“My advice is to never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.”Charles Dickens
Procrastination is a universal human challenge that everyone has faced in their lives. In fact, our brains are wired to delay or avoid challenging scenarios or things we do not want to do as much as possible. It is a challenge with roots within our biology and psychology, which is why it can be extremely difficult for someone to overcome a habit of procrastination. Everyone procrastinates—even the most productive human beings who live among us. What separates a productive person from an unproductive person is the way they consciously manage their brain’s inherent tendency to procrastinate.
Take a minute to imagine the following scenario.
“The clock is ticking and you are barely an hour away from the deadline of a paper you have to submit. You still have so much to do, and even though you are furiously typing away, your brain feels numb and uninspired. You know you would have done a better job if you took your time and wrote this paper, but you kept putting it off until the last minute and now there is just no time. You type something just to fill the paper, rephrasing some information you found in Wikipedia without even a complete understanding of what you are writing. Once you finish, you do not even read it again because you know it is no good, so you submit and forget about it. Your grade is abysmal so you are determined to do better next time, but somehow you find yourself in the same exact scenario again and again.”
Does this remind you of yourself? It does not matter whether it is a college term paper, a work presentation, or simply putting off organizing a birthday party for a loved one—when you procrastinate, it is inevitable that the final outcome of the task will be less than perfect. The complexity of procrastination is that we do not only procrastinate on things we do not like. Many of us struggle with accomplishing things that we know would do us great damage if we do not manage time and do them properly. When procrastination hits, it can be difficult to accomplish even the simplest of tasks. I personally know someone who procrastinated on a small task for six whole months, and once he finally got around to doing it, it took him only twenty minutes.
Chronic procrastination is the enemy of success. It is a habit that can destroy your potential, and make you an underachiever even if you are talented and intelligent. The fact that you would work well under pressure, so procrastination would not affect the quality of your work is a great myth. Even if you manage to simply get the task done by brute force and excessive hard work at the last minute, it will never reach the quality of the work you would have done if you overcome procrastination, manage time, and get the task done leisurely.
The panic that settles in the day before you have to get something done is not healthy for you, even if it may give you an adrenaline rush to push through and get it done after pulling an all-nighter. When you procrastinate on a goal, it may seem painful, daunting, and even impossible, no matter how much you desire to get it done. In this article, we look at what exactly procrastination is, why we do it, the science behind it, and several coping mechanisms and management skills that will help you overcome it once and for all.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination involves intentionally and unnecessarily delaying or postponing something even with the knowledge that there will be negative consequences in doing so. It is a timeless and highly common human trait that has been around for thousands of years. Ancient Greeks had a term (“Akrasia”) to explain the behavior of acting against better judgment and delaying important things, and prioritizing rest and leisure due to a person’s lack of self-control. To put it all simply, procrastination is when you postpone something that you can accomplish now. It could be something as simple as laundry, or as important as submitting an academic assignment. All kinds of procrastination have a hindering effect on the productivity levels of a person.
Procrastination is Not Laziness or Relaxation
Many people use the words procrastination and laziness interchangeably. While there are apparent similarities between the two, not all procrastination is because of laziness and vice versa. Laziness is mostly feeling apathetic about an outcome, especially when it is not interesting or does not excite you. It is a passive emotion and a simple unwillingness to act on something. Procrastination, on the other hand, is an active emotion. It is a conscious decision not to act on something, while clearly knowing that there will be consequences. We procrastinate on important tasks, while laziness is a general trait. Since procrastination is a conscious emotion, many people feel the guilt associated with it. Laziness, on the other hand, is passive. It includes a lack of concern or interest in something.
When looking at what procrastination is, it is also important to debunk a few myths about this common human condition. In this fast-paced hustle culture, many people assume that if someone takes time to relax and rest, it is the same as procrastinating. This is untrue. Confusing the need to rest as a way of procrastination can be extremely damaging to both physical and mental health. As long as you plan your work ahead with time to relax and rest in between, you should not feel as you are procrastinating when you let yourself breathe and be away from work for a while. In fact, relaxing helps recharge your mind and be more efficient in your work. Procrastination, on the other hand, drains your energy and makes you feel uncomfortable.
