It’s Sunday night and the clock’s ticking…
You’re working feverishly to patch together your notes and slides for that big presentation you have tomorrow, silently cursing yourself for not starting sooner.
How did this happen? What went wrong? Why did you lose focus?
Well, there was the week before the deadline where you convinced yourself that you “still had plenty of time”, that day you lost cleaning your entire house so you could “think clearly”, and the multiple hours this morning you spent “waking up” by scrolling through Instagram and watching motivational videos on YouTube…
Sound familiar? If so, you’re in good company!
Procrastination is something that bites us all at one point or another. So, in this article, we’re going to spend a little bit of time understanding why this happens and what we can do to get things back on track.
What is procrastination exactly?
In its most basic form, procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing a thing that we know we need to do.
We might tell ourselves that we’re going to get this thing done tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow. But for many of us – unfortunately – tomorrow never comes.
I’m sure we’ve all been here at one point or another, right?
Why do we do it?
People often assume that procrastination is simply a matter of willpower, that if you procrastinate you must just lack discipline and be lazy. But in reality, the situation is far more complex than this.
When we’re given a task to complete, usually, we rely on self-control to push ourselves over the finish line. We also rely on our motivation, which is fuelled by the expectation of receiving some kind of valued reward for our efforts.
If both of these things are running smoothly, then we’re usually pretty likely to get things done in a timely manner.
What can sap our motivation and self-control?
There are a number of things that can throw a spanner in the works when it comes to motivation and self-control. For example, many of us may experience anxiety, fear of failure, or other negative emotions in the lead-up to a deadline. This anticipation of negative consequences can interfere with our motivation and will often prompt us to avoid the triggering situation entirely.
Similarly, if a reward for completing a task is too abstract or too far in the future, again, we may lose our motivation. For example, I know I found it really hard to motivate myself during my first year of university, a time when graduation – the reward – was still a long time away.
Point is, having a large gap like this between a task and a reward can drain our motivation levels super quickly. If this happens, we usually find ourselves with a one-way ticket to procrastination station.
Self-control is something else that we need to think about.
When our self-control short circuits, we often lose the ability to effectively regulate our behaviour. This can cause us to postpone things unnecessarily, even when we know we should be doing them. Our ability to exercise self-control can be negatively affected by a number of things. For example, if we’re exhausted, it can be much harder to will ourselves into doing something. I’m sure we’ve all gotten to the end of the day and blown off work or study before when we’re tired.
The bottom line is this. When our self-control and motivation outweigh the effects of distractions and other demotivating factors, we stand a pretty good chance of getting our work done in a timely manner. Conversely, when negative factors such as exhaustion or anxious thoughts outweigh our self-control and motivation, we end up procrastinating.
Strategies to put procrastination back in line
Knowing the psychology behind procrastination is all well and good, but you’re probably wondering what we can do about it. Answering this question isn’t always straightforward, and the answer will vary depending on the person that we’re talking about. However, at the end of the day, procrastination is a habit – a bad one that we want to prevent ourselves from slipping into. Just like any other bad habit, there are a number of strategies we can use to minimise the chance of us falling into this pattern of behaviour.
Some of the following suggestions might be worth considering to help you get started.
- Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past. Research tells us that self-forgiveness can help us feel more positive about ourselves and reduce the likelihood of procrastination. Basically, we need to go easy on ourselves sometimes. Nobody wants to work for a mean boss after all!
- Commit to the task. Be more intentional about the things that you need to get done. Write down the things that you need to do and specify a time for doing them. This will help you to break up your work and stay on track.
- Give yourself a reward. We spoke about the importance of rewarding ourselves for a task earlier. So, if you complete a task on time, give yourself a small reward – like playing a video game or eating some chocolate. Also, be sure to appreciate the feeling of getting things done on time!
- Introduce accountability. To put things simply, peer pressure works! By having someone that you have to answer to if you don’t finish your work – such as a friend or partner – you’ll be more motivated to get things done so that you don’t disappoint them
- Work as you go. Tackle incoming tasks as soon as they come up, rather than letting them build up over time. This can feel good in the moment and goes a long way in reducing our stress levels down the line
- Change up your self-talk. The phrases “need to” and “have to,” for example, imply that we have no choice in what we do. This can make us feel disempowered and might even result in procrastination. However, saying, “I choose to,” implies that we own the day, and can make us feel more in control of our workload
- Minimise distractions. Mute your email and social media notifications, and avoid sitting anywhere near a TV while you work. Attention is our most valuable asset and we don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be!
Okay, so hopefully a few of those suggestions have got you thinking about ways that you can overcome procrastination in your own life.
Remember though, habit formation and behaviour change are different for everyone. So if something doesn’t work, don’t be discouraged.
It just means that you might need to go back to the drawing board and try a different approach.