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Do you have a problem with procrastination?

We all procrastinate at times. Procrastination is a frustrating and self-defeating behaviour, but why do we do it? You may have come to believe that procrastination is a sign of personal weakness, laziness, time management issues or a motivation problem. However, the root of procrastination appears to be something else entirely. Psychologist and procrastination researcher, Dr Timothy Pychyl says that you procrastinate in response to uncomfortable emotions, such as worry, anxiety, self-doubt, shame or fear. He says procrastination is a way to avoid those feelings and is therefore regarded as a “mood repairer” and a coping mechanism.

On her Potential Psychology Podcast episode about procrastination, psychologist Ellen Jackson says, “We know that procrastination is not necessarily about not managing our time well, but about not managing or regulating our behaviour well. We know we’re not avoiding a task; were avoiding a feeling.” When you understand that procrastination is a coping strategy rather than a personal weakness, it changes everything. You can approach procrastination with greater self-awareness, become a better problem-solver, and most importantly, develop more self-compassion.

I know this shift in mindset has had a huge impact on my life. When I was writing my book, I noticed I didn’t have much trouble writing the first draft. Once the first draft was done, however, I hit a brick wall of resistance. At first I thought I was tired, or maybe unmotivated or being lazy. But that didn’t feel right to me either. On the whole I was very motivated and passionate about my book project. I’d regularly get up earlier than my family for a few hours of uninterrupted writing time; I’d write on the weekends and find little pockets of time to jot down ideas. So why was I finding it hard to get started again?

Once I understood that procrastination was a mood repairer and a coping strategy, I got curious about what difficult emotion was behind my procrastination. I realised I was afraid to reread my draft and begin the editing process, because that meant coming face to face with my crappy first draft. I wanted my draft to be amazing and I knew it wouldn’t be. I didn’t want to face that fact, so I procrastinated.

Once I realised fear and self-doubt were driving my struggle to re-engage with my book, I dealt with those feelings, rather than berating myself for my apparent “lack” of discipline and motivation. I met myself with more self-compassion and was able to reframe my self-talk, saying things like, “No one’s first draft is ever great,” “It will get better as you keep working on it” and “This is the messy middle part of writing, trust the process.” This shift in self-talk helped me feel calmer and more confident and I was able to re-engage with my book and keep my momentum going.

Moving past harsh self-criticism

Unfortunately, when you believe procrastination is a sign of personal weakness, you can end up being very hard on yourself, which can keep you stuck. Jackson says, “So often so many of us get stuck in a loop of procrastination because when we do it, we get angry and frustrated and we’re very mean to ourselves. We allow that inner voice to tell us that we’re hopeless, that we’re being bad when we procrastinate, that our procrastination is some kind of ugly character flaw and that we somehow should be punished for our behaviour.”

Speaking to yourself in this harsh way can also be damaging to your sense of self over time. I’ve worked with many clients who’ve allowed their struggle with procrastination to define who they are. They say things to me like, “I never finish things,” “I’m a chronic procrastinator,” “I’m just not disciplined enough” or “I’m just so lazy sometimes.” So how can you stop personalising your experience of procrastination? Jackson says, “The most fascinating antidote to procrastination is self-compassion.”

Celebrating growth

Part of being kinder to yourself is realising that often when you step out of your comfort zone you will come up against procrastination. When you take on big challenges and say Yes to new opportunities, you’ll inevitably find yourself out of your comfort zone, and this means you’ll probably come up against difficult emotions like fear, self-doubt, uncertainty, anxiety and overwhelm. As you experience these tricky feelings, you’re more likely to procrastinate as a coping strategy.

When you realise procrastination is a normal human response to challenging and stressful situations, you can expect it, notice it and move through it with more self-kindness and less harsh self-criticism. Instead of seeing procrastination as a sign of weakness, you can see it as a sign you’re doing things that are stretching you. In these moments you can try grounding yourself with affirming statements like, “Im struggling because Im challenging myself,” “Im having trouble because I’ve never done this before” and “I can be brave and do hard things.”

Becoming a better problem-solver

When you realise your emotions are driving your procrastination, you also get better at pinpointing the real problem you’re struggling with and you become a better problem-solver. When you just assume you’re being “lazy” you never get to the heart of your experience. As Pychyl explains, “If we know our emotions, we can deal with them, as opposed to avoiding them and the tasks that provoke these emotions in us.”

For example, if you know you’re procrastinating because you feel overwhelmed, you can break down your tasks into smaller steps. If you know you’re procrastinating because you’re exhausted, you can take more breaks, go for a walk, get started on the easier parts first and aim to get an early night. If you realise you’re procrastinating because you feel self-doubt, you can work on your mindset and create positive affirmations to refocus your mind.

Procrastination and perfectionism

The fear of not being good enough and not living up to your own high expectations can be enough to keep you from getting started. Jackson says, “Sometimes we procrastinate because we have become so overwhelmed about having to complete a whole huge time-consuming task, or we’re worried about not doing it well or perfectly, and so we avoid making a start at all.”

