This is a timely article for me to be writing because while I’m a generally a very action- and results-oriented person, I’m also at times a good procrastinator. And it seems I’m not alone. In a survey I sent out recently to find out more about people’s real challenges and struggles, procrastination came in as one of the top responses when I asked the question “What do you feel is the biggest obstacle holding you back from making breakthroughs in the areas you desire?”
‘Fear’ was the number one response (and will be the subject of another blog post that I’m currently procrastinating about), followed closely by ‘procrastination’. I felt compelled to write about procrastination first because I know it’s a big challenge for most of us. I struggle with it on a daily basis. There are certain things I know I ‘should’ be doing in order to grow my business or to keep on top of things at home, and I often find it really hard to just get on and do them.
And it got me wondering – Why? And what can I do about it? Because it frustrates me and I’m aware that it’s a form of self-sabotage.
I was heartened to find out that I’m only a ‘mild procrastinator’ when I did the Mind Tools ‘Are You A Procrastinator?’ test. But I was told “You need to understand better why you procrastinate – there are several reasons for it, and more than one may apply to you. And you need to learn the steps you can take to stop doing it.”
Exactly. So what exactly are those reasons and what can I do about them?
Firstly, it was nice to know that procrastination is not the same as laziness. As the Mind Tools article on Procrastination says:
“Procrastination is an active process – you choose to do something else instead of the task that you know you should be doing. In contrast, laziness suggests apathy, inactivity and an unwillingness to act. Procrastination usually involves ignoring an unpleasant, but likely more important task, in favor of one that is more enjoyable or easier.”
I find that a great description. I know I’m not lazy because I’m very willing to act. But I definitely have been known to ignore the unpleasant, but more important tasks, in favour of ones that are more enjoyable or easier.
To overcome this pattern of behaviour, Mind Tools suggests that the first thing we need to do is:
Recognise That You’re Procrastinating
As with everything in life, the first step in being able to ‘fix’ something is to notice that you’re actually doing it. I highly recommend the Mind Tools Procrastination Test to find out where you are on the scale of procrastination – Are you a true procrastinator, a mild procrastinator, or not a procrastinator at all (congratulations – lucky you!)?
And once you know where you fit on the scale, you can start to figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing and how to change it. There are many reasons for why you might procrastinate. Here’s a list of the most common ones.
6 Reasons You’re Procrastinating and What You Can Do About Them
1. You’re Not Organised
I know this one definitely applies to me. Even though I’m generally quite an organized person, as a home business owner there is no structure in my day unless I enforce it. It was different back in my old corporate career where there were certain ‘non-negotiable’ obligations like important meetings, deadlines, or required administrative tasks. Having a schedule and deadlines means that you have no option but to do those things. But when you work for yourself, that’s much more fluid. If you don’t feel like doing something, you don’t have to do it. But the guilt and shame that you feel as a consequence of not doing what you know you have to do is very detrimental and can lead to a downward spiral of negativity and inertia, which can be very hard to pull yourself out of (speaking from experience!).
This is why it’s so essential to get organized. One thing that’s worked for me in running my own business is to create a schedule that forces me to do certain things on certain days. Things start going pear-shaped when I don’t keep to the schedule and instead focus my time on the things that are shiny and exciting, easy or fun.
Consistency, routine, and effective prioritizing are essential in overcoming procrastination.
Accountability can help you get things done too. Ask someone to check up on you and regularly remind you of what you promised you would do. This is why coaching relationships are so effective and why I work with a coach regularly. They help you understand what’s important for you and they hold you accountable to the things you say you’re going to do. And we all need that!
2. Poor Decision-Making and Lack of Clear Priorities
Have you ever had those days when you can’t decide what you should actually do, so you just drift through the day being ‘busy’, and at the end of the day you ask yourself “What did I actually do today?”
That’s a day without clear and focused priorities (and is slightly different from not being organised). If you can’t decide what to do, you just end up jumping on the first thing that feels good and suddenly you’ve spent 6 hours doing things that really are not a high priority and you know it.
The best question I’ve learned to ask at the start of each day is Gary Keller’s famous question that he describes in his #1 bestselling book The One Thing which is this:
What’s the ONE Thing you can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?
I recently put together a video explaining The One Thing and how you can apply it (you can watch the video here). Asking that question has been a true game-changer for me and when I get stuck, this is the question I turn to. I highly recommend trying it out.
3. It’s Boring
This is an obvious one and possibly the most common. I’m constantly putting things off because, frankly, they’re boring. Why pay the water bill or spend time writing the legal contracts for your clients when you could do the fun website changes you’ve been wanting to do or make pretty social media images?
The best technique that’s helped me make myself do those boring tasks that need doing is this:
Focus on how good it’s going to feel when you’ve finally done those boring tasks and you can tick them off your to-do list. Keep tuning into the feeling of relief and satisfaction you will feel and use it to get you through the task.
Another thing you can do is promise yourself a reward. If you complete a boring but necessary task on time, reward yourself with a treat; maybe a slice of cake and coffee from your favourite coffee shop. Or if it’s a really big, important task, reward yourself with a massage or anything else that feels like an absolute treat – because you deserve it.
4. You’re Worried About Failing
This is simply ‘fear’ disguised as procrastination. And the only way to overcome this one is to schedule the time to do it and push through the fear. As the famous saying goes “Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.” All the things I’ve been really scared of doing (live videos, leading group calls etc) only became less scary when I finally plucked up enough courage to just do them. And through doing them they became much less scary and even enjoyable.
The more you do something you fear, the more enjoyable it becomes.
There’s a certain adrenaline boost that you get when you overcome your fears that can become addictive with time, to the point where you actually really start getting hooked on doing the thing you once feared.
5. You’re a Perfectionist
Perfectionists are often the best procrastinators. You’re so dedicated to getting something perfectly ‘right’ before you put it out there that you become paralysed with inaction. This was once a big trap of mine, and the only thing that helped me work through this was repeatedly saying the mantra:
Imperfect Action Beats Perfect Inaction.
If this sounds like you, print out this statement in big letters (make it pretty if you have to) and hang it above your desk somewhere where you can see it all the time. And make the commitment to yourself to choose imperfect action above perfect inaction at all times. Watch how this simple mantra changes your life!
6. You’re Worried About Succeeding
You might even be worried about doing something really well because it means that you’ll suddenly be swamped with requests from other people and you’ll get overwhelmed. Maybe you don’t want to be known as someone who gets things done because you’ll end up being their go-to person. In that case, you may just need to be up-front and set some clear boundaries with people. Let them know what you’re willing to do but let them know you have limited time because you have your own tasks to get on with. This may require having some uncomfortable conversations but the effects will be liberating.
I hope this list has given you some insight and helpful strategies to overcome your procrastination patterns. The top one for me remains staying organised in order to overcome my procrastination demons and something I’m working to improve each and every day.
And be sure not to beat up on yourself. Don’t let yourself get dragged into the spiral of shame and guilt that procrastination can draw you into. Be gentle with yourself and congratulate yourself for always doing your best and for actively seeking ways to improve. That in itself is worthy of a little celebrating.
In service to helping you live your brightest life,
Katie De Jong, Ph.D
Global Career Coach for Thriving Professionals
Inspired Careers International