No matter how far in advance I know about a project, I always seem to push it until the very last minute.
Even when a deadline is looming over my head, I’ll find myself prioritising other important but far less pressing tasks.
Needless to say, I’ve caused myself plenty of unnecessary stress thanks to my habit of procrastination.
And I’m not alone. I’ve spoken with many friends who succumb to the same fate in the face of a difficult (or even not so difficult) task.
Procrastination is easy to spot, yet the reasons why we do it are much harder to identify.
Despite common belief, procrastination does not necessarily correlate with laziness. An article in The New York Times suggests that procrastination is an attempt to cope with negative emotions. Rather than face the frustration, resentment, boredom or – most commonly – anxiety that we may feel when presented with a project, we procrastinate as a means of escaping the feelings they cause.
“When we’re anxious, one of our main urges is to avoid, as a protection to the fear or threat. That leads to relief, which reinforces the behaviour,” said Dr Lillian Nejad, a clinical psychologist at Omnipsych.
According to motivational speaker Mel Robbins, procrastination is a subconscious attempt at stress relief – despite the fact that it often causes even greater stress in the long run.
Nevertheless, many of us have learned that procrastination benefits us in the short-term, leading us to form a habit. And, as we all know, habits are hard to break.
Ms Robbins’ solution for this is establishing a “starting ritual”, as she calls it, for difficult tasks. Begin by committing to doing the activity for just five minutes.
“Eighty per cent of you will keep going,” Ms Robbins assures. And if you don’t? “It’s gonna (sic) sound super stupid, but you’ve got to forgive yourself.”
In moments where you struggle with procrastination, Robbins suggests asking yourself: what am I stressed about?
Take a moment to acknowledge the stress, then break your habit of procrastination by getting started on a task you need to do. This will help with breaking the connection between the trigger (stress) and the response (procrastination).
Dr Nejad also encourages self-compassion when tackling procrastination. In fact, she even condones it when done without judgement.
“If you choose to procrastinate and you can do that without guilt, great! Go for it,” she said.
“But if you’re going to sit there and feel guilty the whole time, that won’t be beneficial for you.”
That’s under the assumption that the person procrastinating is still meeting their goals and deadlines – if only a bit late. When it’s getting in the way of doing those things completely, it’s a different story.
Dr Nejad suggests that self-awareness into how procrastination functions for you is the key to tackling it. This involves assessing both your internal and external state to recognise what’s getting in the way.
If you’re struggling with procrastination, ask yourself how each of these things are affecting your ability to start or complete a task:
- Emotions: e.g. fear, anxiety or resentment
- Thoughts: e.g. doubt, worry or judgement
- Behaviours: e.g. watching too much TV or going out a lot
- Relationships: e.g. the ones that enable your bad habits
- Environment: e.g. the settings that distract from your work
- Circumstances: e.g. mental health or underlying personal problems.
Once you have looked at the underlying fear, resentment, worry or anxiety behind your procrastination and have identified what personal or environmental factors may be triggering it, you can start problem-solving ways to fix it. It’s all about understanding yourself.
“Everyone is different, so their obstacles and strategies to overcome procrastination will be as well,” said Dr Nejad.
But it’s a good place to start.