The Common Misconception About Procrastination

Do any of these sound familiar to you:

  • Read an email over and over without making a decision on what to do with it
  • Move an item on your To-Do list for the next day again and again even though it is of high priority
  • Wait to be in the “right mood,” or wait for the “right time” to start a task
  • End up doing important tasks in the last possible minute, stressing over the outcome

Congratulations, you are procrastinating. But you probably already knew this. 

Procrastination is an active process, a choice. You make a conscious decision to do something else instead of the unpleasant task that you know you should be doing. Even though you know it is probably a bad idea.

But you still put the task off for when you feel “in the mood”. You wait for the “right time”. You wait to feel “ready”. You wait to feel more confident in your own abilities. You wait until you feel comfortable about doing the task. 

And you end up doing the task being as uncomfortable as you were in the first place, about it, but also pressed by time, anxiety and by your own guilt. 

 “The voluntary, unnecessary delay of an important task, despite knowing you’ll be worse off for doing so.”

Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield

Procrastination is completely irrational. Putting off an important task for the last minute often leads to anxiety, stress and doing less than an optimal job on it. Then feeling bad afterwards.

What most people do in order to battle procrastination is they download the latest productivity app. They condemn their laziness and vow to learn to manage their time better.

And they lose the battle.

Procrastination has little to do with laziness or time management skills. Procrastination is about managing your emotions.

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What procrastination really is?

Which tasks cause you to procrastinate? The tasks that induce anxiety, insecurity, self-doubt, boredom, fear of failure etc. If a task is overwhelming, unpleasant or just boring, it’s easiest to avoid it.

Procrastination is an emotion avoidance strategy. You avoid the unpleasant emotions associated with executing the task by postponing it in time and replacing it with less important, less stressful tasks.

What makes things worse is procrastination creates feelings of immediate gratification. How do you manage the uncomfortable feelings of doing that task? You put it off for the next day, and you feel better already.

The task and the unpleasant feelings will still be there tomorrow. But they are a problem for the future you now. Today you’re off the hook.

And the next day the anxiety and stress are worse than the day before. They are accompanied by the guilt you imminently feel for not doing the task earlier. And you are even more likely to procrastinate again.

That momentary relief you feel when avoiding the task is your reward for procrastinating. And when you are awarded for something you tend to do it again. And again.

Completing the task might be beneficial for your future health, career or relationships. And you know this. But the human brain is hard-wired to value immediate rewards more highly than future rewards. That is why it is easier to prioritize short-term relief ahead of long term goals.

How to fight procrastination

  • Recognize that you are procrastinating

First you must catch yourself in the act. Admit to yourself that you are procrastinating. Notice which tasks you are putting off and how that makes you feel.

  • Stop overthinking

When you overthink a task, you can build it up into something that’s much more than what it actually is. This increases the negative emotions you feel towards the task and makes it more likely to put it off.

  • Identify the feelings causing you to procrastinate

Is it self-doubt? Lack of confidence? Fear of failure? Or just boredom? Don’t be afraid to dig deeper and look for underlying causes of those feelings. Often you find that the feeling has no merit. 

  • Reframe the task by focusing on the positive aspect of it

You are not exercising, you are improving your health and appearance. Doing the chores around the house becomes creating a pleasant and cozy environment for you and your loved ones. Tackling the work project is growing your experience and expertise.  

  • Find a better reward than avoidance

Make the things you want to do the reward for the things you have to do. You want to watch your favorite show? Ok, only after you finish that chapter. You want to listen to that podcast? Do it only while exercising.

  • Start small

Often the problem is not doing the work, it is starting the work. And once you make yourself start the motivation and momentum build up. So pick a small aspect of the task that you are comfortable with and do just that. Start and see how it goes from there.

Procrastination is a habit. One that has most likely been built up for years. You will not break it overnight. Celebrate every time you fight procrastination and win. Even the smallest task you tackle instead of putting it off is progress towards breaking the habit of procrastination.

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