Avoidance motivation: the new-school method of reducing procrastination

Whether it’s rooted in a fear of failure, anxiety, perfectionism, or a mix of all of them, procrastination can cripple your will to get things done on schedule--here's what you can do about it.

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Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash
Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

You’ve felt it a thousand times. That unwanted companion following you wherever you go, like a shadow, without leaving you one second to gather your thoughts and get to work. 

I’m talking, of course, about procrastination.

Whether it’s rooted in a fear of failure, anxiety, perfectionism, or a mix of all of them, procrastination can cripple your will to get things done on schedule.

Lacking any motivation or self-discipline, chronic procrastinators tend to walk that thin line between mediocrity and unemployment. They also often suffer regular bouts of illness, stress, and poor performance. The good news, though, is that procrastination is a habit you can overcome.

In a study published in Applied Psychology, researchers found that something called “avoidance motivation” was an effective antidote to procrastination. The study reasoned that since chronic delaying often carries unwanted consequences, avoidance motivation can help us focus on a task by highlighting the dangers of putting it off for later.

The conclusion is particularly interesting because both procrastination and avoidance are based on the same emotion: fear. However, while procrastination is obsessed with a subjective notion of failure, avoidance motivation looks at the bigger picture — like the fact that losing a client or not meeting a deadline can get you fired.

Procrastination at work — the ultimate productivity drain

In the workplace, managers can use avoidance motivation strategies, like setting tight deadlines, to put pressure on their employees and keep their minds from wandering. This isn’t a new idea, of course, as people have discussed the benefits of working under pressure for years.

Christoph Niemann, children’s book author and illustrator, gave a good example of this view during a radio interview: “In advertising, and also editorial, when people have two days, the briefing is much better, and the discussion is much better. It’s not that people just sign off on anything because they’re in a hurry. They’re just really looking at what they have, and trying to make the best product, and get it done.”

For those who work independently or have their own business, the freedom of working without a boss is both a blessing and a curse. While an office’s high-pressure environment can keep even the worst procrastinators in line, freelancers and entrepreneurs often have a harder time staying busy on their own.

One way self-employed individuals can cope with procrastination is by focusing on something exciting about the task they’re avoiding. This could be anything from writing a specific number of words on a page to completing a task before their favorite TV show starts.

The point of the strategy is to kick failure and perfectionist ideas out of your head while also redirecting your energy into solving something more urgent and concrete. This is the basis of the approach motivation, which is a complementary system that pushes you to take actions and fulfill your goals, rather than avoiding the issue.

From Leonardo Da Vinci to Steve Jobs, history is filled with examples of people who overcame procrastination to reach their full potential. So the next time you’re about to put off work, remember that greater minds than yours also had their doubts once in a while. Then get back to work and create your own masterpiece!

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