HELP! I Procrastinate!
You haven’t gotten out of bed yet but you’re already filling up with dread— you have a paper to write and know you should start today. You tell yourself you’ll start after breakfast. You get yourself downstairs and proceed to make a buffet-styled smorgasbord and even offer to make enough for your roommates. Evening time comes around and you’ve managed to do the laundry, clean the entire house, and start learning Italian (something you have always wanted to do). Even though you traded in what should have gotten done (your paper) with other productive tasks, you feel like absolute crap and even your cat can see right through your self- deception.
Procrastination. The bane of many people’s existence. We all struggle with procrastination and no one is entirely immune to this phenomenon. But when it becomes a chronic, ongoing issue that negatively affects our lives and weasels its way into our bad habit list, we could all really benefit from understanding why we procrastinate and how we can stop it in its tracks.
“People don’t procrastinate on everything. We do on somethings and most of the time it’s done against other things and the thing we procrastinated against last week we are doing with earnest this week because we are avoiding something else.”- Tim Pychyl
Why do I Procrastinate?
There are many different drivers of procrastination such as our automatic thoughts, underlying mental health disorders, habits, low self confidence, anxiety, and lack of structure and motivation. At its core we are using it as a coping mechanism. We are using it to escape or avoid unpleasant emotions, many of them being unconscious in nature. We avoid certain tasks or goals because we don’t believe they will be enjoyable, we fear failure, we feel like we won’t do them well enough, or we are plagued by uncertainty, and their complexity. We then in turn want immediate mood repair. We want to feel better now. We want to give in to feel good. So we swear to ourselves that it will get done tomorrow and plop ourselves right down in front of the TV. We are momentarily comforted by the thought of not having entirely abandoned our intentions because by golly it will get done tomorrow. This feeling of relief has a very short shelf life because it very quickly turns into a shame and guilt cycle. Our stress increases and we are left feeling worse off than we began. We are even more inclined to further procrastinate. We all know that we are way better off not procrastinating (sorry future self), so why do we still do it and how can we change our behaviour?
Strategies to Overcoming Procrastination
Right off the bat I am going to suggest an amazing podcast called iprocrastinate led by Dr Timothy Pychyl, an expert researcher on procrastination. He also wrote an excellent book called Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change. Another great book reference is End Procrastination Now!; Get it Done with a Proven Psychological Approach by William Knaus.
Commitment, Agency and Value
Dr Pychyl emphasises that commitment and agency are at the forefront of better understanding why and whether or not we should commit to a task or goal. Let’s first start with one of his analogies that can be used as an excellent tool when you find yourself putting something off. Think of a horizontal ladder with your goal or task in the middle. To the right, you will ask yourself HOW will I get this done— with each rung you devise yourself a detailed but manageable plan of action. To the left, you ask yourself WHY am I doing or needing to do this? The why part is all about your value system which will be influenced by commitment and agency. Is your goal to become healthier? Do you feel like this is just something you SHOULD do or is it coming from your deep inner being of “I really want to start exercising and eating well so I can feel good, kick ass at life and spend time with the ones I love?” If it’s the latter, it is coming from your sense of self and not out of obligation. It is you who wants this! Knowing why you are doing something brings meaning and joy to not only the completion of the goal but to the process itself. When you work from this, procrastination will become less of an issue.
If you find yourself saying, wait a gosh darn minute, I don’t know why I am doing this! Then this realisation may be a symptom for change and re-evaluation. But there will be other times where you just can’t get out of your existential reality, so as Pychyl puts it “when we can’t get out of it, we better find a way to get into it”. Commitment sometimes comes from the place of “this is just my reality”. You may not love writing papers but you wholeheartedly want to become a lawyer. Or you find training handstands arduous but dream of getting your one arm handstand hold. Well, you better get into loving spending 4-6 hours a day training those handstands.
Remember this is your life, we can choose to love the crap outta it, even in our daily monotonous pursuits. Love the process.
Just Get Started
Our motivational and emotional state do not need to match the task at hand. Infact, social psychologists have come to observe our motivation and mood usually follow our behaviour. When we are facing a difficult, overwhelming, or lacking in personal meaning task, waiting for motivation to hit us right in the face or waiting until we “feel like” taking action may not happen until the year 2075. We intrinsically want to be doing enjoyable things all of the time, but this just isn’t reality. If we just get started, our emotional state will change for the better and with each bit of progress our motivation will also increase.
Remember action before emotion.
This may seem simplistic but when you give it a try, I think you will be pleasantly surprised by it’s effectiveness. Progress is the other route to feeling better— the lasting and authentic route.
Let's go through a couple examples:
1) You are still dreading starting that paper. If we break things up into more incremental steps and just start, you will be 3 pages in before you know it. So first, just get yourself to open up your laptop, then open up a document and title your paper. So far so good! Okay, now just tell yourself to begin the research phase. Start reading and gathering research articles and see where you end up. I bet your mood has changed and your motivation has too.
2) You were supposed to go for a run at noon and it’s now 4pm. Again, we are going to break up this task into steps and just start. So start by only thinking about getting your running gear on. Then put on your runners. Then tell yourself, I’ll start with a walk then a 10 minute run. If you feel like that’s enough, then give yourself permission to go back home. By the 10 minute mark you can decide to go for another 30 mins or not. But I have a feeling that once you get going, 9/10 times you will finish the 40 minute run and feel really great about it.
Just making the simple and not so overwhelming initial action of opening your laptop and titling a document, or putting on your running shoes fuels your motivation and will keep you in motion. Whoa, I think I might have just touched on Newton's First Law of Motion— so many highschool flashbacks happening right now.
