Do you know why we procrastinate?
My best friend was the world’s worst procrastinator.
Eight years ago, she left her full-time job and started working for herself as a writer. It was a dream come true. But soon afterwards, she stopped turning up to social events because she was always working late.
And it wasn’t that she had too many projects on the go. As her own boss in a brand new business, she had few clients and fewer deadlines. The problem was that writing and developing her business were much harder than browsing the Internet. So, as she later told me, she often didn’t start work until well after midnight.
It was classic procrastination: a horrible cycle of avoidance, stress, and relief.
Had she continued to ‘work’ that way, she would have gone out of business…or worse. Thankfully, through experience and determination (plus a little research), she got to the bottom of why she was procrastinating – and managed to beat it once and for all.
If you’re in a similar situation or simply want to avoid making the same mistakes, here are the four biggest reasons why we procrastinate – and what to do about them.
4 Reasons Why We Procrastinate – and How to Stop
1) You’re avoiding an unpleasant feeling.
What is procrastination? It’s avoiding having to do something that’s going to make you less happy – like working on a report, starting a new fitness regime, or planning a work meeting.
You might not feel like doing your next task because:
- It’s difficult.
- It’s no fun.
- You don’t know where to start.
- Or you don’t think it’s important.
Difficult, boring, unimportant work is bound to give you an unpleasant feeling – so no wonder you’re procrastinating! Wanting to avoid unhappiness is perfectly natural. But when you procrastinate, that’s all you’re doing – you’re managing your own happiness. This reason why we procrastinate is pretty reasonable when you put it like that.
Solution: find ways to make your work more enjoyable. You can start by forgiving yourself for procrastinating – everyone does it sometimes, after all. However, if you’re going to beat it, you need to change how you feel about your work.
Here are some great methods to try:
- Re-think your task. List the worst things about your work, and find another way to do them. If it’s boredom, make a game of the task. If it’s difficulty, work on finding a better way to do it.
- Make getting started easier. Break your work down into small, simple tasks that are easier for you to stomach. List them all, and check each off as you complete it. Now you’ll have a sense of achievement, instead of a bad mood.
- Ask for help. Doing things alone is often harder and less enjoyable than with other people. Get a colleague or friend on board, and you’ll get things done quicker.
- Time yourself. For me, this ‘gamification’ method has two useful effects. First, going against the clock distracts me from the bad mood a task might put me in. Second, the timer provides a new incentive to finish what I’m working on.
It’s all about removing your procrastination triggers. Try it!
2) You don’t care about your future self.
Now we know that procrastination is a natural way to regulate happiness by avoiding something unpleasant. The problem is that’s a very short-term thinking. What about the future? If you keep avoiding unappealing tasks, you might just find yourself out of a job. You’ll be in a hell of a bad mood then!
More likely, you will manage to complete your work after hours of procrastination. But how do you actually feel then? If you’re anything like me, you’re stressed, worn out, and dreading the next round.
Worse still, you didn’t even enjoy the time you spent slacking off because you were too busy worrying about your unfinished work.
Does procrastination sound like an effective way to regulate your happiness now? Not really. So why do we do it? The answer lies in human psychology.
A Stanford University study shows we think of our present self and future self as two different people, and that we value immediate gratification over future gains. The bad feelings we get from procrastination are a problem for your future self – but you can enjoy the immediate benefits now.
Solution: Connect with your future self. Unfortunately, as humans, we naturally value present enjoyment over future benefits. But it’s not impossible to overcome this ‘hard wiring’.
Make a deliberate effort to:
- Think more about your future self. ‘Future You’ is not another person – it’s you. It’s you who will have to suffer the stress and bad outcomes of slacking off. Keep this in mind, and procrastination will feel less appealing.
- Change how you think about time. A 2013 study published in Psychological Science showed that thinking about task deadlines in hours or days, instead of weeks or years, creates a greater sense of urgency. For example: try completing a job you have three days to do in just 72 hours.
3) Your goals have no deadline.
Everyday work tasks usually have a firm due date that you need to meet. Maybe you’ll procrastinate on them, but you still get them done eventually.
But what about your own life goals? Like starting your own business? Learning the guitar? Finally planning that trip to Paris? For all these goals, there are NO deadlines other than the ones you set. And those are the kind of deadlines you can procrastinate on forever.
Nobody else will care if you don’t achieve your life goals, so you just keep on putting them off. That is until you wake up one morning and realise you’ve lived a rather unfulfilled life. That’s quite depressing, isn’t it?
Solution: Put your own happiness first. As with all types of procrastination, it’s your future self who suffers when you put off life goals. But the negative effects here are much worse than stress and worry, because this time, they’re wasted years and missed opportunities.
Make sure this doesn’t happen to you. Put yourself first. Think about what you really want from life. Set clear goals and deadlines, and don’t let anything get in your way.
When you start working towards what you really want in life, you won’t want to procrastinate anymore.
4) Procrastination seems to be working for you.
Even if you agree with everything in this article so far, part of your brain might still be thinking:
“Hey, procrastination works for me. I’ve been doing it for years and my life is basically OK. I’ll just keep doing it.”
Fair enough. But let’s consider things from another perspective.
We already know that one of the reasons why we procrastinate is because we’re regulating our short-term happiness – a way of avoiding something unpleasant. If you procrastinate every day, that means you’re spending a big part of your life doing, or avoiding, something you don’t enjoy. That can’t be good.
What then is procrastination, really? It’s a big alarm bell telling you to change something in your life to make it more enjoyable!
Solution: Listen to what procrastination is telling you. If you want to stop procrastinating, and maybe be happier too, don’t ignore the alarm bell that is procrastination.
For my friend, developing a writing career was a difficult but rewarding path she simply had to follow. Eight years later, she’s doing what she loves. She’s procrastinating a lot less, and has time for her friends and family as well.
But how do you know whether your procrastination is a forgivable bad habit, or a more serious issue?
Everyone procrastinates to some extent – it’s human nature, after all. But for some people, it can start to seriously, and negatively, affect their life.
To find out whether you have a procrastination problem (or maybe another issue that is inhibiting your productivity), as well as for advice on how you can stop wasting time, try taking this 4-minute time management test. Once you know exactly where you’re going wrong, it will be a whole lot easier to know how to improve, and how to become more efficient and productive.
Now you can follow your own inner voice – and maybe the advice in this article – and take action to change your work and life for the better.