It’s d-day and you can practically feel the clock ticking. You’re laser-focused on the task at hand which needs to be completed in an hour but in the back of your mind you’re thinking:
Not again! Why??!
I could have started this much earlier, what happened?!
But there’s really no mystery, is there?
What does impulsivity mean? Busying yourself with:
- Emails that weren’t urgent.
- Social media postings.
- Miscellaneous low-level distractions
- Idle chat
- Extra ‘preparation’
- All little tasks and activities that served only to delay the inevitable.
That’s what happened.
The mind games, the justifications, the rationalizations – all of us are familiar with these tricks.
Procrastination isn’t about managing time, it’s about managing emotions.
It’s so counterproductive and yet so many of us do it. According to Piers Steel in the Procrastination Equation 95% of us procrastinate to some degree.
Way back when, when I took exams – any exam – I would ‘wait’ for 5, even 10 full minutes as the anxiety rose, before launching myself as if out of a cannon. Really.
So Why Do We Procrastinate?
Isn’t it just that we don’t want to do something – so we kick the can down the road?
Yes and no.
And of course remember, you might be putting off a task because you’ve had to re-prioritize your workload. If you’re briefly delaying an important task for a genuinely good reason, then you aren’t procrastinating.
But if you start to put things off indefinitely, or switch focus because you want to avoid doing something, then it’s a different story…
We very often procrastinate because we fear failure. Trying something new, or difficult or important in the eyes of colleagues and peers inevitably triggers anxiety.
But think about it. We often ”procrastinate” even checking up on the progress of someone who used to be close but we know is very ill, for example.
We don’t want bad news or bad results – and the associated feelings of guilt and shame.
Procrastination could be about self-worth, it could be a reaction to stress or even a combination, but one thing is clear: it has nothing to do with laziness or apathy.
In fact, it’s proactive.
Avoidance Strategies or How to Make Your Head Spin
You literally choose to engage in one activity (social media eg. for the quick dopamine hits) rather than the project you ‘should’ be tackling.
This is a form of temporary stress relief, but caving to these impulses is a problem multiplier. Even minor episodes of procrastination can make us feel guilty, lead to reduced productivity and cause us to miss out on achieving our goals.
Longer term, we can become demotivated and disillusioned with our work. That’s not healthy! Even if you want to switch jobs or your line of work, poor performance will not help you in the future.
The paramount psychological need that all of us have is to be seen by others as competent, capable and successful. Because that feels so critical, we will actually trade-off other needs to achieve or meet this – since your successes determine your self-worth, and how you think about yourself.
So it’s not just a habit born of indifference. You do care.
Often it is in regards to a project you might be genuinely interested in and enthusiastic about. But when you’ve got a deadline the next day, you are no longer loving it, you just have to get it done.
To put it another way:
You can simultaneously want and not want to do a task. That is, you can both really want to succeed and really fear failing. We’re overly striving, both away and towards something.
Procrastinators aren’t less motivated than the average person. Two forces are colliding – towards success on the one hand and avoiding failure on the other.
And, the more important it is, the more you care about doing a good job and the more likely you are to put it off.
Because the more important it is, the more you’re afraid of messing it up – and you can’t mess something up if you’re not doing it!!
In the end, the fear of not getting it done exceeds the fear of doing it less than perfectly – or to a high standard. So, procrastination, from this perspective, is very effective!
It gives us a built-in excuse for not doing a great job. And what if your project or presentation is a smashing success anyway? Win-Win!
Procrastination as an avoidance strategy protects us, even as it jeaporadizes our performance; we just increase the chance that we’re going to need that excuse (not enough time, dog ate my notes etc).
How To Control Impulsivity and Motivate Yourself
So, you’ve got to get out of that vicious, dizzying circle.
”The 5 Second Rule is simple. If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within 5 seconds or your brain will kill it. The moment you feel an instinct or a desire to act on a goal or a commitment, use the Rule. … If you do not take action on your instinct to change, you will stay stagnant”
Maybe you’re intimidated just by getting started. Fine.
The whole trick is starting. Really. That’s it. So try the 5 second rule. Trigger: stress. Habit: procrastinate. Change that.
Only take your notebook out, and write the title of the project and then spew whatever comes into your head for the next 5 minutes. Anything at all, just anything. Don’t think, associate from the project requirements. 5 minutes, minimum. That’s it. That’s task number 1. Now you’ve earned a popsicle.
- Determine why you’ve been procrastinating.
You need to know this in order to proceed. It doesn’t need to be about self-worth or even stress, but you are putting things off for a reason: you don’t like the project, it’s too easy, you don’t like your boss, you’re too disorganized.
- Break down the steps.
Break down your project into smaller steps, 1-5 for example. Bite-sized tasks are always doable and so less frightening.
- Be very specific with timelines.
This can also be extremely helpful. For example, if you need to complete Project X next week and you have several areas to research, take time to consider which topics to review and ‘elminate’ each day.
- Try the Pomodoro technique.
You work in 25 minute blocks, each separated by 5 minutes. You can of course modify this accordingly – some people use 15 minute blocks.
- Be deliberate with your work environment.
Eliminate unnecessary distractions. (That does NOT include children or dogs! OK, even cats. Let them inspire you) Taking away distractions mitigates impulsivity – but digital distractions especially kill your focus.
- Know your personality type.
Some hacks work better than others depending on who you are and what works for you. We like mindfulness / meditation at the top of the pyramid, but the point is you need to understand yourself and your triggers to in order to develop effective habits.
- If you don’t like the project –
If you’re procrastinating because you simply don’t like the task, try to maintain perspective. Impulsive people are more likely to procrastinate because they are focused only on short-term gain. Aren’t there longer-term benefits of just completing this task? Inevitably, yes.
- If you procrastinate ”because” you’re disorganized –
There are plenty of tools to choose from – as you already know! So that’s not a reason!. Or just watch a Marie Kondo video 🙂
- Reward yourself.
Remember to reward yourself when you cross off each mini-task: chocolate, phone call, flowers, anything you enjoy.
After all, procrastination is stagnation. We can’t simply forego the opportunity to achieve. We can’t just pick easy tasks all the time and say ”Well, I’ve achieved. That’s great, I feel fantastic.”
But the more you expect being successful, the less likely you are to procrastinate.
When you kick the habit the birds will chirp more sweetly, the dog will bark more gently, and the fog of despair will evaporate!
You will regain confidence and a sense of purpose.