Is procrastination holding you back?

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How often do you find yourself putting off a task? You know there’s a specific job you need to get done, but instead you start work on something entirely different.

Procrastination is the voluntary delay of a task or action, even though we know we’ll be the worse off for that delay. It’s a problem that I think probably everybody has to deal with at one point or another (including myself!). But what is procrastination, why do we do it to ourselves, and what can we do to stop it?

Procrastination, at its heart, seems counterintuitive. We know that delaying something is going to make life more difficult, and yet we still do it.

It’s because fundamentally, is a quick fix mood repair. Not doing a specific task may make you feel better in the short term (‘Hooray, I’ve avoiding doing that horrible job!’), but when you stop to think about it, it’s actually quite self-destructive behaviour, because you pay a price later. Not only that, you might find that procrastination triggers a feeling of guilt, which explains why people who procrastinate will often pick up some other task and start doing that instead.

It’s their way of distracting themselves from feeling guilty about not getting on with the job. Say you’re supposed to start working on a big paper, but instead of sitting down and getting started, you decide to put the washing on, or to start organising your digital files.

You do something that needs doing, but is easier and therefore more pleasant. You don’t go and watch TV, or do something unproductive, because that wouldn’t alleviate your guilt at putting off the job – you’d just feel lazy: the guilt is alleviated by you picking up some other task… just not the one that you don’t feel like doing!

It’s important to understand that the guilty feeling being triggered by procrastination is just the tip of the iceberg: in the longterm it can lead to shame, and even depression in some cases. You might start to feel like someone who never gets anything down, increasing those negative feelings. So it’s definitely important to understand why you might do it, and what you can do to stop it.

Why we procrastinate?

So why do we do it to ourselves? Quite often, it’s because there’s one of two things going on.

Firstly, we almost always overestimate how awful the task is going to be.

You think the job is going to be so bad, so stressful, so unbelievably terrible, that you build it up to some huge thing in your mind, something that’s so unpleasant that you’re not going to do it right now.

Of course, the reality is it it’s never as bad as you imagine, but that’s what you’re feeling in the moment.

The other thing happening is that you are overestimating the good feeling you’re going to get from avoiding the task in the first place.

You’ve decided that something will be a terrible job and that you don’t want to do it right now, and decide that what’s going to make you feel better is to go and organise your sock drawer… but you still feel bad!

That’s the guilt I mentioned earlier. The thing you chose to do to make yourself feel better, instead of doing the thing you ought to do, isn’t doing what you thought. Instead, that guilty feeling is being exacerbated.

So how do you overcome procrastination? The short answer is to learn how to regulate your emotions, but there are several steps to doing this.

Here comes the science

It’s worth explaining a little here about what’s going on in your brain at a deeper level. There’s a part of your brain called the amygdala, that’s responsible for the ‘fight or flight’ response.

Imagine you’re a caveman. You’re walking along and hear a rustle in the bushes. Maybe it’s a bear, or a tiger. Your blood starts pumping, your muscles tighten up and almost immediately you’re ready to either sprint away as fast as possible, or wrestle this thing to the ground so you can try to kill it and eat it for dinner.

The amygdala is your fear motivation centre and triggers the release of hormones that hijack your brain and prepare you to fight or flee. Now the problem that we have is, because procrastination  is also centered in the amygdala, what actually happens when you’re sitting there looking at an undesirable task is that the amygdala gets in the way and, so even though you’re no way in a life-threatening situation, it’s triggering a similar biological response.

You don’t feel like having a fight (doing the task), and so you run away (organise your sock drawer).

Overcoming procrastination

So, the good news is that you don’t need to sit here in 2023 feeling like you’ve got to fight a bear every time you have to do your accounts: with a little bit of behaviour change it could be something that’s quite easy to overcome.

When you realise that you’re starting to procrastinate, the first thing to do is to take a moment to just sit back and breathe. Try to make yourself aware of the changes that might be happening in your body – tense muscles, shallow breathing – and address them.

Actively relax your muscles – sit down and close your eyes, and just breathe in and out slowly for a minute or two. By regulating your breathing and relaxing your body, it’ll start to calm you down and allow you to start regulating your emotion.

Next, try to observe what’s happening in an objective, non-judgmental way. Try to recognise and name the particular emotion you’re feeling, so you can start to change it. If you can tell yourself that you’ve probably overestimated how unpleasant a task is and that you know you don’t want to feel the guilt that will come with putting it off, you can remove the emotion from it altogether.

Do not identify with it whatever you do. A lot of people will say they’re terrible procrastinators and use it as an excuse to avoid things. Remind yourself of is that every procrastinates at one point or another but that it’s not a permanent personality trait. Procrastination is a state of mind, not a character flaw. It’s something temporary happening in your head, not a reflection of your personality, so you don’t need to create a whole narrative around it that you’re bad, lazy, etc etc. That will just feed your negative feelings.

The three-minute rule

Don’t avoid the task. It’ll need to be done eventually, so you may as well get on with it. Try the three-minute rule, where you tell yourself you can stop after three minutes. The reality is that at the end of those three minutes you’ll probably find you just carry on.

Sometimes simply starting the task is enough to get you going.

But what you need to do once you’ve finished the task is to reflect on what it was that caused you to procrastinate in the first place. Try to understand what was it that caused you to feel the way you did. Was it that you wanted to avoid? Was it really as bad as you thought? If you take the time to reflect now, it means that you’re less likely to repeat your behaviour in the future!