If you’re procrastinating because of perfectionism, give yourself permission to start small, improve as you go and create momentum one small step at a time. Jackson says, “When we give ourselves permission to just take ‘a first sloppy step’ then we’ve made a start and the funny thing about motivation is that it often doesn’t come before we start a task. It comes when we start a task. So, getting started, even with just a first sloppy step, gets the ball rolling.”

Interestingly, when you avoid something, it can make the situation worse. In Rewire Your Brain, neuroscientist Dr John Arden explains, “A paradox occurs when you avoid what you fear, because your fear then grows.” Arden continues, “Challenging the paradox involves doing away with avoidance and replacing it with exposure.” When you take small steps forward and embrace the “first sloppy step” you begin to break down your avoidance and you change how your brain is firing and wiring.

Embracing positive procrastination

While procrastination is mostly an unhelpful behaviour, I’ve found it can be useful if used intentionally. I call it positive procrastination. It involves consciously choosing to have a few important projects going at once, allowing you to move between them when you hit resistance. Having two projects going can make an unappealing task seem far more desirable, and you can use this to your advantage.

For example, when I was writing my book, I also needed to do my tax. Normally I procrastinate on my tax because I don’t enjoy doing it. However, I decided to use my tax as a positive procrastination tool on the days I hit resistance with my writing. On those days, engaging with my tax seemed far more interesting and I enjoyed the break from writing. Over the years I’ve successfully played one task off another to embrace positive procrastination. Using procrastination is this way can help you flow with your emotions and get more done in the process.

There are many reasons you might face difficult feelings when approaching a task. Here are five key drivers of procrastination.

  1. Overwhelm: You feel the task is too big to start.
  2. Lack of desire: You don’t want to do the task because it’s boring or pointless.
  3. Underskilled: You don’t have the skills to do the task.
  4. Self-doubt: You feel anxious, scared or lacking in confidence about the task.
  5. Tiredness: You’re tired, feeling burnt-out or don’t have the headspace to do the task.

6 strategies to move through procrastination

1 Be kind to yourself

Understanding that procrastination is a mood repairer and a coping mechanism means you can cut yourself some slack. Shift your perspective and replace negative self-talk with more supportive self-talk. As Pychyl says, “As we struggle throughout the day with our procrastination, when we recognize that we are caught up in thinking, ruminating, worrying, and trying to plan our escape instead of engaging in our intended task, we can acknowledge this without judgment and simply begin again. We just get started again.”

2 Identify the feeling

What feelings are you avoiding? Do you feel anxious, fearful, bored, annoyed? When you can name your feelings, they often lose their control over you. Jackson says, “It can be helpful to make a list of the tasks that you tend to procrastinate over the most and your feelings about those tasks and to look for patterns.” And as Pychyl says, “It’s emotional intelligence that is key to breaking bad habits like procrastination, or just making a better life for ourselves.”

Once you know the feeling you can start to solve it. If you feel tired, maybe you need more sleep; if you feel underskilled you could sign up for a training course; if you’re time-pressed, you could delegate or refine the scope of your work; or if the task is boring, you could make it more fun or set up a reward to inspire you.

3 Set a timer and start small

Getting started is often the hardest part. Start small. Set a timer for 10 minutes and get started. I call this the 10 Minute Kickstarter Method because it helps to lower resistance to starting, and it kickstarts your momentum to break through the inaction of procrastination. Once you get started, you’ll often feel more confident and motivated to keep going.

4 Break it down

If you’re procrastinating because the task or project is too big, break it down into small steps. Keep breaking tasks down until you no longer feel any resistance or fear when you think about getting started. As you tick off smaller tasks you will also activate your brain’s reward system and get a hit of dopamine, one of your feel-good and motivating hormones, which will help you on your way.

5 Creation over perfection

Unless you have the courage to get started, your ideas will stay in your head, your projects stay unfinished and your dreams unrealised. For a long time, I didn’t create things because I was waiting for the perfect time and to feel 100 per cent ready. That was until I realised you can’t improve something that doesn’t exist. If I wanted something to be great, I had to get started. I also had to be willing to sit with the discomfort of something not being great at the start, but trusting the process of “becoming”. Take the pressure off. Give yourself permission to be less than perfect and to improve over time.

6 Energy management

If you’re procrastinating a lot, it might be a message from your body that it needs more rest. Prioritise rest, sleep and self-care to ensure you have enough in your tank to work on your tasks and projects. Once you have re-energised, you will likely find it easier to get started and keep your momentum going.

Article Featured in WellBeing Magazine 207

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee is a speaker, writer and business consultant. She is the owner of The Spark Effect and is passionate about sharing neuroscience-based strategies to teach corporate teams and businesses how to better use their brains to reduce overwhelm and stress, while boosting productivity, creative problem solving, wellbeing and communication. Get in touch with Jessica at jessica@thesparkeffect.com.au, on +61 424 358 334 or via thesparkeffect.com.au.

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