Procrastination is an everyday problem for many, and it is a pathological problem for a few, especially when there is some associated mental health disturbance. People know this and now there is a shift in understanding procrastination – it’s not really about habits or time management, it’s about failing to manage emotions associated with a task. Effectively, we procrastinate to repair our mood when negative emotions about a task take over and force the brain to delay the task, – to dilute the negative emotions and avoid some perceived “threat”.
I’ve written extensively on how procrastination is about managing emotions and why we procrastinate using the phone. For this article, I’ll focus exclusively on how procrastination manifests in everyday life. I’ll look at possible reasons I’ve witnessed while counseling clients for common types of procrastination.
Procrastination appears as:
- Doing a distracting activity that improves your mood when you should be doing something else
- Delaying a task indefinitely
- Thinking extensively about a task without doing it
- Knowing you should do something now but failing to do it
- The emotions behind procrastination
- Procrastinating a difficult phone call
- I quit social media, why am I still procrastinating?
- Why am I planning so much and not getting work done?
- Why am I on my phone the moment I find something difficult in my study material?
- Procrastinating work submissions
- Procrastinating cleaning your room and doing chores
- This task will take too long, so I’ll wait until I am free
- The issue with waiting for motivation or inspiration
- Some helpful changes to rigid beliefs about procrastination
The emotions behind procrastination
Sometimes, the negative emotions related to a task you are procrastinating on are not in your awareness. You may be too occupied with distraction activities to see those emotions. The emotions will mostly come out when you ask 3 questions:
- How do I feel about doing this task?
- What am I expecting to happen if I finish it or keep delaying it?
- What exactly am I afraid of? Is it about me? The task? Someone else?
Fear of failure, fear of being judged, fear of feeling incompetent, etc., are common themes in answers to these questions. The template for most procrastinated tasks is a fear of something. Because, if that fear isn’t managed, many other emotions take over and make you delay the task till that fear feels unrealistic. Look out for emotions like shame, fear, anxiety, low confidence, fear of judgment, and threats to identity and achievement by using the 3 questions.
Procrastinating a difficult phone call
A difficult phone call is essentially anticipating a stressful conversation or difficult conclusion that you don’t want to confront.
Solutions: Write down what you want to say and stick to your primary reasons. List down everything good that can happen through the conversation. Openly accept that some difficult conversations need to happen without planning and that they are a part of everyday life. Focus on the relief you will feel after having the conversation. Relax your body before the phone call because relaxing makes it easier to think positively.
Because social media was mostly a symptom of procrastination and not a cause. We procrastinate because we want to repair a bad mood and choose pleasurable activities (like social media) to do so. Chances are you are procrastinating because you aren’t able to tolerate the negative mood caused by your tasks. You probably used social media to repair your mood and got the cause-effect inverted – you used social media because you were anxious about a task; you didn’t delay a task because you were on social media.
Solutions: Start tolerating the negative mood and thoughts by giving negative thoughts less importance. Clearly outline your work in small bits so they don’t emotionally overwhelm you. Use better distractions like music and simple multitasking to engage your attention without letting negative thoughts or a bad mood take over your mind.
Why am I planning so much and not getting work done?
Planning is a productive form of procrastination. If you are spending a lot of time planning your work or studies or even a trip, you are taking comfort in the fact that planning is productive so you don’t have to do other important work. Students often spend hours and hours of their study time collecting notes and organizing their materials before they start studying. They are essentially avoiding studying by overplanning. Another reason you may be overplanning is because you may have a belief that you will fail at your work if you don’t plan well.
Solutions: Plan for a bit and start thinking of execution. If you are collecting notes, start studying them even if you have not fully collected all your notes. If you are learning new software for work, start executing with whatever you know and learn on the job. Don’t wait to fully learn the software or tool.
Why am I on my phone the moment I find something difficult in my study material?
Getting distracted from difficult work and not something easy is a classic form of procrastination that is essentially a fear of failure or fear of feeling stupid. If you don’t understand or like something, you’ll want to avoid it.
Solutions: While learning, give up judging yourself on how much you know. Don’t have unrealistic standards for what you are supposed to know and how long it takes to learn. Use healthy study practices and follow learning guidelines that work.
Procrastinating work submissions
There are 2 extreme reasons for this: perfectionism, or fear of delivering bad work and feeling judged.
- You have moderate skills but you are aiming for perfection. You might believe, “If I don’t make this perfect, I am completely worthless.” When perfection cannot be defined objectively, like in a bug-free code or a grammatically correct and fact-verified sentence, perfection itself is impossible. You can always convince yourself that you can do better and never finish the work. This is one of the most common reasons why people don’t publish/submit their music, writings, or other deliverables.
- Feeling like your work is bad and you’ll be embarrassed or shamed for showing it. The main thing you are procrastinating on is not the work itself, it is the emotion of feeling threatened by your own work quality. There may be a belief like – “if the work is bad, I’ll look like an idiot with no skill. If the work is good, I’ll feel the pressure to keep being good and I don’t have what it takes to keep delivering quality.”
Solutions: Focusing on 80-90% is good enough. Good is good enough. Most professional work is not done to perfection but it meets the minimum criteria. So set realistic goals and criteria and aim to meet them first. Only then focus on improving something to perfection. Don’t think of perfection when you are at 0% competition, think of it at 80% and ask – is this is good enough right now? If yes, move on, if no, improve it.
Procrastinating cleaning your room and doing chores
You may be procrastinating cleaning your room or doing chores and basic hygiene habits like brushing and bathing because you might have an unhealthy emotional block. Possible reasons:
- You think cleaning or running errands is not a good use of your time and you don’t value it.
- You believe someone telling you to clean your room undermines your adulthood and puts you in a child’s rebellious mindset. So you decide to keep it unclean.
