The Big Idea
Procrastination is not due to poor time management.
Questions I Answer
- How can I stop procrastinating?
- Why do I procrastinate?
- How can I get started?
- How do I get unstuck?
Actions to Take
- Recognize the harm that procrastination is doing to your work and commit to change through staying accountable with others, being intentional or even keeping inspiring notes near your workspace.
Key Topics in the Show
Fight Procrastination: Why it’s not about time management
Letting go of the shame & guilt associated with procrastination
Questions to ask yourself when you can’t get started on a task
6 excuses you’re using to justify procrastination & tips on how to combat each
Commit to tackling your procrastination mindset
Resources and Links
- Related Episodes:
Welcome to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press, a podcast focused on finding success and happiness through the power of productivity. Each season, Tanya focuses on specific strategies to help you discover your own priorities and purpose. Season five is all about investing in you.
You can also join Tanya for more interaction and support in her free Facebook group at inwellpress.com/group, and now, here’s your host, Tanya Dalton.
Hello, hello everyone. Welcome to Productivity Paradox. I’m your host, Tanya Dalton, owner of inkWELL Press, and this is episode 74. Today’s episode is brought to you by Blue Apron, and I’ll be sharing later on in the episode how you can get a discount on your first box.
Right now, though, I want to talk about procrastination, because I know this is one of the biggest stumbling blocks so many people have shared with me. Let’s talk about how to fight procrastination, because procrastination has long been thought about as a time management or a willpower issue.
Psychologists have recently been discovering that it has more to do with how our brains and our emotions work. In other words, procrastination has nothing to do with time management and everything to do with your emotions.
Procrastination is largely a coping mechanism to avoid emotionally unpleasant tasks by doing something that provides a temporary mood boost instead. The procrastination itself causes a lot of shame and a lot of guilt, which leads people to procrastinate more, so this is a vicious cycle.
Psychologist Tim Pychyl, a professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, has been studying procrastinators for over 20 years. He coauthored a paper showing that students who forgave themselves for procrastination on studying for a previous
exam were actually less likely to procrastinate on their next test. This is a way to break that cycle, really letting go of some of the shame and guilt.
Pychyl found that procrastination is connected to being able to relate to our future self, which if you call, we talked about that back in season five in episode 53, and I definitely recommend re-listening to that one because as you’ll recall, I shared that when we think of ourselves in the future, we don’t see ourselves as us. We see
ourselves as strangers, and that’s what makes it so hard for us to invest in ourselves. Because we don’t think about our actions today directly affecting us, procrastination comes in pretty easily.
Pychyl says that people who see their present and their future self as overlapping report less procrastination, and interestingly, he’s found that people often feel like their procrastination isn’t voluntary. It’s not really a clear choice that they’re making. They feel that they just simply can’t help themselves.
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Scientists have found that procrastination can in fact be a little bit addictive. You avoid work all day long just to go home and work all night, frantically trying to finish what you could’ve completed earlier in the day, and it gives you this rush of adrenaline. That’s really what people can sometimes be addicted to. Ultimately, this addictive habit is hurting our health.
Research has found a link between chronic procrastination and stress-related health issues, including hypertension and heart disease. Procrastinators were more likely to delay healthy activities, like proper diet and exercise, along with all the other things they were procrastinating.
Psychologists at Case Western Reserve University conducted an experiment where they offered college students a date range instead of a due date for papers, and what they did was they tracked the date that the students ended up turning in their papers, and they compared this to the stress levels and their health overall.
Students who waited until the last minute had greater stress, more health issues, and received worse grades are on their papers and their overall class grade than students who chose to turn in their papers earlier. It’s causing us more stress, and we’re really not turning out the quality of work we really want, so we’re doing two things to ourselves. We’re stressing ourselves out and not really doing our best work.
Procrastination is really just a negative mental habit. We use excuses as our cue to procrastinate, so we can remove this hidden blockage by getting curious. When we find ourselves continually unable to get started on a task, it’s time to start asking some questions and figure out, why is this task so unappealing?
Patiently ask yourself a few questions, and I use the word patiently here very intentionally, because we tend to get really hard on ourselves when we find ourselves procrastinating, so be gracious with yourself. Ask yourself, “Why does it feel tough to do this? Why is that?”
The mental block can appear quickly, so it’s good to dig into this. Maybe you’ll find that there’s a conflicting commitment or desire. For example, maybe you’re finding it hard to stick to an early morning routine. A few whys dig into that and it might help you figure out you have an equally strong desire to eat breakfast with your family.
Once you’ve figured out this explicit reason, you can work to shift and overcome it, maybe by making family breakfast part of your morning routine and moving a couple tasks to your evening routine.
What I think really helps is to dig into the excuses you give when you’re procrastinating. Let me give you a springboard. I’m going to cover some of the most common excuses that I’ve heard to justify procrastination and I’ll give you a few tips on how to combat each one. Does that sound good?