Why Do We Procrastinate?
There is nothing about procrastination that makes a person feel good. The guilt associated with procrastination is extremely uncomfortable and daunting; it leads to losing opportunities and comes with only negative consequences. Still, day after day, people tend to procrastinate. This brings us to the question of why. Why exactly do we procrastinate? What goes in our brains that we put off even the most important tasks for later, knowing that it will only get worse and the quality of our performance would plummet as time goes?
While there are many different ways we procrastinate, the reason for procrastination is common and simple. We avoid a task or an action when just the thought of doing it cause us great discomfort and pain. Interestingly, we feel this even when we can perfectly accomplish a task, and it is within our skills to get it done easily. Many people think the reason is the lack of willpower, but the real cause for this destructive trait is the lack of intrinsic motivation we have. It means the ability to do something and see it through to the end without any external rewards.
Everyone has a comfort zone. It is not a physical space, but more of a set of avoidance behaviors we fall back into when something feels too challenging to us. Our tendency to stay inside our comfort zone is another reason that we procrastinate on things that helps us grow and get us to a place that is higher and better than where we are. The moment we feel the slightest discomfort in making a decision or starting a task that we have to complete within a certain deadline, we tend to treat it to our comfort zone in the form of procrastination. Most of the time we do it without even realizing that we are doing it. Unfortunately, the comfort that we feel in the so-called comfort zone that we build within our minds comes with the high price of never being able to live up to our true potential.
There is an evolutionary trait developed in the human brain that is called “time inconsistency.” It is an interesting phenomenon that explains why we tend to procrastinate even if we desperately want to get something done. It means the human brain is extremely partial towards immediate rewards or instant gratification rather than rewards that will arrive in the future. Back in the early days of evolution, this trait made sense. When we were hunters and gatherers, our needs were few, and almost all of them could be achieved within a short amount of time.
When our lives started getting more complex, our rewards started to become a lot later. We need to perform well and work for an entire month until we can get a paycheck. We need to study for a long four years in college until we can get our degree. This is a direct contradiction to the way our brains are wired. That is another huge reason we tend to procrastinate—it is just that our brains do not know better.
When we set an exciting goal and start working towards it, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the outcome. After the initial rush of excitement wears off, it can be incredibly difficult to get your brain to focus so you can get a long-term payoff without settling for instant gratification. With our smartphones always in our hands, we have access to a device that will constantly give us small instant gratifications, especially in the forms of likes on social media. People who are incredibly disciplined and dedicated to their future selves can use their willpower to fight against instant gratification, but not everyone has that skill. That is where many people stumble.
Here are a few reasons why people procrastinate:
- Inability to make a decision
- Lack of willpower to start a new task
- Lack of self-discipline to continue doing a task without immediate rewards
- Lack of good lifestyle habits
- Time insensitivity or being unaware of the value of time management
People who have won the battle against procrastination are aware of a simple fact. You simply cannot motivate your present mind to do anything without even the slightest reward that you can feel at the present. For some people, the reward of the dopamine hit you get once you complete a task is enough. However, many people have to strategically break down their tasks and give themselves actual treats, such as a candy bar or the promise of playing a video game in order to get themselves to work. At the end of the way, even though the reason we procrastinate on challenging things is that we want to avoid the pain of getting something done, the pain of procrastination is often more uncomfortable, excruciating, and daunting than actually getting something done.
If you do not understand the biological science and the psychology behind why we procrastinate, you tend to repeat it until you lose all the amazing opportunities that life may present to you. Let us have a look at what really goes on in our brains and the mind when we decide to simply postpone an extremely important task, and sit somewhere with debilitating guilt and panic without managing to relax or get anything else done.