- You believe doing work to maintain the house makes you a lesser person who has no control over their time.
- You believe your life is a mess so a mess in your room or lack of hygiene feels right.
You may feel chores are a threat to your intellectual or emotional capacity with unhealthy beliefs like “If I keep doing chores, I really am worthless because I am getting nothing done at work either. I am reduced to labor.” or “If I have to do chores, that means I have no control over my time. And I’ll be only useful for the chores and not other things I want to do.”
Solution: Think of fungus, mold, disease, bad smell, lost belongings, bad sleep, no prospect of someone feeling welcomed in the room. Think of the room/house as unusable for a date or video call to motivate yourself. Think of chores as a mandatory maintenance activity to get everything else you want.
This task will take too long, so I’ll wait until I am free
Procrastinators bargain with themselves till they are free and confident to start a task so they finish it. However, the human brain shows an interesting tendency called “Parkinson’s Law” – Work expands or contracts to fill up the time we assign for completion. So if you give yourself 1 hour to finish a task, it will take 1 day. But if you assign in 10 minutes you’ll probably take 10-15 minutes. To use this to your advantage, assign lesser time for a task than you are anticipating. This way, the task will probably get over faster according to Parkinson’s Law.
The issue with waiting for motivation or inspiration
Consider your work objective as a “stimulus.” Then, your productive action is the “response.” You can simplify your work with a simple Stimulus-Response mindset. However, we tend to place “motivation” between “Stimulus and Response,” making it Stimulus-Motivation-Response (SMR), and then decide if we should start the response. Unfortunately, that’s a problem because it gives us the option to ignore the response.
While easier said than done, it is possible to ignore the concept of motivation. What this does is – our decision-making gets easier. Instead of thinking about doing and not doing based on feeling, you can focus on starting a small response to a small stimulus. You can devalue motivation by thinking of the exact steps you need to take – the exact responses needed. Then do them one by one as if you are following your own instructions. Instead of one big S-M-R pair, you create a chain many small S-R pairs.
Objective = stimulus. Work = response. SMR looks difficult and overwhelming. SR looks small and manageable. SMR feels incomplete right till the end. SR feels like it is properly shaping up as you are working on it.
Example: Don’t wait for motivation when writing a report. Instead, use your information as a stimulus and respond to it by writing about just that. Then use another bit of information to build another section. This way, you can incrementally build an index, the methods section, discussion, listed points, etc. Then use that information to write page titles. Then format each partition. And then finally polish the document. Essentially, don’t go from start to finish; that’s hard. Instead, work on different fragments, and watch the entire picture complete. Breaking down the task makes it feel easy and small in size, so motivation seems irrelevant.
Some helpful changes to rigid beliefs about procrastination
Procrastination is based on the strength of negative emotions about some task. The strength of those emotions comes from rigid beliefs. And those beliefs often prevent a person from controlling their procrastination. Here are some ideas that are at the forefront inside a procrastinator’s mind. The remarks I make about those ideas are like anti-procrastination mindsets.
- The idea of waiting for motivation – just do it, why wait for motivation to build up? Start your first step. You do not need motivation to start reasonable actions to meet your goals. Motivation often comes after you have begun a task.
- The idea of identity – you’ll change over time, no need to cling to things that define you. If you are procrastinating something new that doesn’t fit your identity, it is ok, because your identity isn’t set in stone and some new activity is not a threat to your identity.
- The idea of right time – it’s always asap, otherwise, it depends on external factors or just isn’t important enough. Waiting for the right time is a common excuse people have to get started on some work. Chances are there is nothing very different about that right time or today or tomorrow. We use “right time” as a way to delay something but not fully ignore it. Otherwise, awareness of your own procrastination might make you guilty.
- The idea of being perfect – you can’t, everything can improve a little bit, good is good enough. If you aim for perfection, you are unlikely to finish most work and that will damage your self-esteem and confidence more. If you never prove you can finish something, you’ll end up thinking you can’t. Avoid this by stopping at “good enough.”
- The idea of beliefs – beliefs are just stories you tell yourself, they aren’t facts. A core component of psychotherapy is understanding and learning that beliefs are not facts about yourself. They are just stories you tell that feel like they are true. That feeling misguides us. Every time you have a belief, openly ask yourself “what if this isn’t true?” and then do anything you can to prove it isn’t true. Some common beliefs that procrastinators think of as facts are:
|Rigid belief (avoid affirming these ideas)||Anti-procrastination belief (use these as self-affirmations to reduce procrastination)|
|If I am not perfect at this, I am bad at it. If I make a mistake, I should stop and give up.||Good is good enough and I can improve things after they are good enough. I don’t need to be perfect and imperfect work does not define my self-worth.|
|I have to wait for XYZ to get over before I can start ABC.||I can start multiple tasks at a time and work on them in small bits as I make time. Waiting will waste time and block every other task.|
|I can only do 1 important task at a time.||Even if I do 1 important task at a time, I can make time later for another important task, and shuffle between them.|
|If I start, I have to finish.||If I start, I have finally started. It’ll be easier to continue later and finish the work in small chunks of time with breaks in between.|
|I am a procrastinator, so this is my fate.||I should not make my identity about procrastination. I should think of myself as someone adaptable who can adapt to different emotional difficulties and work pressures.|
|I will do my work better when I have finished preparing for it and then start.||Preparing is a part of work, if it isn’t I am wasting time. At some point, I have to start doing the actual work and stop preparing.|
|I can only work when I am motivated.||I do not always need motivation to start an action. There are many actions I can take to reach my goal, and I will start with the easiest one.|
|I have to do everything sequentially.||I can fully focus on 1 task at a time but limit that time so I can work on many important tasks in a day.|
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.