Procrastination is a common problem for almost everyone. We find ourselves thinking, “I should really be getting this project finished,” as we binge-watch the next episode of our favorite TV series or stand in front of the open fridge for the fourth time in an hour. It affects our commitments to completing work, as well as other important aspects of life. Some examples include getting to a doctor to check out a weird mole on your skin, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in months, or avoiding a challenging conversation that only prolongs the conflict. In the end, we kick ourselves, regretting the time wasted.
Why do we do this to ourselves? First of all, procrastination is in our DNA. The tendency to procrastinate runs in families and is linked to impulsivity, making it difficult to regulate our behavior and can be a lifelong trait. Fortunately, there are ways to find our own coping strategies that help us focus and resist our impulses. Here are five different reasons why we procrastinate, and an approach for each:
The task isn’t urgent enough.
When things are important to attend to by a deadline or calling us to act immediately, the tasks are right in front of us, so we tend to pay immediate attention. It’s a lot more challenging to prioritize things that aren’t urgent, so we don’t get to the clutter in our closet or handle the uncomfortable issue between you and a friend. Since we all have things we never get around to, tasks big and small sit neglected at the bottom of the to-do list.
What to do: Consider the big picture and determine what is most important.
Step back and consider what tasks are on your list. How important are these to you? For example, if you’ve been considering returning to college, but just never seem to get around to it, take a step back. What would this mean for your life? What are your values and goals regarding your education? What’s the big picture? Taking on a new perspective can jump-start the process of taking action.
We don’t know how to start or what comes next.
Once you decide to take action, you may realize that you’re not sure what to do first, with feelings of being overwhelmed, confused, or just being disorganized. This kind of procrastination is really an avoidance of negative emotions. So, when we put off the task at hand by doing other things, it’s called productive procrastination. We do other productive activities to avoid facing difficult feelings such as frustration or shame by organizing the files on your desktop or shopping online for an upcoming event, so we feel prepared.
What to do: Get someone to assist you with getting started.
When you have a negative emotion brewing, the best way to address it is to identify it. Is “frustration” what I’m feeling? Is this a time when you need some help? These feelings are normal when you are just starting out, especially if you’ve never done the task before. So, make your first step: “figure out steps.” Consider an outside party to help you think, brainstorm ideas with a friend, or talk it out with your coworker to come up with where to start.
We’re afraid of failure.
Sometimes our high standards trigger us to blow off a project, convinced there’s no way we can meet the standards we set for ourselves. Then it can lead to a crisis in our self-esteem.
What to do: Separate performance from your self-worth.
When you conflate your sky-high standards with your belief that your performance is a measure of your self-esteem, this can interfere with taking action. There is an essential difference between who you are and what you achieve. Your worth is much more than your accomplishments — your family, friends, passions, experiences, tastes, knowledge, challenges you’ve overcome and especially, how you treat others.
You may work best under pressure.
Many of us set up the conditions for urgency by creating a deadline or getting someone to hold us accountable for completion.
What to do: Know what works best for you.
There are two types of procrastination: passive and active. Passive procrastination is when we get distracted to the detriment of our performance. Active procrastination is more strategic — those of us who work better under pressure and prefer the adrenaline rush and intense focus that comes with a close deadline might choose to start the task later and create urgency or a crisis. Therefore, it’s important to know what works for you.
You’re merely hitting a wall.
Everyone, even the most efficient workers, have days when it’s harder to tackle or complete tasks. What we’re supposed to be doing may be boring or we feel a serious dip or lack of energy. It’s hard. It’s 3 p.m. on a beautiful Friday and we’d instead be doing anything else.
What to do: Give yourself a break.
With any luck, these lulls will strike when you don’t have a deadline looming, and you can take a break to focus on taking care of yourself with sleep, exercise, proper nutrition, and enjoyable non-work-related activities. It’s not that you are procrastinating – you are just postponing your intention to complete your task. What we don’t often feel at the time is that those breaks will actually increase your productivity and make up for the lost time. If you take some small breaks, you’ll actually get things done more efficiently afterward.