I sometimes like to joke that I put the ‘pro’ in procrastination. Truth be told, I wanted to write this article sooner. I really did. But then there was the option of going out for coffee versus staying in and keeping at something I wasn’t quite sure of. I don’t think I need to tell you how that went, it’s easy to guess.
If you’re even the tiny bit human, you’re all too familiar yourself with the situation above. Let me ask you this. How many times did you have something important to take care of only to put it off indefinitely, until there’s not enough time?
You know what I’m talking about. There was something that was truly important for you – like work, or writing a paper, or doing a thesis or filling in that application form. And just like magic, all of a sudden, you felt the urge to start cleaning. Even if cleaning wasn’t that long overdue. And you wanted to do the dishes, despite the fact that you hate doing the dishes. After all that hard work, you were probably hungry, you grabbed a bite to eat. By the time you actually had your meal, you decided it was kind of late and it’s best to call it a day. And you solemnly promised yourself that you’ll do that work, write that paper or fill in that application tomorrow.
But tomorrow there was something else that was more important. You had that friend’s birthday coming up and there was no way that you could show up without a present. But you weren’t really sure as to what to get her, so you spent 4 hours browsing for the perfect gift. So what if you spent some two hours of that on Youtube watching mouthwatering recipes you’re too lazy to do? Reset for tomorrow.
That, my friend, is procrastination in action.
So, what’s procrastination?
There’s more than one definition to it. According to the Cambridge Online Dictionary, procrastination is ‘the act of delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring’.
Psychology mirrors this concept, but it makes it a few shades darker. It defines procrastination as the action of ‘to voluntarily delaying an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay’ (source). Bad consequences. Things are starting to get interesting.
Tim Urban of Wait, but Why? Has takes it even further. According to him, procrastination as ‘the act of ruining your life for no apparent reason’. And has a point. Because it keeps us from seeing the things that are really important, procrastination can have a damaging effect on our lives and our development.
All definitions share a common theme: that of putting off important, complicated, messy things in favor of lighter, more pleasurable and enjoyable actions.
How procrastination works
Again, there’s more than one explanation for this as well. Some believe that procrastination is triggered by fear. Whenever you need to do something rather complicated, you cannot be sure of the result. This is when fear of not being good enough, of not doing good enough kicks in. If you never actually finished anything, others won’t be able to say how bad you are at it. They won’t be able to state that you’re a total failure. Your fragile sense of self-worth will be safe. At least for now.
The second explanation for why and how procrastination works is the natural inclination for instant gratification as opposed to long term gratification. Because we have brains, consciousness and because we allegedly do a little thing called thinking from time to time, we, people are dubbed as rational creatures. We’re expected to make good, rational decisions instead of bad ones. Yet, as numerous studies have shown, that doesn’t always happen.
Instant gratification is one of these instances. Part of the brain is wired to maximize pleasure in the current moment (source), favoring the certainty of the present over the ambiguity of the future. With instant gratification, you don’t have to wait to get what you want – you can have it right here and right now. Also, you don’t need work or to put in the extra effort to achieve something you’re not so sure about.
From both perspectives, procrastination can be perceived like a defense mechanism. It kicks in when you’re not that ready to face the ugly truth. Procrastination can come across as a shield to hide under and play until things get better. The logic is simple: If you keep yourself busy and entertained, maybe all these bad, unpleasant feelings and problems will go away.
There’s only one problem. They don’t.
Why procrastination is dangerous
Problems – real ones – have a bad habit of coming back. And generally, when they do come back, the bite even worse than the first time.
At first, you might not notice it. According to this, procrastinators are not aware of the negative consequences of always doing things at the last minute. And as the old adage goes, you cannot change what you refuse to confront.
For some, procrastination can really spiral out of control. It can get so bad as it jeopardizes their jobs, love lives, family etc. Additionally, research has shown that chronic procrastinators have a weakened immune system, which makes more prone to catching diseases. Procrastinators were also linked to higher levels of alcohol consumption.
However, the bigger problem is psychological. Constant instant gratification lights up the rewards center of the brain, making it easier to develop addictions. Procrastination also impacts the sense of time, as procrastinators are more optimistic about the time it takes to complete a project.
How to make procrastination a good thing
Not everything about procrastination is bad though. Sometimes you need to buy some time to figure out things.
John Cleese makes a very good point about this in his talk. As he points out, we’re generally rushed into making decisions because there’s a certain discomfort to keeping options open sometimes. People want to avoid discomfort at all costs, so they take the first available option without evaluating the alternatives.
This can happen especially with creative types. Because the right solution is not always obvious, the discomfort and the uncertainty here are higher.
However, creativity needs some time to mull over all the information that was collected in the research stage of a project. Even if you’re not consciously thinking about a given task, that doesn’t mean that your brain isn’t. Actually, your brain needs to unplug from conscious, high-focus activities to relaxing, low focus ones in order to work on important problems you present it with.
