Do you feel what you’re doing right now is exactly what you should be doing this very moment? If not, you’re procrastinating on something in some way.
We all procrastinate to some degree. And that’s okay. If you think you’re the only one who’s doing it, you are mistaken.
In fact, those who procrastinate the most are likely some of the brightest, sensitive, creative, and intelligent people in this world according to David Allen. They are the ones who look at something, get overwhelmed, and imagine it not being done perfectly, as well as imagine all the negative consequences from not having it done, and, subsequently, freak out. It takes only a few things that are uncaptured, unclarified, and unorganized to make your world seem completely overwhelming. In other words, they experience apathy, anxiety, fear of loss of control, and fear of failure.
Often, we avoid making decisions until the last responsible moment when it blows up in our face instead of when it shows up. We will still get those things done at the last minute, but experience lots of work pressure, self-doubt, and anxiety in the process. At that point, it’s not worth going through all that.
We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy or need motivation. If that was true, then we would procrastinate 24×7. We also don’t procrastinate about everything in our lives. Think about what we do when we procrastinate: we are doing something that is not what we are supposed to be doing at that time. We don’t need to be inspired or motivated to do that thing at that time. We just do it. We procrastinate about things we may not like doing, but that we ought to be doing.
Procrastination is not about not doing — it’s about not doing and feeling crappy or guilty about it. It happens when we do something other than what we are supposed to be doing, and, in the process, feel bad about it. We can only feel good about what we are not doing when we know what we are not doing.
Procrastination is not the real problem. It is more a symptom of other problems. We use procrastination as a way to deal with things when they become complex, overwhelming, and when there is fear (of failure/success) and anxiety involved; there is often mental, emotional, and physical anxiety because of the existential complexity involved. The solution lies not in attacking procrastination, but resolving the problems/causes that lead to it. Procrastination just happens to be our way of dealing with those problems temporarily.
According to Neil Fiore:
Procrastination is an attempt to resolve a variety of underlying issues, including low self-esteem, perfectionism, fear of failure and success, indecisiveness, an imbalance between work and play, ineffective goal-setting, and negative concepts about work and yourself.
The reason we do anything is because we are motivated by rewards. We procrastinate because it rewards us with temporary relief from stress (even though we know we are living in denial). The more painful (or difficult) something is that we are trying to avoid, the more we will seek out relief in the form of rewards.
We think (irrationally) that by ignoring and living in denial about what we should be doing, that thing will somehow magically go away, which almost never happens.
We tend to put off things for many reasons:
We procrastinate when the outcome (of what we’re procrastinating on) is not meaningful enough to us or the significance of it has changed considerably. If it’s not meaningful to us, why even consider doing it in the first place? In this case, it might be that we haven’t accepted that we should take it off our list and move on. The problem is that we keep thinking about it in perpetuity without deciding what to do about it (inaction). We procrastinate when the outcome is not meaningful enough to us, or we don’t feel confident that we can engage with it with complete control and success. When the outcome is not meaningful enough to us, we need to ask if this thing that we are avoiding is something we really want to be doing. If it is, we would have done it already. And if it is really something that we want to do, maybe we don’t feel confident that we can engage with it with complete control, confidence, and success. And that can happen for many reasons.
One reason could be lack of clarity and ambiguity about our work. It could also be that the complexity involved with doing something is so high that we would rather deal with it “later” instead of doing it now, but we are only delaying the inevitable.
It could be that we may have simply not taken enough time to define our work by finishing the thinking required, which might involve figuring out the next thing we need to do to move something forward toward the outcome we want. Instead of seeking help, we feel embarrassed about asking others, so we choose to do nothing.
We procrastinate when we feel vulnerable to self-criticism, failure, and perfectionism. We fear being judged by others. As a result, we may find ourselves not being able to manage others’ expectations, etc.
More often than not, we find ourselves procrastinating about doing the thinking required and not so much about the doing part. Because, you see, thinking is the hard part (which we procrastinate on), while doing is easy and/or straightforward. Doing is easy because everything in life boils down to cranking widgets: Call Susan; Draft memo; Schedule meeting, etc.
