Why you procrastinate and what to do about it
It’s Friday and the deadline for that task you’d been putting off since Monday is in a few hours. You wanted to get started earlier, you really did but for whatever reason – you have many – Monday just wasn’t right and neither was Thursday.
Efforts to better manage your time and increase productivity have not really helped. You’ve been told to plan and make to-do lists but each time, you end up spending more time planning than you do actually working.
If this sounds like you, you’re not lazy or unmotivated. You’re a procrastinator.
What is procrastination?
In order to overcome procrastination, you must first understand what it is and how it affects your ability to commit to tasks.
The term procrastination has its roots in the Latin word procrastinatus. With pro meaning ‘for’, ‘forward’ or ‘in favour of’ and crastinus meaning ‘tomorrow’. The Latin verb procrastinare therefore means ‘to put off or postpone until another day’.
Early usage of the term in Latin texts lacked the negative connotation it bears today. Procrastinare was mainly used in situations where deferred judgement was deemed wiser than acting impulsively.
The word procrastination also comes from the Greek noun akrasia which refers to the state of acting against one’s better judgement. Akrasia means ‘to lack self-control’ – with a meaning ‘without’ and kratos meaning ‘strength.’
The modern English word is therefore an amalgamation of both the Latin and Greek words and today, it’s used to refer to situations where you drink copious amounts of caffeine in order to get a week’s worth of work done within 3 hours.
The science of procrastination
Before psychological researchers studied human behaviour and determined that procrastination is more than just putting off tasks, philosophers of classical antiquity were puzzled by how anyone in their right mind would act against their better judgement.
In fact, Socrates claimed it to be impossible when he said- ‘No one who either knows or believes that there is another possible course of action, better than the one he is following, will ever continue on his present course.’ His belief was that people who acted against their own interests didn’t truly know what was right.
However, that’s not the case. There’s a science to procrastination and it’s pretty straightforward. The limbic system – which is one of the oldest parts of the human brain – is responsible for instant gratification and for your ‘fight or flight’ response. For instance, if you accidentally touch a hot stove top, it immediately tells you to pull your hand away – its purpose is to get you out of painful or unpleasant situations.
The much younger, less developed prefrontal cortex deals with more complex behaviour such as planning and impulse control. Unlike the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex is not automatic and if you lose focus on a task, the limbic system takes over.
Whenever you’re faced with a task that causes you some sort of discomfort – whether anxiety, fear, or boredom – your limbic system takes over and tries to get you out of your uncomfortable situation.
Procrastination is therefore not driven by laziness or a lack of motivation. It’s driven by discomfort. This discomfort could be fear of failure, anxiety or frustration.
Joseph R. Ferrari, a psychologist and lecturer, says that procrastination has little to do with time management and more to do with emotional management- “…as I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to ‘just do it’ would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
McCellan’s ‘case of the slows’
General George McCellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War, was arguably one of the worst generals in history.
He was great at planning and organising, but terrible at execution – mostly because he never actually executed any of his plans.
Despite the fact that his army was vastly superior to the confederate army and outnumbered them 3 to 1, McCellan remained overly cautious and was reluctant to pursue them on multiple occasions.
In one instance, he requested President Lincoln for a two month postponement and in another, he retreated believing that the confederates had surrounded him with 100,000 troops (they only had 35,000).
Ultimately, President Lincoln terminated him when he grew tired of what he called McCellan’s ‘case of the slows’.
Why you procrastinate
Like McCellan, every procrastinator’s actions are driven by one or all of the following:
Fear of failure
Fear of criticism
Lack of self-confidence
The desire to be perfect
Because of this, you might feel anxious, afraid, frustrated or bored when you’re faced with a task you know you must do. And because your brain does not want you to experience any discomfort, it will redirect your focus onto something less stressful and delegate the task to future you.
Even though previous patterns suggest otherwise, present you will still be confident in future you’s ability to complete the task on time. According to research by Hal Hershfield, a psychologist and professor at UCLA, this belief in our future selves is brought about by how we process information about our present and future selves.
Hershield found that the part of our brain that processes information about our future self is similar to the part that processes information about strangers. Meaning that present you considers future you an extremely different person altogether. This dissociation between your present and future self makes it a lot easier for you to act against your better judgement.