All right, first one. “This really isn’t that important. I don’t know why I need to work on this.” I can understand why people use this excuse, because your brain loves
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to procrastinate, because that’s how it’s programmed. It’s easier for our brains to process concrete, immediate rewards rather than abstract and uncertain future benefits. Scientists call this present bias, where the short-term effort easily dominates the long-term upside in our minds. Sound familiar? Just like what we talked about earlier with future self, right?
To fight against this, we need to make the benefits of the action feel bigger and the cost of the action feel smaller. In other words, when you find yourself procrastinating, the reward for doing the task you’re procrastinating on needs to feel larger than the immediate pain of tackling it. It helps to really visualize the benefits and how great it will be and how good you will feel when the task is actually done.
Research has shown that people are more likely to save for their future retirement when they’re shown a digitally altered photo of themselves where they’re aged, because it makes their future self feel more real.
We can piggyback off that idea, because if we can take just a minute to visualize a vivid future showcasing the benefits we receive when we complete that task, we can help push ourselves to actually get it finished by making the future self feel real.
The second excuse I hear, “I don’t know where to begin.” This excuse tends to pop up when we’re faced with a really large task. Think back to the start of season three in episode 27 when we talked about how to eat an elephant, one bite a time. Break down a large task into these bite-sized pieces instead of being overwhelmed by the complexity of the task. Work on the steps of the task in blocks of time to take the task from being way too hard to completely doable.
Ask yourself, “What’s the one thing I can do to get started?” We know complexity leads to overwhelm, so figure out what that first step is or what’s the simplest step you can do right now in this very minute. Just focus on that step and that step alone and you’ll find the motivation starts to follow.
It’s important to tell yourself, “Just get started.” This is different than, “Just do it,” which can be overwhelming. Just get started even if you don’t feel motivated. We often don’t feel motivated to do the task at hand, right? If you recognize that, say to yourself, “Okay, I recognize that I don’t feel like it, but I’m just going to get started.” Pychyl found that when we just get started on a project, we don’t see it as difficult or as stressful as we might have when we were dreading it a week ago.
Excuse number three, “There are too many other things to do.” At its heart, what you’re saying here is, “There are too many distractions.” When we’re overwhelmed, we try to trick ourselves into feeling productive by completing small, insignificant tasks or checking everything and anything, social media, email, texts, anything. We avoid the elephant in the room by distracting ourselves. We talked about that just a few weeks ago when we asked that question about, “Are you self interrupting?”
What I want you to do is instead try to visualize what will happen if you continue to put off the task. The consequences of incomplete work can help make
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distractions a little less tempting. For distractions, you could try if then rules. If the phone rings, then I’m not going to answer it, or if my friends invite me out tonight, then I’m going to say no. You set expectations and you make a commitment. You can also use this to stay focused. If I finish this part of the article, then I’m going to immediately focus on the next part.
What you have to do is you have to decide for yourself, what are your three biggest priorities for the day? Often, it’s not just the task itself that’s overwhelming. It’s everything we have to do in that day. Insignificant tasks cloud our judgment and they tend to just pack our schedules and push our priorities out of the way. Instead, take some time in the morning to figure out your three biggest priorities, pulling from your immediate and your important categories and commit to completing them exclusively before handling requests from others, if that’s at all possible.
Okay, I have three more excuses that I hear all the time about procrastination, but first I want to take a quick word from our sponsor. Blue Apron is a weekly meal delivery program that I have been using myself for several years. It’s my go to to help me make hectic weeks feel a little less stressful. I simply choose the recipes I think my family will like and all the ingredients are delivered to my door. I love that it’s so easy.
The instructions for all the meals are simple to follow, so if you’re looking for an easy meal solution, you might want to give Blue Apron a try. If you go to inkWELLPress.com/BlueApron, you’ll get $30 off your first box, no code needed.
Okay, let’s get back to talking about our favorite procrastination excuses. Number four on my list is a funny one, but it’s one that I hear a lot. “It’s too easy.” I know that seems counterintuitive. Why would we put off some seemingly easy work? When we perceive work as being too easy, we tend to put it off because we don’t feel like it’ll be challenging enough and we’ll be bored, but when the time comes to do this easy work that we’ve put off, we find we didn’t give ourselves enough time to actually complete it.
Here’s what I recommend. Instead of putting off easy tasks for the end, connect them to your bigger why, so that is your north star that we’ve talked about numerous times on the show. That is your mission statement, your vision statement, your core values, your goals. What is it tied to? That helps turn mundane tasks into fundamental tasks. When smaller, easier tasks don’t get done or get done poorly, they have a ripple effect to that bigger picture, so tie what you’re doing to your bigger goal or your north star, and that will make it so much simpler to get started.
The fifth excuse that I hear all the time is, “I don’t like it and I don’t want to do it.” Sometimes we just don’t want to do things. I get that. We all have things we don’t want to do. It’s hard to start tasks that we dislike. Try to make these tasks required before you can move on to something else that you like to do, kind of like making a child eat their vegetables before they get dessert, right?
