TADS Insights

Procrastinate Later

1 April 2015

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The avoidance of doing a task which needs to be done – postponing until tomorrow what can (and should) be done today – is one of the main obstacles to us achieving success in our  professional and personal lives.  And it seems that procrastination is on the rise. 

In the book, The Procrastination Equation, Piers Steel found from his extensive research that in 1978 only about 5 per cent of people thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators; today, that figure is 26 per cent.  Some studies suggest that upwards of 80% of people self-report as experiencing procrastination to varying degrees.

Procrastination not only affects a person's work, but also commonly invokes feelings such as guilt, inadequacy, self-disgust, stress and depression.  And of course, not getting things done when they should be done, can mean missed opportunity as well as all kinds of problems with those who are depending on us.

While there are many underlying causes of procrastination, we can group the main reasons into three broad headings: no why, fear, and cognitive distortions.

No Why

It has been said that if you can figure out the “why” behind something, you’ll inevitably find the “how” despite the challenges you may be facing.  

The problem is that in thinking about the task ahead, we put our focus on aspects of the doing including our ideas about the task itself – how hard it is, how boring it is, how we should have done it yesterday.  And because our attention is so directed, we tend to get tied up in negativity and, as a result, our motivation soon diminishes.

It’s far better to take a brief pause before starting a task and clearly articulate why the doing of the task ahead, is of value.  Articulate in what way is the task related to what is important to you?  Is the completion of this task leading you closer to what success means to you?  Can you see a link to some greater and worthwhile purpose?

In taking this approach, you may well come to the conclusion that the task does not need to be done after all.  Perhaps there are more important ways of spending your time, or perhaps you can outsource or delegate it to someone else.  And if you indeed believe that the task is worth doing – the why – you’ll be really clear, and therefore more motivated to start now and do it well.

Fear

Procrastinators can be tormented by a range of fears which create an intense desire to delay performing a task or simply wait for its expiration so that it no longer has to be dealt with.  Such fears include the fear of failure, the fear of success, and the fear of being controlled.  Most fears are not logical as such, but are scripted in deeply held beliefs that give rise to emotional reasons why delay is preferred over taking action.

One of the biggest fears we have is the need for perfection.  We convince ourselves that it’s better not to start until conditions are ideal and we have the best chance of producing a 100% outcome.  We fear not making some standard which is often unattainable or even required.  The problem here is that, in reality, there are no perfect conditions and the best approach is to start and the way ahead will ‘emerge’ or be shown to you as you make progress.

Overcoming fear-based procrastination requires honest reflection and some healthy questioning of your beliefs.  Perhaps your beliefs have been holding you back from getting important things done.

Cognitive Distortions

Procrastinators tell lies to themselves.  Such as, “I’ll feel more like doing this tomorrow” or “I work best under pressure” or “I’ll just get started with something else and then get to what my main task is”.  Another big lie procrastinators indulge in is that time pressure makes them more creative.

The truth is that none of these ideas are helpful.  They are only excuses for delaying action.  Very often, you’ll find that once you begin, you’ll find a momentum in what you’re doing that carries you forward in a way that produces its own benefits and feelings of self-satisfaction and progress.

The key, it seems, is to just get started, despite how you feel.  The writer Brian Tracy wrote a book aptly titled Eat that Frog in which he likens the procrastinator’s dilemma to someone whose is faced with a frog to eat – and it must be done.  Instead of looking anxiously at the frog all day, it’s far better to take the plunge and gobble that frog irrespective of how distasteful it may be.  And further, if you’ve got two frogs to eat, the recommendation is to eat the ugliest one first!

Whatever it takes, finding ways of getting started quickly, will ensure you don’t get caught up in the lies we tell ourselves.

Procrastination then is a solvable problem.  Once you have a clear why, overcome the unfounded fears, and have strategies in place to make initial progress quickly, you’ll find your ability to execute on things that matter vastly improved.  It has been said that procrastination is the thief of time.  Don’t let it rob you of your success.

--David Keane