Procrastination is resistance
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield uses the term resistance to refer to the ‘forces’ that hold you back from reaching your goals. He writes that the activities that most commonly elicit resistance are; the pursuit of any calling in the arts (writing, painting, music, art, e.t.c), the launching of an entrepreneurial venture, any diet or exercise regimen, and the pursuit of spiritual, educational or moral advancement.
Resistance often happens when you’re seeking a path that’s inherently good for you. Your resistance (in the form of fear, doubt, and anxiety) stops you from getting started or starting too late and therefore not doing as well as you have done.
Procrastination is deceitful
“If I have a dozen things to do, obviously number 10, 11, and 12 have to wait.”
~ Professor Joseph Ferrari
Ever had the urge to clean out your gutter, make a seven course meal, or take that sewing class you’ve been wanting to take for a while? These may sound like normal things but they’re not if you’re only doing them when you have other high priority tasks on your to-do list.
When you’re procrastinating, your brain may try to justify why you shouldn’t immediately focus on whatever it is you’re meant to do by giving you a seemingly productive task. You end up legitimising these excuses because you think they’re important (and they are) but at the end of the day, they’re not what you’re meant to be doing.
Eisenhower – the 34th president of the United States – used the Eisenhower matrix as a system of efficiently deciding what tasks were to be prioritised.
He said that tasks could be divided into the urgent and important, urgent but unimportant, non-urgent but important, and the non-urgent and non-important.
How to stop procrastinating
Now that you know what procrastination is (leaving tasks to your future self against your better judgement) and have understood the science behind it, here are some effective ways to deal with it:
a) Overcome your mental barriers
Procrastination is not something you can beat just by writing to-do lists or waking up an hour earlier.
The only way to stop procrastinating is to identify and overcome your mental barriers (fear of failure, perfectionism e.t.c).
If, for instance, you have a report due in 3 weeks, you’ll find that you may want to delay starting it because you’re afraid of doing a bad job and getting negative feedback from your client.
In this case, you need to remind yourself that no one is immune to criticism or negative feedback. Even Gustave Eiffel (of the Eiffel Tower fame) had all of France criticising him for defacing Paris’ skyline with what is now one of the world’s most famous landmarks.
If you receive negative feedback, don’t let it feed your insecurities, instead, take it into consideration and (where practical) use it to better your work.
Procrastination is your mind’s way of coping with discomfort. Because it’s a habit you’ve acquired, your desire for instant gratification will always beat your desire to get things done. Furthermore, the earlier-mention limbic system, which is always on autopilot, tends to take over when you’re doing tasks mindlessly. This makes it easier to give into impulses such as binge-watching The Office on Netflix or deep cleaning your house from top to bottom.
In order to break this habit, you need to practice mindfulness. This will engage your prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for planning and decision-making – and allow you to focus on completing your task instead of putting it off.
c) Maintain an internal locus of control
If something is outside of your control, don’t let it bother you. Focus only on what you can control.
You can’t control whether people like your work or not, but you can control whether you do your work to the best of your ability. So do that and ignore everything else.
d) Use the 5-second rule
Whenever you think of doing something that you know you should do, count 5-4-3-2-1 and then start. Don’t hesitate. Just start.
The 5-second rule prevents your brain from coming up with reasons to get you out of doing important things.
Once you start a task, you’ll build momentum and you’ll find it much easier to carry through with it until it’s complete.
e) Learn to tolerate discomfort
Practising these methods won’t magically rid you of the unpleasantness of fear or frustration when taking on a task. You’re human and those feelings will always be there. The important thing is to manage your emotions by training your mind to push through discomfort.
In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes that ‘…the concept in all these environments seems to be that one needs to complete his healing before he is ready to do his work. This way of thinking is a form of resistance… the athlete knows that the day will never come when he wakes up pain free. He has to play hurt.’
As a business owner, overcoming procrastination may seem impossible. After all, you determine your own hours and you don’t have anyone to answer to when you delay making critical business decisions. However, having a team of business people that you can consult with may help you feel accountable and therefore keep you on track.
You can find your own mastermind group on the internet or near your hometown.
Recommended reads for anyone struggling with procrastination:
– The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
– Atomic Habits by James Clear
– The 5 Second Rule by Mel Robbins
– Intellect App (wellness app)