Psychology and Science Behind Procrastination
Let us start by stating one important fact. For many people, the tendency to procrastinate is more than a lazy habit, incompetence, or simple lack of motivation. It is a more chemical and biological tendency that requires more understanding and a strategic approach to overcome since our brains are almost wired to help our procrastination habits. Simply put, our brains like us to procrastinate and relax rather than tackle even the least challenging tasks. It is a battle between two areas or structures of the human brain—the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
- Limbic system
The limbic system consists of our hypothalamus (pleasure center of the brain), the amygdala, and the hippocampus, among other things. It deals with our emotional and behavioral responses, and it is one of the strongest parts of our brain which controls behaviors essential for our survival. Some of the behaviors controlled by our limbic system include reproduction, caring for children and loved ones, and the fight or flight response when we are faced with a difficulty. The components of the limbic system are buried deep within our brain, which means that we have had it since very early in human evolution
- Prefrontal Cortex
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that controls our cognitive functions. It is located at the front part of your frontal lobe and helps you plan complex tasks, execute them, express your personality and moderate your social behavior. It is also responsible for your selective attention and short-term and long-term visual and verbal memory. The most important function of PFC is called executive functioning. This involves a set of complex and important mental skills that use your working memory, logical thinking, and self-control to fully execute a task until the end. The pleasure chemical of the brain, dopamine, helps the prefrontal cortex properly modulate its functions.
When people procrastinate on something important they have to do, it is always a battle between their limbic system—which pushes them towards avoiding a challenge, and their prefrontal cortex—which helps them properly plan and execute a task. Since our limbic system is a more developed and strong part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex tends to lose the battle unless we give it some reinforcements such as short-term rewards to boost its function. Not every procrastinator is the same. According to the way they handle procrastination, and their brains work, they can be divided into three different categories.
- Thrill-Seeking Procrastinators
- Avoidance/Perfectionist Procrastinators
- Indecisive Procrastinators
The thrill-seekers often intentionally postpone things because they genuinely enjoy the panic and the rush of trying to meet a deadline with barely any time. Some of them are able to manage their executive functions and get the task done well before the deadline, but they wait just for the thrill of racing to the deadline. They often have high levels of intelligence, and their quality of work does not overly suffer because of the limited time they have to complete a task.
The avoiders are fear-driven. They can be perfectionists who can get something done easily, but they keep avoiding it, knowing there is no way they can do a perfect job at it. The reason they delay the task is that when there is only a limited time to meet a deadline, they can justify their imperfect execution to themselves, saying that it was because of the limited time, and not because their skills were unable to meet the high standards of perfection in their minds.
Indecisive procrastinators are perhaps the most common among the people who tend to chronically procrastinate on tasks. They go through a phenomenon called decision paralysis when there are important decisions to make in order to get a task done. Some of the examples are putting off organizing a party because of the inability to pick a theme, or putting off repainting a house because the first step of the task is to decide a color. Moreover, with our smartphones and the internet, there is always a massive amount of options for even the smallest decisions. This sheer amount of options and choices can easily put someone in a decision paralysis state.
Procrastination Management Skills
Humans have procrastinated on things for as long as they have been walking on this earth. However, thankfully, even from the early days when hunters and gatherers went out to forage plants and hunt animals for food, we have found ways to overcome our tendencies to delay important tasks and get things done. Once you understand the nature of procrastination and why we do it, you can apply numerous strategies to stop yourself from giving in to one of the most self-sabotaging habits a person can have.
The starting point of learning how to overcome procrastination is understanding that when you delay taking action on a certain task, you are avoiding the discomfort or the pain of starting the task, not necessarily the task itself. Therefore, if you manage to push through the brain’s limbic system and make yourself start working on something, you will likely be able to see it through to the end. A great first step to overcoming procrastination is practicing the method called “The Reversal of Desire”. It involves visualizing the pain you are avoiding by procrastination as a harmless black cloud that is blocking your path. Then, you have to acknowledge that there is more harm in staying where you are than moving forward. This helps give priority to the prefrontal cortex of your brain and helps you conquer your procrastination.
Here are a few more procrastination management skills that you can develop in order to finally propel yourself through the dark and daunting cloud of procrastination.
Take Small Steps
One of the biggest reasons people procrastinate is when a task or a goal appears to be too big, they simply cannot figure out where to start. While large and complex goals and tasks are inevitable in life, trying to take one giant leap and complete it would only put your brain in a state of debilitation called procrastination. This is why it is always important to break down large tasks into manageable small steps. As I explained earlier, our brains are simply wired to stay away from tasks that appear to be too big or challenging. When you break down a large task into small achievable steps, your brain stops being defensive and propels you to get up and make that happen.