For instance, when we stop using our trusted system, we put off making decisions about things that we have captured there. As a result, we don’t trust our system anymore. Every time we think about it, we tell ourselves that we’ll deal with it later, except that later never comes. In the meantime, items in the inbox keep piling up.
One reason we procrastinate is because we focus too much on finishing things when we should be focusing on starting them. When we focus on starting things, finishing takes care of itself. For instance, much too often, we are focused on completing a project. The problem happens when we look at the project and get overwhelmed by its size or scale (which may sound big and overwhelming) when we should be focused on doing the next thing (small and actionable) that will bring the project to completion. We cannot do projects; we can only do actions that bring a project to completion. Any project, regardless of size, comes down to defining the steps required to complete it.
Ironically, the thing that is closest to our soul is the thing we will avoid the most. This goes back to falling into the perfection trap. We want things to be perfect at the outset when the reality of the matter is that we rarely have enough information to make the best decision possible. We spend so much time thinking over things that we don’t make any decisions. It is called Analysis Paralysis. We think it’s better to leave that thing perfect in our minds rather than deal with imperfection by bringing it into reality. Fear of failure is also related to this.
Procrastination is driven by fear. Our demands for perfection (including our self-criticism) leads to our fear of failure, which in turn leads us to procrastinate. When we procrastinate, we criticize ourselves, which causes us to be anxious and depressed. In other words, our fear of failure comes from our own pressure to be “perfect”. We overwhelm ourselves by imagining all the negative scenarios in our head of what might happen when things go wrong, and we freak out.
Fear of success is even more of a roadblock for us than fear of failure because it’s easier to be the person we are now than the person we want to be. When we try to do the latter, we’ll have to do more. We will have to change ourselves. We will have to get out of our comfort zone, and it is so much more comfortable for us to do what we’ve been doing. Yet, we must come out of it because that’s where we find our opportunity for freedom and growth to make things happen. In other words, our fear of success comes from fear of change.
What we do (our work) should have no bearing on who we are as a person (our sense of worth), but we do just that. We tend to use procrastination as a self-defensive behavior to protect our self-worth. We associate the performance of our work (what we do) to our selves (who we are). The quality of our work should have no bearing on our self-worth as an individual because who we are (our sense of identity) is much greater than what we do (our work).
Sometimes, when things don’t go our way (for example, when we get passed for a promotion too many times), we tend to procrastinate in many ways. We don’t commit to our work fully. We stop participating in meetings. We start showing up late for work or leave work early without notifying anyone. The point is we are using procrastination as a way to express our resentment toward our colleagues and bosses.
We have all been guilty of taking on too many commitments at one point or another and facing overwhelm, which can either lead to apathy and loss of control or it can lead to anxiety — either of which can lead to procrastination. We forget that we can only do so much. Either we take fewer commitments or spend more time doing those things. When we bite off more than we can chew, we create unwanted performance anxiety for ourselves. With the anxiety part, we need to focus on our desired outcomes. That means starting with the end in mind and then figuring out the next thing we need to do. In order to even do that, we need to capture what has our attention and then break it down into small, actionable steps that we can do later.
We procrastinate because we think life is all work and no play and that we’ll continue to work ad infinitum. This is what happens when we spend long hours at work and schedule no time for leisure/recreation. We end up procrastinating at work because we know we won’t have that leisure time for ourselves at the end of our work day.
We procrastinate because our goals are uninspiring and vague; we don’t think big enough. Heck, we don’t even spend enough time with ourselves to think about our lives, which is why our lives don’t change.
We procrastinate when we have not set deadlines. We tell ourselves: Why bother starting now? We can always do it later, which turns out to be never.
We are more likely to procrastinate when we give ourselves more time to do things. This goes back to Parkinson’s Law. But, above all, we procrastinate because it makes sense to us.
Procrastination can be a vicious cycle. More often than not, it’s obvious in how it shows up and sometimes it’s really subtle. Unless we’re aware of it, we cannot come out of it.
In the next piece, I cover the ways we procrastinate and how to deal with them.