One of the biggest questions we need to ask ourselves is, what are we getting out of procrastination? I hope you all are thinking “absolutely nothing plus some suffering.”
We all know we feel really crappy when we procrastinate but one of the reasons why we default back into this pattern is that we lack awareness into how we are feeling and how our emotional state influences our behaviours. Trumping this bad habit requires awareness of our emotions and the courage to dig deep and ponder how procrastination is REALLY serving us. Hopefully you will end up moving from a place of knowledge, “I know I shouldn’t procrastinate”, to a place of internal wisdom “procrastination makes me feel more depressed, anxious and stressed.”
You will then become disenchanted with the mere idea of procrastinating.
And when you are successful in not giving in to the procrastination, hold on to how good that made you feel for dear life. Studies show that we remember the ending of a task or experience, so taking the time to relish in it will help imprint this “good feeling” memory. When you finish making progress on that paper, remember how good you felt not procrastinating. When you finish your workout, remember the feeling of accomplishment and that boost of endorphins when you are cooling down. With greater awareness we can also learn to recognise that we can have negative emotions without having to give into them.
When you encounter the red flags of your procrastination cycle (fleeting thoughts of doing it tomorrow), remember how procrastination ACTUALLY makes you feel. An amazing thing happens when we become observers of ourselves and we start to pay attention to the perceived rewards of our behaviour.
A great way to strengthen our awareness of self is to engage in mindfulness exercises and mindfulness meditations. Google these and perhaps schedule the exercises and meditations into your weekly planner and see how this makes you feel!
Planning and Our Environment
To end this blog, let’s chat a bit about setting goals, making plans and manipulating our environment to our advantage.
When procrastinating something, the issue may lie in an unstructured plan that lacks clear, concrete and actionable steps. If you want to lose weight and be healthier but you are still in the fantasizing or contemplation phase, it might really help to make a specific plan which will increase your likelihood of success.
● When is your start date: Now
● Specific goal time- 6 months from now I will reach my goal
● Specific plan for achieving this goal- eat more healthfully and exercise
Then list what needs to be done and schedule it into your planner being as specific as possible. It will be really easy to procrastinate if all you have done is entertained the idea of “working out more and eating better.”
- Learn about optimal diet and lifestyle behaviours
- Tell my family and friends what my plans are and ask for support
- Buy a planner tomorrow
- Shop for food every Saturday morning after Yoga
- Batch cook every Sunday morning
- Do a big pantry clean out - Feb 20th
- Run Tuesdays and Thursdays right after work, Yoga Saturday mornings, strength training Monday and Wednesday right after work
Now your dream of becoming healthier is not just a dream- you have a plan Stan!
Okay, so now let's look more into our environment. How can we optimize our success and make it easier for ourselves to make the right choices?
1) Reducing distractions- when you are well on your way to starting your paper you don’t want distractions to undermine your efforts of just getting started! So shut off your email, close all those open tabs and place your phone on silent. Set a timer for 1 hour of uninterrupted work time. You can even let your roomies know that you are working on your paper and hopefully they will think twice when asking you to watch another episode of FireFly Lane with them.
2) Leverage your preferences- Are you into a binge- worthy netflix show or listening to a great audio book at the moment? Only allow yourself to watch or listen to these when you are running on the treadmill or on your stationary bike. You will never miss a workout again! What can you do to leverage studying for your upcoming exam? If you work better with company, ask your roommate if they want to study with you for 2-3 hours everyday until your exam and reward yourselves with something at the end of each study session.
A Small Note on Paralyzing Procrastination
Contradictory to scheduled procrastination described in my first paragraph where we find ourselves becoming very productive in the name of avoidance— doing anything that isn’t what we are really procrastinating. On the other hand, we may find ourselves unable to get anything done. Our anxiety around getting our priority task done can be so overwhelming that it becomes impossible to get ANYTHING done. We find ourselves caught in a rumination limbo state where we want to be prepared to take action in case a motivation miracle strikes us, so we prevent ourselves from becoming knee deep in anything else. We have a hard time admitting that we might just want to abandon the task completely so we hold onto the idea of “I can stop procrastinating at any point.” Sound familiar?
So what do we do if this happens? We practice self awareness and make a decision. For better or worse, because at this point, we are not making any conscious decision at all. So we make a choice to either abandon the task and move on to other things or we start the task. To abandon or not to abandon— but at least you are making a conscious rational choice and at this point either decision frees you from the reigns of limbo turmoil.
Freeing ourselves from the dreaded procrastination habit is not a linear process. There may be a whole lot at play here that needs to be addressed. So don’t hesitate to reach out if you are struggling. As with anything, unlearning our default behaviours takes a lot of practice and self reflection. Don’t expect to be perfect and when you do catch yourself procrastinating be kind to yourself. Actually, research shows that the more compassionate you are towards yourself when you slip up, the less likely you will be to procrastinate in the future. I really need to do a self compassion blog, don’t I? Alright friends, hope you enjoyed the read- You got this!
Pychyl, T. (Host). (2012, Dec 5). Key Strategies to Procrastinating Less. [Audio podcast episode]. In iProcrastinate Podcast. Procrastination Research Group. http://iprocrastinate.libsyn.com/rss.
Pychyl, T. (Host). (2010, March 10). Paralyzed by Procrastination. [Audio podcast episode]. In iProcrastinate Podcast. Procrastination Research Group. http://iprocrastinate.libsyn.com/rss.
Popper P. “From Inertia to Action”. Wellness Forum Health. October 2017.