The reward center in your brain releases dopamine whenever you manage to accomplish a task. That is how you maintain the momentum of the executive functioning that is done by your prefrontal cortex. The more you break down the tasks, the more you will be rewarded with dopamine, making you want to stop procrastinating and accomplish more.
Give Yourself Rewards for Different Levels of Accomplishment
Sometimes, the quick dopamine hit you get from accomplishing a small task is not enough to break through the layers of procrastination powered by your strong limbic system. That is when you have to create a system where you give yourself a small or pleasurable reward or a treat for every little step that you take. It could be something as simple as eating a little piece of candy, getting up and walking in your neighborhood, or ordering your favorite lunch if you manage to finish your project by that time. Our brain craves rewards, and the better the reward, the easier it will be for you to focus for prolonged periods of time and get something done.
When you give yourself rewards for small accomplishments, however, make sure you do not indulge too much in them and forget the bigger goal you are trying to reach. For example, if you treat yourself with some social media time for writing one page in your assignment, there is the risk of you wasting several hours on social media. Understand those risks, and plan your rewards accordingly.
Make Yourself Accountable
In your quest to beat procrastination, accountability is an extremely important aspect that will help you be consistent and disciplined. Accountability involves being responsible, willingness to accept if you fail, and working towards correcting that behavior. While using trackers and milestones to practice self-accountability is ideal, for many people who have developed a habit of procrastination, having an accountability partner is important. An accountability partner is a person who will help you keep a commitment. It is as simple as asking a friend to check with you a few days before a deadline to see the progress you have made in a certain task.
When you try to find an accountability partner, it is best that you go for someone who is doing the same task as you do. That way, you can keep each other accountable. This is a great way of tackling responsibility, especially when you procrastinate on physical tasks such as working out.
Having a proper plan in place for any task helps keep any procrastination tendencies at bay. When you have a clear idea about what you need to accomplish next, it can be quite difficult to procrastinate on that. If you are aware of a procrastination habit that you have, at the beginning of every new project, take time to make an elaborate plan. That way, when the interest in the project eventually fades, you can simply stick to the step-by-step plan that you made, rather than procrastinating because you do not know what to do.
For example, if you have a problem with always putting off cooking healthy meals, make sure you prep for each individual meal on the day you do grocery shopping. When you have a prepped meal ready in the fridge, you are less likely to order an unhealthy meal.
Set Up Routines
A routine is a set of actions or tasks that you do regularly. With enough persistence and repetition, routines turn into habits. For someone who likes to procrastinate, developing strategic routines is one of the best ways to overcome procrastination. Having a routine in place helps take the decision-making aspect away from a task, which can drastically reduce your need to procrastinate. For example, if you have a morning routine that involves ten minutes of cardio right after you brush your teeth, you do not have to keep on making that decision every morning. With a routine, you can simply get things done without thinking about them, which is one of the best ways to beat procrastination.
Overcoming Procrastination by Facing the Discomfort and Pain Head On
There is always a great deal of pain, panic, guilt, and stress that is caused by procrastination. This is what distinguishes this uniquely human trait from laziness, which is the inherent unwillingness to get something done, and apathy, which is simply not being interested in getting something done. The pain of procrastination is not only psychological. The anxiety and panic that are associated with procrastination can often be manifested in gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, or even issues in the immune system that attracts a whole slew of other diseases. It does not matter whether you procrastinate on professional or personal things; it can always spill over to other areas of life, making your life miserable.
Many people who look at a procrastinator from the outside would assume that they simply do not care, or that they are enjoying doing nothing. This is far from the truth. Procrastination itself brings so much pain and suffering. It is debilitating and daunting. It makes even the simplest tasks appear impossible. With the weight of procrastination on our backs, we have put immense effort to climb even the smallest of hills that we have in our life.
