Procrastination Works (Which is the Problem)

We All Procrastinate for the Same Reason: Willpower Just Isn’t Enough

Part of my “Fight/Flight/Freeze” series on brain & behavior. Freeze = Procrastination.

I write about things like spectrums as a metaphor and the balance of forces in terms of polarities. But here, I want to discuss something that affects all of us: procrastination. The problem as I see it is this: procrastination is a problem because it works so well. The relief you feel while procrastinating is not unlike the relief that you’ve dodged a bullet. Even if you know that eventually you’ll have to pay (somehow), that taste of this relief is irresistible.

Everyone procrastinates from time to time, just as everyone experiences mild depression or mild anxiety from time to time. The difference between mild and problematic is based on how much your life is negatively affected by your inaction. It’s not a precise system, because from symptoms to signals, there is a lot of “noise” blocking you from seeing the point at which things go wrong.

Four Steps to Overcome Procrastination

Step One is to recognize the powerful benefits of procrastinating. This is easy: you don’t have to do that awful thing! Procrastination is the warm blanket of not-doing in which we wrap ourselves. We are trading a chronic-slog for immediate-comfort. Most people make the same choice; why would they intentionally suffer?

Step Two is to write down all of the ways that procrastination stops us from getting what we want. The thing missing from well-meaning articles and coaching methods alike is this: you must include both internal and external long-term consequences. In other words, both the loss of self-respect and the loss of opportunities from (and respect of) others should be on your list as long-term consequences of procrastination.

This isn’t about shaming yourself or feeling guilty. It’s just true; think about the people you respect, are any of them chronic procrastinators? Probably not.

Step Three is to start keeping track of how much it will suck to do the things from which you are procrastinating. Keep a written record of how much it will suck on a 1-10 scale. Maybe responding to your colleague’s overly long emails is a 4/10, while starting the new marketing campaign is a 7/10. Maybe doing the dishes is a 9/10?

It is important that you not make any changes yet. You do not need simple behavior change, which almost never works in the long run. You to understand which things are near a 1, and which are near a 10.

Raw data. That’s what you need. Peter Drucker famously wrote, if it can’t be measured, it can’t be managed. Exactly. When you keep track of your feelings, you can better manage them, and you will have more successful experiments. (Here is an excellent counter-point to Drucker’s maxim!)

Step Four is to start experimenting. The best first experiment to run is to ask someone who does not procrastinate how they deal with the natural feelings of “…this will be a slog.” It’s important to remind this go-getter that such feelings are natural, lest they respond with something like, “You just do it… who cares about feelings?” Everyone has procrastinated on something, just ask them about that. “How did you deal with it? What, specifically, did you say to yourself?”

After you write down their response(s), take special note of anything that surprised you. Anything that stokes your curiosity is gold (because curiosity is the secret weapon of change).

Next, use your new curiosity to experiment with the item on your list that is closer to a 1, making one small change a single time. Write that one email. Take that HR survey. Watch that video your boss sent you. Then, write down how much it actually was a slog on a 1-10 scale. It doesn’t matter that you know it was lower, write it down anyway.

Here is another step often missing from otherwise well-meaning articles and coaching methods on overcoming procrastination: now write down why it was “o.k.” to take on that slog. This is how you overcome the backslide we often see from willpower alone. If you don’t write down why it’s o.k. to do something you are resisting, you’ll regress to old habits. I call this “Overcoming the Primal Learning Loop.”

There is not much magic left in this world, but the fact that we, as I often say, write neuroplasticity into existence is as close to secular magic as I’ve ever seen. Lots of feelings get automatically turned off and on throughout your day, outside of your awareness. Writing down why it’s o.k. to do something that feels like a slog – when it’s based on actual experiences – is a kind of magic, because it works so well in the long run.

You may find that some of the things on your list really are a slog! It’s a 9/10! That’s fine. For these items, you need to see if the consequences are as bad as you believe they will be. What will you lose? Is that o.k. or not o.k.? Why?

Here is a good way to capture the experiments you run: write down the facts (what happened, objectively); write your story about those facts (your subjective thoughts and feelings about what happened); and then write the moral of the story (the lesson you’ve learned about why it’s o.k. to enter the slog).

  • Fact:  I watched the training video.
  • Story:  It wasn’t as bad as I thought; it was actually a 2/10, not a 7/10.
  • Moral of the Story:  Taking care of my HR tasks is not nearly as bad as I believe it will be; it’s pretty much o.k. to deal with these fundamentals.

After several rounds of this, you will have a much clearer view on your procrastination, and you will be much less likely to procrastinate. You might still have some areas where it feels crappy no matter how much you write down. But this process can even help you with those. I love to procrastinate. But I refuse to block out those other voices (all mine), reminding me why the task at hand is important.

“Important” is a garbage term, like the word “understand.” In the 2000’s, the quasi-government agencies that provide accreditation to graduate programs in the U.S. started to ban the use of the word “understand” for the professors who evaluated program learning outcomes. In other words, they wouldn’t be accredited if they wrote, “Students will understand the relevance of developmental psychology for working adults.” They had to be more specific.

The word “important” is even worse, because it hides the distinction between fundamental and significant. Air is fundamental for breathing; snorkeling in the Florida Keys is significant because it is rare and requires fundamentals like air, a boat, and vacation time. “Importance” is actually a pyramid, where the significant stuff is on top.

Building your own pyramid of significance is difficult, it is a slog. But the tasks you are doing (be it housework to turn a house into a home or working on a presentation to turn projects into revenue) are all leading to a better quality of life. And that process becomes a virtuous cycle.

By competing with your Primal Learning Loop, writing down the moral of your story, you will find that telling yourself “I just need to do this and get it over with” is much more effective. Getting your fundamental tasks accomplished is a virtuous cycle, it feeds on itself, and is more likely to pull you up and out of the procrastination blanket.

Not much in life is black-and-white. But when you exploit the growth opportunities of the 1/10 – 5/10 slog-level items on your list, you’ll be in a great position to build a virtuous cycle of getting things done.

“How do I not procrastinate on doing these types of experiments?” you might be asking. Good question! On a scale of 1-10, how much of a slog do you think this will be? You know what to do from here. Try to get the facts, record the story, and create the moral of the story. See if it’s as bad as you believe it will be. Write down the results and start writing your new life into existence.