To keep it from getting out of hand, make sure you set certain deadlines for making a decision. Then, stick to that. Once you make a few decisions, you’ll get into the habit of it and build momentum for more.
How to beat procrastination
Procrastination is not a disease you’re born with, it’s a habit you learn. It’s not that easy to unlearn it, but it’s not impossible either.
The hardest part in beating procrastination is getting things done. When tasks or projects are too loosely defined, uncertainty kicks in, making us worry about problems that might not really be there. And so we delay facing that uncertainty.
One of the key steps to getting things done is to eliminate uncertainty and confusion as much as possible. To this end, try to set tasks, objectives, problems as clearly as possible. Set a deadline, define the requirements of the solution you need to reach. As a backup strategy, you can also look for someone that would hold you accountable for meeting your objectives.
The next stage is the hardest part: doing. Here is where most people throw in the towel and decide that it’s more important to clean, do the laundry or binge watch a new TV series.
The trick here is to build a constant rhythm for doing things. A now or never attitude might be one of the best approaches for it. Ask yourself what’s better: spending forever thinking about a given problem or actually tackling it to see what happens? Forget everything about what other people might say or think, and remember that this is, after all, about you.
We recommend tiny steps. Small steps allow you to get going so work for short, but focused periods of time. Progress will soon be visible and you’ll be motivated to keep at it. Progress can also help to cast away doubts and worries about your sense of self-worth.
Also, try to remove distractions as much as possible. It might also be a good idea to set up a personal rewards system. When you reach a certain milestone, take some time and treat yourself to whatever you fancy: a good meal, a cookie or a movie – it’s up to you.
To keep up the habit, take some time to periodically review your progress. Once you see that it’s not impossible to get down to it and that progress is real, you’ll have beaten procrastination.
Books to help you beat procrastination
Steven Pressfield – ‘The War of Art’
Don’t be fooled by the title – this book is not only just for artists. It’s for anyone who’s ever wanted to get anything done only to run into a million reasons why not to. Steven Pressfield dubbs procrastination as the Resistance and he analyze every form it takes. This book would not have been completed without sound advice on how to beat resistance. Get the book
Charles Duhigg – ‘The Power of Habit’
Charles Duhigg is a reporter with the New York Times and writes about productivity. This time, his book looks at how people form habits. For those of you looking to kick a bad habit, “The Power of Habits” shows you practical steps you can take to change even the most complicated of habits. If it’s not into extremes, this is also a helpful tool for overcoming procrastination. Get the book
Brian Tracy – “Eat That Frog”
There’s an old saying: if you eat a live frog first thing each morning, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that it’s probably the worst thing you’ll do all day. Procrastination is mainly about putting off things because they’re unpleasant. However, if you manage to train yourself to deal with the not so pleasant things first, you can overcome that habit. The sooner you deal with challenges, the better you will feel afterward. Get the book
Best articles related to procrastination
Mark Manson – Two minds
Mark’s writing is generally very straightforward and down to earth. Although he may sound harsh at times, he points out exactly what needs to be said. In this piece, he makes the differences between feelings and doing and what you can to to bridge the gap. Read the article here
Tim Urban – Why Procrastinators Procrastinate
This is probably the funniest explanation ever about how procrastination works. Spoiler alert: a monkey is involved. Oh, and it comes with images, too. Read the article here
Tim Urban – How to Beat Procrastination
If Tim’s previous article was about how procrastination works, this one is about what you can do to beat it. What’s different about this piece is that Tim offers very empathic, understanding advice. He doesn’t dismiss procrastinators as lazy people, but admits that they’re mostly just scared. Read the article here
Gretchen Gavett – Sometimes it’s OK to Procrastinate
Gretchen Gavett is an editor with the Harvard Business Review. In her article, she provides evidence to support moderate procrastination. Read the article here
Tanner Christensen – Why you procrastinate and what to do about it
Even if procrastination is common among ordinary people, it’s even more common among artists and creative types. This article walks you through various steps you can take to start getting things done. Read the article here
Tools to help you beat procrastination
If you noticed how much time you waste with certain activities, chances are you would stop doing them. But you’re not that aware of how you spend your time, now are you? Time trackers can help you log your activities, including the ones you do while you’re procrastinating. Toggl, for instance, can show you how much time you waste researching and how little time you actually spend writing that important report.
Online project management tools
Like we mentioned in the previous sections, cutting work into manageable chunks is one of the tactics you can use to beat procrastination. However, it’s easier if you use something to keep track of all those manageable chunks.
To do apps
To do apps work like project management tools. They can help you keep track of the manageable chunks you’ve outlined for yourself. Also, seeing a big list of completed things can help you build a rhythm and get more things done.