, of doing nothing, I’ll buy the audiobook and challenge myself to go for an hour walk while listening. The task then focuses on walking first, which I’m less resistant to, and I can engage with the book’s content fully.
Do something — anything — to get started: this one is straightforward. Ask yourself, “what’s one thing I can do to make the smallest progress on this task?”
List the costs of procrastination: When I procrastinate, I am often forgoing long-term peace for short-term pleasure. So I’m not thinking about what could be at risk later on. Writing down the consequences so you can see what your procrastination will likely cost you is a sobering and clarifying experiment.
Disconnect: Our phones and media devices are designed to keep us engaged. The longer you’re on the app or playing the game, the higher the likelihood you will buy, engage, or even become addicted.
And while not all time on social media or playing games is detrimental, check your screen time at the end of the week. What would you do if you got that time back? If the answer is different than how you spent the time, then try removing devices and notifications when you want to get something done.
I prioritize sleep because I don’t function at all without it. So I have kept my phone out of my room at bedtime for years. It’s a boundary I draw that says, I am unwilling to compromise on this important thing. And though I’m not sure sleeping often falls into procrastination, it is certainly something worth guarding. So what’s worth guarding to you?
Don’t forget this key skill…
In addition to Chris Bailey’s recommendations, I think we’d be at a loss without a final strategy for overcoming procrastination, and that’s self-compassion. We experiencers of perpetual procrastination can be so hard on ourselves. And it simply doesn’t help to use continuous punishment as a way to improve.
Instead, self-compassion sounds like this:
Hmmm, I notice I’m procrastinating on that project again. Maybe there’s more to it than me simply being lazy, irresponsible, or bad at time management. If I’m realistic about everyone I work with, I bet at least one of them- if not most- is procrastinating on something right now too. So it’s not just me. What if it’s not that I am a procrastinator but that I am currently procrastinating? Let me spend a little time figuring out what might be causing it.
Emotional regulation and mood are significant parts of the procrastination equation. I can remember before I started studying human development, I’d have moments at work when something emotional would get in the way of my tasks at work.
It bothered me that I couldn’t just move on. And it seemed that compartmentalization was glorified by people around me. But that just didn’t work for me. So I decided that whenever I experienced something emotional in my way, I’d face it head-on by simply writing it down. Then, I’d ball the paper up and throw it away. That allowed me to get back to what I needed to do with a clearer head and a lighter heart.
So the next time you find yourself in a moment of procrastination, consider its complexity. Instead of making judgments about yourself or someone else, start with compassion. And remember this: when you’re procrastinating, tasks seem much worse than they actually are. Remember, I almost didn’t write this newsletter because my mind tells me to prioritize short-term pleasure versus the discomfort that writing can create. But the truth is, once I’m sitting at my desk, in the moment, writing puts me in a state of flow I wouldn’t trade for much else.