How to Kick Procrastination in the A*$
Procrastination is something that is universal; we are all guilty of doing it sometimes. It is part of our nature.
How to Stop Procrastinating
Most of us procrastinate. We feel guilty about it and criticize ourselves for it. And yet we still do it. Why? Because…
The above article lays out 3 primary reasons for our habit of procrastinating:
1. A lack of self-discipline (or reasonable systems and habits).
2. Intolerance for particular emotions.
3. Flawed thinking patterns.
I think the article is correct in that these are the primary drivers behind procrastination. But I also feel that it may be worth expanding on a couple of them, and considering adding one more potential reason we procrastinate. I also think that it is worth exploring a couple more approaches to minimizing the amount of procrastination in our lives.
Personally I don’t put a lot of stock in the thinking that procrastination is because of a lack of self-discipline. There is some truth to it of course, but I don’t believe it to one of the primary drivers. As a general rule, people want to be useful and productive. Contributing helps provide meaning, which is really what everyone is after. I don’t believe that we procrastinate because we are lazy. Of course, we need to take action. And we absolutely must have habits, systems, and processes in place that drive us forward towards our goals. But if we are procrastinating on something, chances are that there is something deeper going on.
The article talks about how negative emotions can cause us to put off working on something that we should work on. I believe this to be one of the leading causes of procrastination, based on what I have seen in working with others — and from personal experience with not doing what I need to be doing. I don’t feel that the article talked enough about the one negative emotion that really causes procrastination; fear.
Fear is at the heart of procrastination. Fear is the enemy of getting things done.
The world is enormously complex, many of the tasks that knowledge workers in the modern age have on their plate don’t have clear-cut paths forward. Things are uncertain. And that uncertainty rears its head once you begin.
Once starting, many people — myself included — experience self-doubt. You question whether or not you are up to the task. You worry about how others are going to judge your output. And your ego feels threatened, because you have a self-image of being competent, maybe even an expert in your domain.
This is obviously uncomfortable. No one likes to feel fear, to question their ability to do their job well.
So we put the task off. That means that we don’t have to face that fear, at least for now. Of course, this is not a conscious decision. We rarely understand why we are putting it off. But if you look back at the times that you have procrastinated on doing something, I will bet that you will find some level of fear if you are honest with yourself.
The article points out a couple of flaws to our patterns of thinking that also contribute to procrastination, and these feel bang-on from my experience. As I mentioned above, tasks are often complex and hard. And a normal response to friction is to shift to an easier task. When we accomplish a task, we get a rush of dopamine. It feels good to complete something; everyone loves to check items off of their seemingly endless to-do lists. By avoiding the hard tasks, we allow ourselves to feel good by getting something done that is easier. There is very low friction to doing some emails, to handling a couple of administrative tasks. That is why we end up putting so much of our precious time into those activities, rather than doing the hard, friction-filled work that really pushes things forward.
One cause of procrastination that I felt was missing from the article was a lack of clarity. When we need to produce some output, it is often overwhelming. Where do I start? How can I best tackle this? As we stare at the task and ponder what to do to move forward on it, the lack of clarity about what to do paralyzes us. And this leads back to fear; maybe I can’t do this thing!
So we task-switch to something that is simple, something that we know exactly how to do. Bang! Dopamine hit from completing something, and we now feel better again.
Except, the task that we just put off still waits for us. And now it weighs on us. It festers in the back of our mind and causes us stress.
I used to think that I needed to “wait for inspiration” on a complex task that I was unsure how to tackle. That once I was “in the right mood”, I could knock it out. That thinking is completely backwards.
You can’t wait for the right moment to begin; it will never arrive.
You need to break the work down into small chunks and get started. Getting started is the hardest part. So just commit to making progress on it, on starting, on working on it for 30 minutes. After spending some time breaking the work down into smaller, more manageable chunks, you will have eased some of your uncertainty and stress. By moving forward on the task, you create momentum. And Newton’s first law of motion clarifies that an object that is in motion stays in motion, unless acted upon by another force. Once you are making progress, you will probably continue to move forward.
A great way to do this is to time-block. This is a popular time management strategy where at the beginning of your day, you record in your calendar what tasks you will work on when, and for how long. This helps bring some realism to your day; you will quickly find out whether you are “biting off more than you can chew” for the day. It also helps you avoid spending time on the wrong things; you decided on your priorities and when you would work on them, so you don’t need to worry; you just execute.
Block yourself some short periods of time to make progress on your most important tasks. And then respect those appointments with yourself. When it is time to do that work, turn off your notifications. Close your email program. And move forward.
That is the way to beat procrastination. A bit of progress each day.
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