Even better, try to engage yourself by making a game out of the tasks. Can you compete against yourself for the fastest time to complete this task, or can you
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change up the process to make it more interesting? Maybe you can reward yourself for each step that you complete.
Find accountability by committing to the task itself, so try telling other people that you’re going to be doing something. That can amplify the appeal of taking action because being respected by others matters to us, probably more than it needs to, but it’s true, and we can use that to our advantage. This accountability works even if it’s strangers. When we tell others we’re going to complete something, we add social benefits to the benefits of actually completing the task itself, so add these to your visualization.
You’ll notice that I’ve mentioned visualization several times throughout these tips. That is because it is so important to really understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, and that really does help alleviate some of this procrastination.
The sixth excuse that I hear is, “I don’t think I can do it.” A little trick procrastination likes to play on us is when it tells us that if we don’t get started on a project, you can’t fail, but truly, procrastination itself is a failure, failure to get started and to utilize your talents and your abilities. When you procrastinate, you’re failing to believe in yourself. You have to change this negative pattern of thinking by focusing on all the positive things that will happen when you do succeed.
Ask yourself, “How can I make this easier? How can I make myself feel like I can do it?” We often believe we have to grind and work hard to complete our work, which is sometimes true, but it doesn’t have to be true for everything throughout your day. There’s no shame in making a task easier to complete.
For example, you set a goal to work out for an hour every day, but day after day you find you haven’t worked out at all. Try making it easier by committing to just 10 minutes of working out a day. There are plenty of exercises you can do at home for 10 minutes, even if you don’t make it to the gym.
Over time, you can build on these 10 minutes until you’re successfully working out for an hour. The key is to commit to the easier alternative and complete it regularly. That builds up your momentum, and that starts to give you the idea that it’s not so impossible to complete this habit.
With all of these excuses and all of these ways to combat them, I think the thing to keep in mind is that becoming aware of your procrastination is the first step. The solutions aren’t hard, but they don’t work unless you’re really cognizant and you’re aware of your procrastination. The problem isn’t necessarily finding solutions to the procrastination, it’s knowing that it’s happening in the first place. Once we can acknowledge that it’s going on, the fixes are fairly easy, but too often, we forget to be aware.
How many times have you procrastinated on a task only to finish it and then say, “Well, that wasn’t so bad”? It happens a lot, right? Often the stress brought on from procrastination is what makes our task feel so difficult. This is Parkinson’s Law, which we’ve talked about in the past.
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Let’s start to really combat this by becoming aware when we’re doing that. Recognize and admit the harm that procrastination does to you and your work. If you think it’s not a big deal, you probably won’t really follow through on actually course correcting your mental impulses. In reality, procrastination stops you from achieving your big goals and your dreams. It stops you from pushing your boundaries or learning new things. It even causes anxiety and it can make your work suffer.
Make a commitment to yourself to tackle procrastination. You could even try writing out a statement and put it somewhere where you’ll see it every day. I keep some inspiring quotes about procrastination on post-its on my desk. Tell someone else about it. Post about it on social media, whatever it is that will help you commit, and start an intention when you start a task. Don’t just start a task without really thinking through what your end goal is. Be intentional. Maybe you intend to work on that task for a block of time, or to get to a certain point within your work. Whatever the intention is, set it at the start and remember it whenever you feel that pull to procrastinate.
Set a reminder that reminds you, too, of this intention. This could be writing it down or putting a reminder on your phone or your computer, whatever it is that helps you check in with your actions to make sure they’re matching up with what your end goals are.
Start to recognize your procrastination signals, that anxiety you feel about your task, the compulsively checking things, or the urge to do anything else but the task at hand. You might even experience physical signs, like tightness in your chest or sweating or breathing heavily. Whatever your signals are, you can learn to recognize them and use them as a cue to check in with yourself.
Just remember, be kind to yourself when you find yourself procrastinating. Your brain needs help to slowly become a little less short-sighted and more focused on that future self, and this can only happen with small steps. Remember, small steps lead to bigger steps and bigger steps lead to running, and that, my friends, is the momentum we need to stop procrastinating.
I hope today’s episode has helped you turn this stumbling block into a starting block. We’re going to continue this conversation over on my YouTube channel, where each week, I’m going to start posting videos where we dive deeper into our podcast topics. You can look for that over at inkWELLPress.com/YouTube. New videos are being released every Tuesday.
All right, next week, we are going to be talking about another stumbling block, the fear of commitment and self-doubt. From the emails I’ve received from so many of you, this is going to be a really good episode, so I hope you’ll tune in next week. All right, until next time, have a beautiful and productive week.
Thanks for listening to Productivity Paradox from inkWELL Press. To join Tanya’s free group, simply go to inkwellpress.com/group.