“I never put off till tomorrow what I can possibly do the day after.” ― Oscar Wilde
Deadlines might not be the most dangerous things in the world, but it sure can scare the pants off you when you avoid getting things done. And your mind’s natural hard-wired response is to avoid any threat or source of fear.
Oh, It Hurts So Good
It’s ironic, isn’t it? You have ambition and drive, yet you find yourself stalling or postponing action on the project due tomorrow morning. Instead of planting yourself in front of the screen, you watch yourself organize your desk, re-arrange furniture or engage in unnecessary cleaning. You call yourself lazy because you can’t get motivated despite the looming deadline. But you’re not a couch potato because you’re being productive. In the back of your mind, you know you’re not focused on your priorities, but you stall anyway. “What’s going on with me?” you ask. You realize you’re procrastinating, and you’re getting antsy, catapulted into a swirl of adrenaline and cortisol stew. “Why can’t I pull it together?” you grumble. A deadline passes, commitments pile up and your self-talk beats you into smithereens. You start to attack yourself, call yourself more ugly names and feel lousy. Now, you must reckon with a second layer of pressure that adds insult to injury.
Fear Of Judgment And Failure
From a bird’s eye view, procrastination is a self-defeating behavior pattern, but as strange as it sounds, it serves a psychological purpose. Studies show that it’s a form of short-term mood repair. At its core, procrastination is an emotional response to a distressing issue, protecting you against fear of failure, judgment by others and self-condemnation. You’re doing something against your better judgment, but you do it anyway because of the relief it provides. It’s not rational or logical, because it takes effort and energy to procrastinate, but your efforts are going in the wrong direction.
Procrastination is an unconscious way your mind tries to take away the anxiety of “Can I do it perfectly?” or “Will my boss like the outcome?” or “What will my team think?” Many say, “If I don’t try, I can’t fail,” so postponing seems to bring relief in the short term while undermining your career in the long run. If you avoid the looming project, you temporarily avoid the judgment and self-doubt. It’s much more fun to go watch “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” than to sit in front of a blank screen with you heart beating a mile a minute. It’s a paradox because the avoidance of pressure actually amplifies the pressure. The closer you get to the deadline, the more distressed and paralyzed you feel, and in the long run stalling erodes your productivity, peace of mind, and causes chronic stress.
What Can You Do?
1. Break Things Down. Taking small measurable steps that are easy and doable reduces procrastination and motivates you. In a way, you trick your emotional brain. The adage, “one step at a time” can prevent you from feeling overwhelmed. Studies show that if you take that first small step, you realize the task isn’t as challenging or difficult as your emotional brain told you during the time you were avoiding it. This change in perception allows you to break through postponement and move to completing your task. One reason I recommend just five minutes of meditation a day is because many people are overwhelmed by the thought of 20 or 30 minutes, think they can’t do it and never start. But somewhere between sunrise and sunset anybody can meditate for five minutes. Once you commit to five minutes, you often keep going and meditate for longer periods of time. You can use this tool with any task. Taking the first step to a task can be the hardest yet most rewarding. Once you complete the first part (perhaps just sitting down and opening your computer), it can get you going.
2. Amp Up Self–Compassion. There is a direct link between self-compassion and success. Coming down hard on yourself when you procrastinate reduces your chance of rebounding. Instead of kicking yourself when you procrastinate, being kinder helps you bounce back quicker. Studies show that forgiving yourself for previous delays neutralizes procrastination, as does self-compassion, which provides shock-absorbents against self-recrimination, reduces distress and boosts motivation. When you talk yourself off the ledge, give yourself a pep talk, an atta-girl or atta-boy or a positive affirmation, you cultivate the confidence and courage to overcome stalling and the ability to face career challenges and obstacles.
3. Curb Your Perfectionism. Mother Nature hard-wired you to overestimate threats. If you hear an inner voice say that the outcome must be perfect, chances are you’re exaggerating the difficulty of the task or how severely it will be evaluated. Unchecked perfection’s iron fisted grip can cause you to set unrealistic goals, try too hard and then avoid the impossible target you set for yourself. When expectations are out of reach, you start to see failure even in your triumphs. You’re less likely to procrastinate if you see your goals as doable and reachable. Try giving yourself permission to do an imperfect first draft—what is known in the literary world as “the shitty first draft.” Writers often use this tool to trick the emotional brain that says the quality won’t be perfect enough. When you agree, it reduces the resistance to completing the task. When you give yourself permission to make a mistake or do poorly, your first draft is often much better than you thought it would be. Even if it isn’t, you have a preamble of ideas that can unblock your motivation and get you moving.
4. Chill Your “Musturbation.” If you’re like most people, you have a relentless faultfinder that lives in your brain, ruling your mind and career, bludgeoning you with oppressive words such as must, should, ought and have to: “I must win that contract;” “I have to get that promotion;” “This project should be perfect.” When you are aware of this relentless voice (the psychologist Albert Ellis dubbed it “musturbation”), choose more supportive, comforting words such as “I can;” “I get to;” “I want to;” or “I choose to.” When you hear a voice within say, “You must or should do or be something,” then by all means talk to it with compassion and remind it that you will be the one to choose. That voice will be silenced, and you will get out of the way of your own procrastination.
5. Avoid Labeling Yourself A Procrastinator. When you call yourself a procrastinator, you identify with the very habit that you want to untangle from. You give your tacit approval to the label and accept it as you. This gives you unspoken permission to act as a person worthy of the label, and you repeat the habit of putting off tasks. Think of your procrastinator as a part of you, not as you. Stepping back and observing this part of you with an impartial eye lessens the self-judgment and keeps you from clobbering yourself. Learning to think of it as an aspect of you, not as you lets you separate from the booming, eviscerating voice that tells you to avoid the threat. Refer to your procrastination in the third person and befriend it by talking to it so it doesn’t dominate your decision-making. Studies show that this strategy helps you to untangle and to feel separate from the procrastination, for the part to relax and for you to take charge of the task. When you practice this approach, you notice a heightened ability to scale the obstacles that procrastination puts in your way.
6. Reward Yourself. Your brain is hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. If you’re like most people, your brain loves a reward. After you complete a small portion of the task—not before you complete it—give yourself a payoff. Instead of watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel before completing an aspect of the task, plan to view it after finishing a designated part of the task. This approach raises your motivation to get something done so you can enjoy one of your favorite activities, in this case a television show.
7. Set Priorities. Simply choosing one item from your to-do list that you can accomplish quickly then completing it can give you a jump start and lift the burden of procrastination. You can face your commitments head-on and early instead of waiting until the last minute. If you have several items on your list, you can distinguish between essentials and non-essentials and work through the tasks that need immediate completion one at a time.
8. Consider The Long–Term Benefits. When you procrastinate, you focus on the immediate relief instead of the gains of completing the future product. Flip your focus around and concentrate more on the gains of the final outcome and less on the short-term relief in the present. When a project seems like an uphill struggle, think of the view from the top, reminding yourself of how good you will feel after you complete the project that you’ve avoided. If you exercise regularly, you probably know the dread of getting to the gym. But when you remind yourself of how good you feel after a work out, it jump starts your motivation and helps you get there. In the end, considering the long-term benefits moves you closer and quicker to the finish line. In the words of the writer Denis Waitley, “Winners take time to relish their work, knowing that scaling the mountain is what makes the view from the top exhilarating.”