Even the best life has its share of things we don’t want to do, or at least things we don’t want to do when we think we ought to be doing them. So we all procrastinate sometimes.
We know when we’re doing it because we start telling ourselves our best “It Will Be Better If I Put This Off For Now” stories — stories we’ve probably heard many times before.
Do any of these sound at all familiar?
Tomorrow I’ll be able to really concentrate on this report without being interrupted.
It will be kinder not to bring up this issue with my spouse just yet.
I’ll be more creative if I do this project when I really feel like doing it.
I work best under pressure.
As handy as these stories can be, they don’t usually turn out to be true.
Tomorrow winds up being just as busy as today; we don’t actually have to start out enthusiastically in the mood to do something in order to do it well; and the vast majority of us really don’t work better under pressure. On the contrary, the research is clear that time pressure actually constrains both creativity and clear thinking.
Even more importantly, our stories can get in the way of acknowledging and addressing what’s really going on, which we need to do so we can break through the procrastination and get ourselves going.
What’s Really Going On
When you find yourself procrastinating, it’s important to acknowledge the simple truth of what’s happening – there’s something you feel you should be doing that you don’t want to do right now.
It isn’t a moral failing.
It’s a completely ordinary human response. Once you acknowledge it in a neutral way, you put yourself in a position to decide what to do about it.
So ask yourself this question: Why don’t I want to do this thing right now?
As with much of life, specificity counts. “Because I’m a lazy procrastinator” won’t get you anywhere. It doesn’t offer you a path out of the situation. If you can be specific about what’s going on, then you can take concrete steps to move forward.
Here are some of the most common reasons we procrastinate, and what we can do about them.
Inertia is the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest. And very often, inertia is the simple reason we don’t get started on something we feel we should be doing. It can be surprisingly hard to get ourselves started, especially if we’re trying to move from doing something passive, like watching TV, to being more actively engaged in an activity — even if it’s an activity we enjoy.
Get your inertia on the side of what you need to do. Inertia isn’t only the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest. It’s also the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion. So get yourself in motion — there is real magic in simply beginning.
How? Give yourself a Five Minute Start. Tell yourself you’re going to start with five minutes on the task and then take it from there. Most of the time, inertia will keep you moving.
If you’re not sure about your ability to successfully complete a task, you may feel anxious about even beginning it. None of us enjoys anxiety, and it’s natural to want to avoid things that cause us to feel it.
First, acknowledge to yourself that you’re feeling anxious about the task, and give yourself permission to feel that way. Then consider that if you put the task off, you may be reducing your anxiety right now, but you’re probably increasing the total anxiety you’re going to feel over time.
The best way to minimize your total anxiety is actually to make some progress, so find the part of the task that causes you the least anxiety and start there. Then, once you’ve gotten your feet wet, break it down. Divide the task into manageable steps, sketch out how and when you aim to complete each one, and celebrate how good you feel every time you get one step closer to completion.
3. Avoiding an Unpleasant Task
Some of the things we need to do are just unpleasant. Who looks forward to giving someone bad news – or changing the cat litter?
Here’s what I do in this situation: I ask myself what would happen if I put off the unpleasant tasks indefinitely – if I just never do them. Well, if I never change the cat litter or get the leak fixed or pay the bills, life is going to get smelly, wet, and very difficult before too long.
So it’s clear to me that I’m not going to put these things off indefinitely – I’m going to do them eventually. And since almost every unpleasant task gets more unpleasant as time goes on, I can usually convince myself to avoid even more unpleasantness in the future by getting these things behind me now.
4. The Passive “No”
There’s one other thing to consider when you’re struggling with procrastination: The Passive “No.”
Maybe you’re avoiding this task because you don’t really intend to complete it. Perhaps you’ve been assigned something at work that conflicts with your values, or you’re way behind on the laundry because you’ve been doing 90% of the work in your house for ten years and it just isn’t fair, or you agreed to set a date to host a family reunion and you really can’t afford to feed all of your relatives.
In this situation, avoiding the task may offer temporary relief from the very painful feeling of being in a dilemma, but in the end, this type of avoidance is a self-sabotaging strategy. So acknowledge to yourself that you really are unable or unwilling to do what people are expecting of you, and find a calm moment to explain your feelings and work with the other people involved to find a new solution. It may not be easy, but an honest discussion of the situation will almost surely lead to a better outcome than just ignoring the dilemma and hoping for the best.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
If you’d like to learn more, Lynda invites you to explore the site, scroll down to sign up for her free newsletter, and get in touch to set up a complimentary consultation.
Procrastination and Self-Regulatory Failure: An Introduction to the Special Issue, Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, by T. A. Pychl and G. L. Flett, March 2012
Ending Procrastination, by Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today, October 2003
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment, by Tal Ben-Shahar, McGraw Hill, 2007