Why we procrastinate (and what to do about it)

We all procrastinate at some point in our lives, whether it's procrastinating over completing a project or putting off painting the living room .A small amount of procrastination is not always a bad thing, as it can give us time to think things through, but regular procrastination can destroy your life as chances pass you by. We're often aware that we're procrastinating, but we still do it anyway. Why is this, and more importantly, what can be done about it?

Why we procrastinate

Procrastination is mostly used as a defence mechanism to protect us from our fears, such as the fear of failure. This behaviour is reinforced by the fact that procrastination is often rewarded. For example, even high school assignments that were completed the day before were often rewarded with a relatively high grade. There was very little incentive to go the extra mile and complete something early and to a higher standard. If anything, this kind of behaviour would often result in alienation from your peers and even physical bullying.

Despite saying to ourselves "that's the last time I'll leave it so late", we still end up leaving important jobs to the last minute. Why?

Fear of Failure

Failure has different meanings for different people. For a perfectionist, anything less than the absolute best result is a failure. For other people, it may be a lack of praise from someone they respect that causes them to believe their project is a failure. This fear is particularly potent as many people (mistakenly) equate their own self-worth to the worth of whatever they create. If the project is a failure, then in their eyes they are also a failure. This way of looking at self-worth can be extremely damaging, as it prevents us from taking chances in case we fall short of some impossible mark.

Fear of Success

As if the fear of failure wasn't enough, now it's the fear of success! This takes several different forms, but a lot of it is down to your own perceptions of the outside world. You might have negative images of successful people, and worry that you might become like them if you succeed. Again, this fear can come from school where most success is frowned upon by peers. It's often easier to lower your performance to an average level just to get by.

The other worry that goes with success is the fear that you will have more and more work piled upon you when you succeed and that you'll eventually become overwhelmed…

Fear of Being Overwhelmed

As well worrying that success will lead to more work being piled on, there is also the initial fear of seeing how much work the project needs in order to be completed. This leads to stress as all those minor tasks rush through your head. In a sense this is similar to starting with a blank canvas and wondering about how you will transform it into a work of art. Feeling overwhelmed can have a large impact on overall productivity, as you run around putting out fires without ever feeling like you're moving forward.

Fear of Finishing

The fear of finishing is quite interesting, as most of us procrastinate about getting started. Fear of finishing is closely tied to the fears of success and failure, in that the project will be "judged" upon completion, which will lead to either success or failure. There is also a fear of the emptiness upon completing the project, which can be especially prevalent if it's been worked on for a long period of time.

Lack of Direction

It's difficult to get started on a task if you're not sure of where it's going, even though it can feel like planning will only slow you down. It's vitally important to have a good idea of the final outcome for a project, even if the finished article will differ. Without an end result in mind, it's hard to go anywhere.

Lack of Discipline / Laziness

I wasn't sure whether to include this on the list, as it's much easier to beat yourself up and say it's down to laziness than to accept you may be afraid of something. If you find you're always putting the rewards first, you might need to take a look at yourself to see if it's really a lack of discipline, or if you have a deeper fear of something. Don't be too quick to write yourself off as lazy.

How do we overcome procrastination?

Detach your self-worth from your work

This is easier said than done, but it's really important to keep your self-worth separate from your results. It's a fact of life that some things don't always turn out how we expected. At the time failure can seem like the worst thing in the World, but given time it's easier to see the good things that came from it. Lessons can be learnt from every failure, and improvements can be made that will make you a better person. If you fail, take some time to look at it before picking yourself up and moving on.

Break your tasks into smaller parts

Large projects should be broken down into many smaller chunks, which can then be completed in short bursts. This can help to prevent the overwhelming feeling when looking at the bigger picture, and can also be useful to get you get started.

Make continuous improvements

In "Agile Achievement", I mentioned making iterative improvements to projects. Many small improvements over time can help break the mental picture that the first release must be perfect. To follow up with the blank canvas analogy, think of using an iterative approach as using light pencil lines to sketch your picture, before adding more detail and finally beginning the actual painting.

Not only do small iterations help break the image of the huge barrier to completion, but they also allow you to make adjustments much easier.

Understand that you can't do everything

There is never enough time to do everything that you want. If you're feeling overwhelmed with work, it might well be time to learn to prioritize your tasks. My favourite method is one used by Brian Tracy, in which you read through your task list and prioritise based on which task would make the most difference in your life if completed. This helps to clarify which tasks are really the most important, and can help prevent you from wasting your time on irrelevant jobs.

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