While it may appear that procrastination is more common in the professional world, many people procrastinate on more of their personal duties and tasks that they do when they work. It could be something as simple as making an appointment at the dentist, or speaking to your spouse about a concern you have with regard to your relationships—when procrastination hits they just seem too daunting and impossible. The inevitable tragedy when it comes to procrastination is that there is always a greater cost.
When you procrastinate on making a simple dentists’ appointment, it could be the difference from filling a small cavity to getting a root canal treatment. When you procrastinate on sitting down and talking through a problem with your spouse, it could be a difference between having a few uncomfortable and awkward minutes to getting a divorce. The pain of doing the task is always less than the pain of procrastination. That is why it is important that you face the pain of doing the task and tackle it head-on without sitting with the guilt of procrastination.
An important thing you should remember when dealing with procrastination is that it does not always look like sitting somewhere doing nothing while there is something important to do. The time you procrastinate on something almost always looks like simply being too engaged in a less important task, so you have an excuse to reason with your own mind. This is why when you have a college paper due, you end up cleaning your entire apartment. Or when you have to get an important work presentation done, you spend your morning replying to emails.
You are avoiding the greater pain by doing a less painful task, which ends up getting you nowhere. Just because you do something else, does not mean your main task would be any easier once you beat procrastination and finally gather enough willpower to sit down and start working on it. This is why you need to be disciplined enough to push through the initial pain and start doing your important task without procrastinating on it.
How Deliberate Procrastination or Intentional Delay Can Help Improve Your Productivity
As we come to the end of this article, there is another insight that I want to leave you with, so you can not only beat your procrastination tendencies but also use them to further propel you in your journey towards productivity and living up to your highest potential. This is called Deliberate Procrastination. If you are thinking that I am trying to contradict myself by asking you to intentionally delay important tasks, stay with me for the next few paragraphs—that is not what mean!
Deliberate procrastination is all about prioritizing your tasks. When you are faced with too many tasks on your to-do lists, the sheer volume of the things that you have to accomplish can put you into a state of decision paralysis, propelling you to procrastinate on tasks that you can easily get done.
The moment you feel like you are falling down the dark rabbit hole that is procrastination, you need to gather yourself and have an objective look at what is making you procrastinate. The first step is to take a pen and paper or open up a new document on your computer and list down all the tasks you need to do. It does not matter how big or small or seemingly insignificant they are, simply list them down. This will help organize your cluttered mind that is screaming to just give up and procrastinate.
Then, take a few minutes to prioritize that list you just made. Are there any time-sensitive tasks that you have to get done immediately? If there are things that you can get done immediately, pause for 10 minutes and do them right away. This may involve shooting a quick reminder email, tidying up your workspace, writing a thank you note, filling up your water bottle, or taking out the garbage. It is extremely important that you do not spend more than 10 minutes on this. Set up an alarm if you must.
The next step is to see if you have any conflicting tasks on your list. Are there tasks that are neither urgent nor important when you compare them to the other heavier and important tasks that are on your list? These are the ones you should intentionally delay. Make a conscious decision to do them later when you have more time, and clear them off from your mind. You can save them in a different list or a page so you will not forget them, but the thought of them would not disrupt you when you are engaged in a more important task.
Another way to deliberately procrastinate is when you hit a creative block or a wall when you are doing an important task. You simply cannot get yourself inspired enough to move on with your creative task, but you cannot focus enough to get something else done either. If this happens, make a conscious decision to stop that task, and get back to it later. In this scenario, it is extremely important to block a time later in the day to come back and attempt. You need to be disciplined enough to show up at that allocated time to make deliberate procrastination more productive.
On a final note, procrastination is universal. It is deeply ingrained in who we are as humans and is a part of our survival psyche that goes back to the very early days of human evolution. The good thing is with proper strategies, behaviors, and habits, you are able to overcome your procrastination habit, no matter how severe you think it is. At the end of the day, it all comes down to one simple fact. The pain of procrastination is always higher than the pain you have to go through in order to accomplish a task—no matter how big or small it is.
Therefore, you need to push through the panic and pain to take one small step in the path of productivity, and then keep on taking small steps until you reach your ultimate goal.
As Alexander Graham Bell said, “The only difference between success and failure is the ability to take action”. So, go ahead and take that small step!
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