From avoiding writing that big, scary email to your boss, to doing the dishes, to avoiding difficult tasks at work, putting things off is something we all do to one extent or another.
In fact, I have to confess that I’m writing this post several days after I promised myself I would, having avoided it for a few days by doing things like walking the 45 mins each way to the store, making homemade Gyoza for lunch and watching the entirety of Dumplin’ on Netflix whilst “working”… When I let myself, can procrastinate with the best of them!
While the worst thing that will happen if you don’t wash the dishes for a couple of days is an invasion of ants or a pissed-off housemate, falling into a pattern of regular procrastination can be a real drag and have serious real-world consequences.
There’s a range of theories as to why we procrastinate, from poor toilet training as infants (Freud, who else?!) to the belief you’re not good enough and subconsciously causing yourself to fulfil that belief. The one thing all the theories have in common is that they recognise how harshly we judge ourselves for procrastinating.
In a typical scenario, you delay a task and end up doing a rush-job right at the last minute. Then you end up feeling like you ‘should have done better’ and start to beat yourself up. Once your inner shit-talker is finished with you, you’ve made yourself feel thoroughly terrible.
Is it any wonder that you’re not in the mood to start the next thing you’re avoiding?!
If you want to understand why you procrastinate and how to stop, here are 5 things you need to know about procrastination;
It may seem a little hyperbolic, but I can’t say it enough- regular procrastination is harmful. Not only does it make us feel bad, but it also creates problems in our lives, beyond the emotional. Whether that’s money lost because our tax returns were a rush-job (or late!), to lower grades at school or poor performance at work. Putting things off can have a relationship cost too – how many times have you thought about connecting with that friend, but let it slide until it’s gone on so long, you’re not really sure how to reconnect? Or put off having a difficult conversation?
For real. This may seem like the complete opposite of my first point, but let me explain… Procrastination is a habit that is all too easy to fall into precisely because it rewards your brain right there and then. The reason it feels like a reward is that it helps us avoid uncomfortable emotions (“taxes are HARD”, “I’m going to look stupid when I do that presentation”, “having that conversation is going to be super awkward”).
Putting the task off creates a momentary sense of relief as you’re pushing the difficult thing into the future. Our inner monkey brain is hard-wired to prioritize short-term gain over long term goals and because our brains aren’t great at the concept of the future, your brain literally acts as if it’s someone else’s problem in the future. Gee, thanks evolution, that’s really helpful (sarcasm).
I don’t want to get too sassy about it, but procrastinating doesn’t make you special. While it’s tempting to think that everyone else has their shit together, all the time, we all have human brains and they all fall into the procrastination trap sometimes. It’s just how we’re wired.
And when we think we’re alone, or different or uniquely f*cked up, it’s really easy to fall into the pattern of beating yourself up, which is counter-productive.
You may be familiar with a negative feedback loop that goes something like this;
– You procrastinate.
– You notice what’s happening and tell yourself that makes you lazy/useless/bad/bound to fail (pick your own adjective here, there are tons that will make you feel super-awful!)
– Your brain pays attention to what you’re telling yourself and your emotions begin to follow suit.
– You begin to believe you’re not good enough,
– The next challenging task comes along and you don’t believe you can do it, so you avoid feeling uncomfortable.
AND ON AND ON AND ON down the doom-spiral we go…
So, if you find yourself procrastinating, take a deep breath and remind yourself that it’s happening because you’re human, and just like everyone else your brain doesn’t like new or uncomfortable things.
THEN, use the following two techniques to help get back into action.
Two of the biggest reasons we procrastinate are;
1) Our brains like the familiarity of things we’ve done before and tend to flag new things as ‘potentially not safe’
2) Ambiguity makes us feel anxious- if a task is or simple problem isn’t easily solved, or the answer isn’t immediately apparent, our brains hate it and again, blow the risks associated with the task waaay out of proportion!
While both of those things were super-useful back in the day to help prevent us being eaten by lions, in the modern world, in the context of day to day tasks, they’re more of a hindrance than a help.
The only antidote to those feelings is to just get started and to force yourself to start working before the mood strikes you (HINT: you’ll be waiting forever). Motivation can be created simply by doing as it helps engage your brain in the actual task at hand, not the ‘what- ifs’.
I know getting started is the whole problem, so the best way to make it easier is to break it down into what I like to call the single smallest step. When you look at a whole task, it can be really daunting, so simply concentrate on the very first thing you have to do to get the task started. Even something as simple as turning your computer on and opening Google is enough! Once you’ve completed that step, think about the next one. Don’t try to think too far ahead, just complete the task in hand, then look at what comes next.
If you’re struggling to break it down, pretend you’re giving the task to a small child or an alien and you were having to create a fool-proof idiots guide. What would the first task be?
The other way to give yourself a boost is to understand that success begets success. So if you have a bunch of tasks to do in a day, you’re much better picking off a few of the quicker, easier tasks first thing in the morning. Callin the bank or sending that quick email will help get the ball rolling and keep your forward momentum going for the rest of the day.
While the satisfaction of completing a task is nice and all, sometimes you just need to amp it up a bit. Here are 3 ways to take the sting out of getting things done;
1) Be nice to yourself. Talk to yourself nicely. Acknowledge when you’ve achieved things (even if it is just putting the trash out!). Celebrate when you’ve done something difficult. I’m serious about the celebrating part. Celebrating is a seriously underrated way to boost your mood and motivation. If you’re saving it for the once or twice a year something extraordinary happens, you’re missing out.
2) Add treats to the equation. Is there a way you can bundle the things you don’t want to do with the things that you do? Can you only listen to your favourite podcast while at the gym? Go to your fave cafe and sip on whatever takes your fancy while you tackle that presentation? Tidy the living room while watching the latest GoT episode? Whatever it is, combining tasks can help to ease you into them. As an added bonus, if you combine something you like doing with the feel-good factor of completing a task, you’re beginning to wire your brain to believe that completing that dreaded task is a good thing, making it easier in the future. Boom, take that monkey-brain!
3) Imagine the effects if you don’t get it done. Take a minute to think about what the impact of procrastinating will be. All of a sudden, your focus might switch from avoiding negative emotions into the reward of getting it done.