Trust me, I’m an expert
I am very good at procrastinating. In fact, you could say I have a penchant for putting things off, a proclivity for postponing…I’m a stalling savant, a doctor of dithering, the duke of delay…
ANYWAY, what I’m trying to say is that I have some experience in this subject. My experience has taught me that when I stop procrastinating I get more done (duh), feel better about myself, and waste less time.
Why do you procrastinate?
One word: FEAR.
Fear of failure is a common cause of procrastination. For some people, failure becomes so terrifying that rather than trying and failing they’d prefer not to try at all. This unhelpful belief is often tied to perfectionism or unrealistically high expectations.
Conversely, sometimes people fear success. You can’t stop procrastinating because if you actually succeed then more will be required of you. Or perhaps success will garner you unwanted attention. In either case, success increases the pressure to succeed again, which can discourage people from starting at all.
But what if you’re not afraid and you’re still procrastinating? I’m not frightened by a pile of clean laundry, but you’d better believe I’m going to put off folding it.
Sometimes people procrastinate a task simply because it’s boring. Boredom has been shown to stress the body in similar ways that sadness and anxiety do. That’s why your 8-year-old doesn’t say, “I’m bored” with a smile and a lilt in his voice. He moans, “I’m booooooorrrrred!” because it sucks to do boring things.
Other people procrastinate a task because they lack the skills required to complete it. This one is often related to the fear of failure.
Some people put things off as a form of rebellion. Dad wants you to become a doctor and you want to pursue a music career. You conveniently postpone studying for the MCAT, resulting in a poor score. “Sorry, Dad. I guess I’m not cut out for medical school.”
I work better when I procrastinate
I’ve met people who won’t stop procrastinating because they claim it works for them. They have become dependent on the motivation that waiting until the last minute provides. The stereotype here is the college student who manages decent grades by pulling all-nighters and cramming for exams.
This is a tempting lifestyle because it gives the illusion of having your cake and eating it, too. I say it’s an illusion because most of us who procrastinate don’t actually do better with this approach. We may get by with it, but it does not optimize our performance.
How to stop procrastinating
Since fear tends to be at the root of procrastination, in order to stop procrastinating you’ll need to improve your bravery skills. And, yes, bravery is a skill. Like any skill, with practice you can become better at it.
Bravery is not the absence of fear, by the way. It’s the willingness to act in the presence of fear. You practice bravery by doing scary, uncomfortable things. (Not stupid things, though. I don’t want to hear that anybody decided to take up poisonous snake handling because Dr. Thayer told them to do scary things.)
A simple example of this is to purposely take a cold, short shower in the morning when you would really like to take a hot, long one. Not only will the cold water invigorate your nervous system, it nurtures your willingness to do hard things.
The more skilled you become at doing difficult, scary things the stronger your psychological pain tolerance becomes. This makes it less likely you’ll put something off because it frightens you.
Change your beliefs about failure and success
Look, I know it’s not easy to change self-liming beliefs. You CAN change them, though. Trust me. I’m a doctor.
Failure is not a sign you should give up, it’s a sign you should push harder or change course.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected 9 times before publishers picked it up. Stephen King’s first novel was rejected 30 times. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
Failure is the fertilizer in the garden of success (thought of that one all by myself). It provides the valuable feedback required for improvement. You should welcome it, not fear it.
Fear of success is often just a deferred fear of failure. With success comes the pressure to succeed again or to top your performance next time. This produces the worry that with increasing expectations comes an inevitable breaking point and eventual failure.
If you find yourself paralyzed by fear, ask yourself for help. It goes something like this:
Fearful you: “I’m afraid to ask her out on a date.”
Brave you: “What’s the worst that could happen?”
Fearful you: “She’d turn me down.”
Brave you: “Really? Is that the worst thing that could happen?”
Fearful you: “Well, she could laugh in my face and call me a loser.”
Brave you: “Okay. If she did that how would you feel?”
Fearful you: “Embarrassed and worthless.”
Brave you: “It sucks to feel embarrassed and worthless, but would this be the end of the world?”
Fearful you: “No.”
Brave you: “Does she speak of all human females?”
Fearful you: “No.”
Brave you: “Then if you can handle the worst possible scenario of asking her out there’s no reason not to.”
The two crucial questions in this inner dialogue are: “What’s the worst that could happen?” and “Would that be the end of the world?” Hopefully you aren’t dealing with problems that could literally end the world. If you are then stop reading my blog and call The Avengers.
If you’ve ever looked at a long list of to-do items, felt overwhelmed by where to start, and decided to eat thin mints and watch Netflix instead then you and I have something in common.
It helps if you break your list down using the 80/20 rule. This is the idea that you tend to get 80% of your results from 20% of your work.
So look at all your tasks and break them down into two categories: crucial and bonus. Crucial tasks are ones that are already overdue, are due soon, and/or will make the most impact on you day if completed. The rest are tasks that would be nice to have done, but not urgent.
Look at your list of crucial tasks and reduce it to the 3 most important tasks. Then reduce it to the one thing that if you accomplished you could count your day a success. Once you’ve identified your “one thing” then focus on it with the scalding intensity of 1,000 suns until it is finished. Eliminate all distractions and only stop if someone’s bleeding.
Quick like a bandaid
I remember the first time my son tried to remove a bandaid from his knee. He winced and yelped as he slowly pealed the sticky bandage from his skin. I asked him if I could show him a super cool trick that would make it easier to get rid of his bandaid.
I had him squeeze his leg above and below his knee with his hands. With the swiftness of a striking cobra, I ripped the bandaid from his knee. He gasped, then sighed with relief.
Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that a brief moment of discomfort, even if intense, is better than prolonged suffering.
Procrastination is suffering. Remind yourself next time you are worrying about getting something done to “just rip it off!” My kids are now sick of hearing me say, “Come on. Get it done. Quick like a bandaid!”
You can do it!
Whether it’s due to fear, boredom, rebellion or lack of skills sometimes it just feels good to put stuff off. Trust me when I say it almost always feels better to get stuff done. Experiment with these tips and let me know if they help you stop procrastinating for good!
P.S. Here are some of my favorite books that tackle time management and procrastination.
Note: The links on this page are Amazon affiliate links, which means I get a small percentage of the proceeds if you make a purchase using my link. Thanks!