As I sit here typing this, every voice in my head screams, begging me to do something else, anything as long as it isn’t writing this article.
Sound familiar? If you’re like most of the population, you’ve encountered procrastination and may even be categorized as a chronic procrastinator. There are loads of advice on how to defeat procrastination, but many fail to dig deep into the root cause and only attempt to provide bandaids to the problem.
What you’ll learn in this article is the psychology behind why we procrastinate and how to defeat it once and for all.
Procrastination is often a problem with how we regulate our emotions. Those with even more severe procrastination often have trouble regulating their emotions as well.
When you find yourself procrastinating all the time, you’re likely experiencing burnout, which is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion from prolonged stress.
It can happen to anybody at any stage of their career. For example, I have a developer friend who was getting paid $135k/yr straight out of college to work for this growing startup. Yet, his initial excitement to work evaporated when he found that the culture was highly dysfunctional. Most of the workers were H1-B visa holders and were hired out of coding boot camp instead of having a Computer Science degree. The company values were ripped straight from Amazon, and nobody embodied what it meant to really work there.
His motivation for work disappeared, his mood slumped, and he started to feel hopeless. Eventually, he decided to work elsewhere. Despite accepting a pay cut, he has never felt more motivated to work because he is surrounded by people of his level where the culture is optimized for employee happiness. This is one case where procrastination was a result of environmental factors.
Other factors could be a value conflict, such as doing work that you disagree with and having no outlying goals.
You must be aware of the purpose of the work you’re doing. You need to be able to see the higher vision and purpose for the work you do. Not having a clear purpose for why you are filing papers can feel demotivating.
There is a story of President Kennedy walking around the NASA HQ and came across a janitor mopping the floor, and he asked that Janitor what he was doing, and he replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon!” Maybe this is an extreme example, but it’s an important point to look at the work you’re procrastinating on and find the greater purpose behind the work you’re doing.
If you’re writing an essay in school, think about what you could learn while writing it. Think about how the grade, how graduating will give you what you need to succeed at doing X, whatever that X is.
1. Name it to tame it
The inventor of Positive Psychology, Dan Siegel, said, “Name it to tame it.” This is the premise behind CBT and why so many apps like Mooditude, Happify, Moodfit are becoming popular. They help you to identify the emotions you’re currently experiencing. It turns out that naming the emotion tends to diffuse and lessen the burden it holds over time.
Another tactic is if the emotion you’ve identified is powerful. You can’t stop it from affecting your present state, then set a timer and for the next 5 minutes, focus as intensely as you can on the emotion. This is a way to validate the emotion, to let it know that you hear it, that you’re paying attention.
The worst thing you can do is ruminate on emotion, let it live in the background state, grab your phone, and mindlessly scroll through TikTok videos or find a substance to numb yourself from what you’re feeling.
The first step, though, is identifying it, and knowing an emotion is there is often the biggest step towards accepting and dealing with them. Look at what are the common ways you attempt to attempt to numb or ignore your feelings. It could be gorging on sweets, but it can also be going for a run and even working!
Exercising is the most recommended way to stress, but we often use it to disassociate from our feelings and not even realize it.
2. Find out where to start.
Procrastinating can feel like being on a hamster wheel just going in circles. Maybe the task is complex or just boring and simple. Often we create a task like “write an essay on procrastination,” but this vague task leaves so many questions and raises my blood pressure just looking at it. When is it due? What about procrastination will it be on? How long should it be? What is the next thing I can do to make progress towards this goal?
If you aren’t already in the habit of defining your goals, I might normally recommend the S.M.A.R.T acronym as a way to define your goals, but blogger Anne-Laure Le Cunff came up with something called PACT, which stands for:
Purposeful = Goal should be meaningful to your long-term purpose. Actionable = The goal should be actionable and something you can control. Continuous = It should be simple and easy to repeat. Trackable = Having a way to document a yes/no as to whether it was completed can make progress easy to track.
Ensuring that your task meets all of these characteristics alleviates the anxiety associated with not knowing what the next action is. It may take some getting used to, but after a while, this process will become second nature, and you’ll be able to spot undefined tasks easily.
Even if a defined task still seems hard, most of our feelings of procrastination are always at the beginning. For some, even playing a video game is difficult because you must first understand the mechanics and find some success with it. The same is true with any work we aim to accomplish.
Once you’re able to get started on something, then there is a phenomenon known as the “progress principle,” which is a psychological effect, whereas the more progress we make towards meaningful work, the more we will feel motivated and improve our mood during the workday.
There is also the Zeigarnik effect, which states that once we have opened a project, a thought, a task, our brains will naturally hold it in memory until we close the book or until we complete whatever the end objective is. So if you start something and then stop, it will be easier to pick it up in the future. This is what Ernest Hemingway used to write. He would purposely stop writing for the day in the middle of a sentence, even if he knows where he wants to go to next because it’s easier to start with that existing idea the next day instead of starting with a blank page.
You don’t have to be an Ernest Hemingway to get started, though. Just try to do X.
The hardest part of any task is the getting started part, so being able to actually make progress will naturally provide you with the motivation to keep going.
3. Use Extrinsic Rewards
Blogger, Arne Jenssen proposes that we put a reward jar that we can open and dig through as a reward for getting through a 25-minute Pomodoro session. In-fact I went ahead and did this myself! I created several notes on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, ProductHunt, Hacker News, and Google News. After trying it a few times, I noticed an increased sense of satisfaction from the reward and the work I just completed, as if the work came with an extra sense of gratitude.
Nir Eyal, the author of Indistractable, proposes that we have a Randomness Machine to help fight procrastination. Many studies show Intermittent Reinforcement as a way to train our pets, which is no different when it comes to ourselves.
Setting up the right systems can be the difference between getting work done consistently and not. We often fail to reward ourselves for a job done right, and one way to motivate ourselves is to set up external rewards as a treat at the end of our work.
4. Create Accountability
Self-help author Steve Pavlina promotes the idea of Self-Accountability. While nothing new, his point is ultimately very true. We can create all sorts of accountability systems, but we need to become accountable to ourselves without the reliance on external factors for us to truly be effective.
While the point Steve makes is 100% true, he leaves out how to find this self-accountability. Ultimately it is the goal we should all strive for, but to get there, we must often still utilize the accountability that can be given to us by others. Here’s a quick list of methods for creating accountability:
Beeminder App You can use this app to create goals for yourself and connect it to a range of applications that track your progress against your set goal. The company only makes money when you fail to meet your goal, and thus you are betting that you will accomplish the goal you create.
FocusMate A popular and growing online community connects you to another person around the world for a focus session. You both share videos and create an intention to work on something for 50m without interruption. Knowing another person is there and can see you create an interesting feeling that compels you to sit out the session and do something productive.
Stickk Similar to Beeminder but it utilizes a simpler interface and is more about creating a goal for a set period of time. You can choose to commit to being charged any amount of money and then choose to donate it to a friend or even an organization you dislike. You can then invite a referee (i.e., friend/partner) who can be your referee to make sure you’re telling the truth.
Sit with your Emotions
No matter what your relationship is with procrastination, it is ultimately a relationship with your own emotions. If you allow yourself to sit with that feeling of not wanting to do something, then you can confront the dread and find a way to move forward.