We all have put off a task at some point in our life; in fact I have been procrastinating on writing this article for months!
Just like me, you have probably asked yourself many times why you or someone else procrastinates.
We often judge ourselves and others quite harshly when things that need to be done are not getting done when they were supposed to get done. Statements like: “He is just lazy,” or “If she cared enough, she would have done it,” are often made, but there is definitely more to it.
Why ‘Just Do It’ Doesn’t Help
So why don’t we just do it? For some time, professionals believed that people procrastinate because they have poor time management, poor planning or that they just have difficulty to focus on the task at hand and that they are easily distracted. Some would believe that it was due to low motivation and a lack of drive.
While these may all be contribute, in most cases procrastination is linked to difficulty managing distress. Procrastination is therefore an effort to escape distress through avoidance and distraction. The distress can be caused by the perception and anticipation that a task will be unpleasant, challenging or psychologically threatening in some way.
However, whilst we are trying to avoid distress through procrastination, it hardly provides us with much relief. Ironically, it only causes us more stress in the long run! People who chronically procrastinate will experience higher levels of stress, restlessness, sleep disturbances, irritability, anxiety and low mood.
Procrastination may also impact your self-esteem with the guilt, shame, or self-critical thoughts that can result from not completing tasks in time, or to not have sufficient time to deliver the task to the standards that you expect of yourself, or not completing it to your best ability due to time restrictions.
Procrastination often goes beyond tasks, work, or studies. It affects other important parts of our lives.
We avoid getting that symptom checked out which could leave an unknown disease untreated.
We delay an important relationship decision, like breaking up or making a serious commitment.
We don’t get around to enrolling for a course, or avoiding changing career paths.
In the end, we kick ourselves. We regret the time wasted as deadlines approach, time runs out, and opportunity slips through our fingers.
Ways to Manage your Procrastination
Here are some strategies to help you address procrastination, that are more helpful than simply telling yourself to ‘Just Do It!’:
- Be aware of your thoughts and feelings about the task. One of the main reasons we procrastinate is because we consciously or subconsciously catastrophise, or make a huge deal about the task. It may be related to how tough, how boring, or how challenging or scary it will be to complete the task, believing that it will be “unbearable.” In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy we learn skills to improve our awareness of these thoughts and feelings, and how to take the actions we want to take in spite of these thoughts and feelings.
- Focus on the “desired end-result” instead of the “perceived challenge”. When we procrastinate it is often because we focus on the short-term gain/relief of avoidance and escape, rather than keeping our focus on the desired outcome or long-term gains.
- Remind yourself of the consequences of your procrastination. What impact will my procrastination have on your performance, the project, your future? What opportunities will you miss out on?
- Plan and schedule tasks. Be specific. When? Where? Duration? Resources needed? Be realistic in your planning and scheduling.
- Break it up into smaller chunks. We often get overwhelmed by the size of the task, which triggers our thoughts that the task will be impossible or unbearable, and subsequently triggers our avoidance or escaping behaviour. So, can you break these tasks up into smaller, more manageable parts? Can you be more present in the moment and focus only on the one task at a time? For example, focusing on one task on your to-do-list instead of being overwhelmed by a never-ending list of tasks.
- Notice and acknowledge your excuses and your inner critic. Your mind is designed to protect you and to save you from any discomfort and pain. It will therefore find endless excuses and warnings to stop you from having to endure this suffering. Be aware of these excuses and what your inner critic is trying to achieve.
- Be accountable to someone. Identify someone that you can be accountable to. This accountability partner knows of your plan/schedule, and you check in with them at agreed intervals to report on your progress.
- Manage distractions from your environment. Remember that your mind is looking for opportunities to ‘save you from suffering’. It will therefore jump at the opportunity to distract you from the task, by shifting your focus to something more pleasant. For example, if you are working on an assignment with the television on in the background, your mind will most likely get you interested in watching something that you would normally never have any interest in watching!
- Acknowledge and reward good self-discipline. So, possibly use the distraction or more pleasant experience as a reward for sticking to your plan/schedule.
- Stop beating yourself up over your procrastination. Judging yourself and criticising yourself comes very easily, but it perpetuates the procrastination.
- Give yourself permission to not get it perfect. We are afraid of failure. It poses such a threat, and therefore our minds try to protect us from it. And one way of doing that is avoidance, i.e. PROCRASTINATION. Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mentality: Something is either perfect, or it is a failure. People with perfectionistic tendencies tend to wait until things are perfect in order to proceed—so, if it’s not perfect, you cannot be finished. Or if it is not the perfect time, you believe you can’t start. This all-or-nothing mentality can hold you back from starting or completing tasks.
If you feel that you are a pro in procrastination and that it is ruining your life, you may find benefit in learning some skills to help you deal with this self-destructive pattern of behaviour. Or, maybe, you can do that some other day!
Author: Willem van den Berg, B SocSci (Psychology & Criminology), B SocSci (Hons) (Psych), MSc Clinical Psychology.
Willem van den Berg is a Brisbane Psychologist with a compassionate, positive and non-judgmental approach, working with individuals, couples and families. His therapeutic toolbox includes evidence-based therapies including Clinical Hypnotherapy (Medical Hypno-Analysis), CBT, ACT and Interpersonal Therapy. William is fluent in both English and Afrikaans.
To make an appointment try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Brisbane on (07) 3088 5422 or M1 Psychology Loganholme on (07) 3067 9129.