Just before I wrote this, I took a nap. A two-hour nap. Mid-afternoon on a weekday. While completing this blog was at the top of my to-do list, I first showered despite plans to exercise later, I called my semi-retired mom who’s free to chat anytime, I checked Facebook for “new stories” six times. And although I vetoed it, I even considered swabbing out the inside of my ancient Keurig with cotton and soapy water. Seriously.
The million and a half views of Tim Urban’s most recent video on procrastination illustrates how many people are trying to overcome this productivity buster. In so many words, Tim says if you procrastinate, you're lazy. Maybe that's true. But I think there’s a bit more to it than that. Why else do we procrastinate finishing (or even starting) tasks?
1. We are overwhelmed.
At least once a year, I peek through my fingers at the stray tools, yard sale ‘gems’ and empty, crumpled boxes littering my garage, all of which leaves no room for my car. Every time, I ritually refuse to start organizing the collection of junk and ‘necessities’, and instead I retreat to the comfort of my couch.
“Not today,” I convince myself.
Feeling overwhelmed can arise for a number of reasons, including:
For many years I closed the garage door vowing to do the job the following week, only to repeat that promise for weeks on end. The mishap? I thought I had to do it all in one swoop. Sometimes we may also have grandiose expectations for the outcome of the project as well – like organizing and labeling each tool or container – that are too lofty for our natural strengths and tendencies.
Lack of resources or skills
We all have limitations. Organizing is really not my forte. I can’t identify half the tools, gadgets or cords in my garage, nor any of their uses. I don’t know how to erect a utility shelf, nor hang shelving on the wall to better organize. If I allow it, I can feel defeated before I even start.
We really don’t fear or dislike activities themselves, we dislike the emotions they bring (boredom, desire to do something easier or more exciting, sadness over sentimental items or stress about decisions to pitch or keep things). Dodging the task allows us to escape the emotions the task will bring.
2. We don’t really want what we say we do, or we don’t want it badly enough.
This is a very common reason for untouched task lists.
I’ve discussed ‘shoulds’ before (check out my blogs Can-Do Versus Want-To and 5 Steps to Victory!). Sometimes our task lists are filled with perceived obligations, such as paying bills and completing school papers. These closely do mimic ‘shoulds’, at least if we want to retain good credit and graduate college. Other ‘shoulds’, however, are disguised as necessary tasks, crafted from erroneous beliefs left floating in our subconscious.
For many years, I’d spent a good part of Saturday avoiding cleaning my house, only for dinnertime to arrive with the house chores still untouched. Although I like clean space, I personally abhor cleaning. Somehow I’d woven the societal belief that “moms should be domestic” into my mind. That false statement conflicted with my desire to do anything else but clean, keeping me miserable and immobile.
Lack of pain
We like an idea, but we don’t want the outcome badly enough to put in the amount of effort it takes to get the job done. Perhaps not completing the task or reaching a goal doesn't negatively affect us enough to boost motivation. Many people say they want to lose weight, yet they are not willing to invest the time to plan meals and exercise regularly nor the energy to forgo temptations. The desire is more of a wish or a hope than a commitment.
Lack of a vision
Sometimes we can’t see beyond the task. We forget to tie our efforts with our vision for what our efforts will bring. Having a vision – the ‘why’ of completion of your task – pulls you through the tough stuff while you work toward your desired outcome.
3. We are just plain pooped out.
At times, procrastination may have nothing to do with the task at hand. Instead, it comes as a result of being burned out from other things happening in life, such as poor health, overworking, a trying relationship, financial strain, or a combination of such. Thoughts, emotions, and physical vulnerabilities can consume enormous amounts of energy. Considering we only have some much energy to dedicate to each day, it's no wonder we put off some tasks to another day.
4. We are waiting for the motivation.
“When I have more energy, I’ll take a walk.”
Sound familiar? Many times we try to wait out our procrastination. Problem is that we could turn grey waiting for that motivation to round the corner. A research-supported concept called ‘behavioral activation‘ suggests that waiting to feel motivated in order to begin our task rarely works.
5. We are actually being productive...and we just don’t know it.
Some people are mental planners (yours truly), putting a lot of thoughtful preparation into a task well before physically tackling the task itself. For instance, while I typically buy gifts last minute, I often research and ponder the perfect gift for weeks. Same can go with project planning. Don’t discount this mental planning; you're still progressing towards your goal. You just need to decide when mental planning no longer offers progression.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Rest assured, while recognizing why you're procrastinating, you can overcome your procrastination by taking a few extra precautions.
1. Break down large tasks.
I eventually separated my garage into four areas and completed the entire task in four weeks, one area at a time. Your best bet? Attack and complete the smallest steps first, and actually quit (your reward) when you’ve reached your goal...don’t keep going.
2. Pair undesired with desired activities.
Reward yourself for finishing undesirable tasks. Just be certain it isn’t something that will sabotage your efforts (ie. rewarding with food for a weight loss goal).
If you just don’t like the task, tap into your problem-solving mode and find another way to get it done. Swap chores with other family members or roommates, or do what I did --- write a check. Once I unearthed my belief about needing to be domestic and chucked it, I eventually paid someone to clean my house, which freed up my Saturdays.
4. Identify and eliminate energy zappers.
Ask yourself what’s draining you. A relationship? A habit? A situation? Something from your past that needs reconciled? Limiting beliefs? Toxic emotions? Make a list. Eliminate your top three, one at a time, over three months.
5. Ask yourself why you want it.
Create a vision for the end result and keep the payoff in mind while you are completing what you committed to. If you find you really don’t want it (i.e., It’s a 'should'), let it go.
6. Get into action.
Instead of waiting for motivation, get active and watch the motivation follow. For instance, if you don’t feel like going to the gym, instead of planting your butt on your couch, make an agreement with yourself to put on your work-out clothes, get in your car, and drive half way there. Chances are good you’ll keep going.
7. Befriend your emotions.
Again, it is not the situations that we dislike, it’s the emotions that the situations bring. Emotions never kill anyone. Be willing to experience these emotions and approach.
All of these actions do take more effort than their counterpart – doing nothing. From this perspective, perhaps Tim Urban is right. The problem isn’t really that sink full of dishes or that messy closet (although there is something to be said about organized space creating an organized life). It’s the time and energy wasted on avoiding those tasks that could be better spent creating your dreams. Or when you procrastinate those very activities aligned with creating the life that you want. That’s the problem.
Or, as Pablo Picasso said, “Only put off to tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
Even with these tips on hand, sometimes it can be difficult to decide where to begin. If you're still struggling with finding the first step, give me a call at 724-387-1650. My coaching and counseling services specifically aim to help people obtain sustainable change! Contact our office to set up a free consultation.
- Diane Dean, RN-BC, LPC, CEG
Diane Dean is a coach, counselor and business leader dedicated to supporting others to reach their fullest potential. She is the owner of Epiphany! Counseling and Wellness Center located in Murrysville, PA. Her passion is to support professionals to experience deep satisfaction and prosperity from their daily work and profound contentment in their personal lives, so they can truly capture the best of both worlds.