Procrastination, to some degree, is the downfall of every human I know. It threatens to derail my productivity every day and I’ll bet that it causes you more self-disappointment than almost any of your other personal challenges.
Welcome to the club. It’s’ a big club.
How in the world can procrastination be such a universal scourge of productivity? Of accomplishment? Such a destroyer of goals in life?
Why did putting stuff off become the default human response to pretty much anything of significance?
And more important: how did I conquer my own life-derailing procrastination habit and how can the same methods work for you?
My procrastination breakthrough
I’m a lifelong procrastinator who also has obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So I’ve spent thousands (tens of thousands?) of hours getting tons of inconsequential, nitpicky things done while important tasks sat off to the side, slowly decomposing.My favorite procrastination technique: doing everything but. Click To Tweet
I run websites and there is a near infinity of things you can tweak on them. Plus so many things to read to keep up! My biggest nemesis – my computer – is also the tool that I must use to get important work done, such as actually completing articles so you can read them.
I’m sure you are quite familiar with the problem of being connected: those scores aren’t going to check themselves, and if you don’t remark on every one of your friend’s status updates do you even exist in her life?
But no one would know that I struggle with procrastination because I do get big stuff done. A lot of it. How?
I gave up trying to quit the big P cold turkey. Similar to the point I make in my article on binge eating, it’s way too deeply embedded to just stop. It can’t be cured. Rather, it’s a lifelong issue that we have to manage.
Over a few decades of battling procrastination, I’ve figured out how to use this incurable trait against itself. What I’ve learned will help you quit stalling out on your important life goals and make substantial progress.
It’s a constant battle. And it does real damage.
The damaging emotions of procrastination
That is the emotion most closely associated with procrastination. Followed by intense regret as opportunities slip away, never to present themselves again.
I am always amazed at how difficult it is for people – even people under pressure – to take even the tiniest steps to improve their situations.
Believe me, being a reformed procrastinator, I’ve tried to help.
I have occasionally received requests from friends or family for advice on taking challenging steps in their lives: changing careers, dealing with a layoff, starting a business. Big things that they really wanted to accomplish, that they really needed to get done. Things that were causing them mental misery.
As you can tell from this website, I’m pretty detailed when I give advice. So after a lengthy discussion with these friends, I would put together exactly what they asked of me: detailed steps they could take to move forward in an organized and efficient way.
These were not just my recommendations. Rather, they were my friends’ own expressed desires consolidated into step-by-step action plans: personally-tailored task lists to accomplish exactly what they told me they wanted to accomplish, with numbered steps and check boxes to mark off completion. 1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
Can you guess how many of these personalized plans were completed? Virtually none. At most, a few people have finished 5% to 10% of the steps. And remained disappointed in themselves and, yes, regretful as opportunities slipped away.
No matter how you procrastinate, you have lots of company. But of course we don’t procrastinate on everything, just the difficult stuff.
Why in the world do so many people from so many backgrounds have so many problems getting necessary things done? We live in societies that teach us we have to accomplish things to move ahead. The “get it done” message is certainly there.
So what’s going on?
Why we procrastinate
There were few decisions that prehistoric people had to make. They just did what they did every day: eating when hungry, sleeping when tired, and going about their normal routines for the time of year.
When everything you need to do to survive is built into your routine, you don’t have to make a to-do list every morning. You don’t tend to develop a sense of urgency about anything.
You don’t even have to make medium- or long-range plans. You’ll migrate down to the valley for the winter when the weather indicates that it’s about to start snowing. Your retirement plan is to have your kids bring you food in exchange for your wisdom. 3
What’s more, waiting and putting off decisions was usually the best strategy. Back in prehistoric times, there was almost never a penalty for putting something off for a while. If you waited, something better often came along: a tastier animal to hunt, better weather for digging roots, a new chief with a better attitude. Nature and time provided.
And if nothing better showed up, there was no penalty for waiting, because waiting didn’t remove the current choices that were available. The same old animals were still around, the roots in the ground weren’t going anywhere, and the old chief was still there to blame for any problems.
Waiting to see if something better came along before trying something new was actually a pretty good survival strategy – a strategy with few negative consequences. On the other hand, acting quickly could quite literally kill you. You didn’t want to be the first person to:
- Try the new (extremely dangerous) route over the mountains
- Taste the new (poisonous) root
- Challenge the new (surprisingly deadly) chief
Better to wait and let others take the risk. Bide your time until the best option became clear.
Because of this, procrastination, in my opinion, is baked into our genes.
It’s not your fault. It’s your ancestors.
This bears repeating. It’s important to understand that your inclination is to put things off is not just a slothful habit that you picked up. It’s an innate tendency that you will have to work hard to overcome for the rest of your life.
It’s like the points I make about binge eating. Binge eating is an excellent survival tactic when food doesn’t come along often, as our ancestors experienced for millions of years. Bingeing is a survival characteristic that is out of place in the modern world, but it, too is “baked in” for lots of people. It’s not something you ever get over. Rather, you learn to manage it.I procrastinate because I have lazy ancestors. Seriously, it’s not my fault. It’s in my genes. Click To Tweet
Somewhere deep in our brains is the notion that when a task becomes important enough, something (the weather, hunger, the chief) will force some kind of action. In the meantime, no harm in putting it off.
Then you layer on the fear of making the wrong decision and you have a perfect recipe for paralysis.
When forces outside of our control made the decisions, we bore no responsibility for outcomes. That removed an enormous psychological burden. The situation didn’t work out well? Blame the chief!
Well, in our modern lives:
- If we don’t take timely action, we do lose out. The current options often become unavailable.
- The chiefs in our lives (bosses, spouses, clients) don’t take blame as well as the old-style chiefs. They get fed up with our constant delays and turn cranky and vindictive.
And then comes the remorse, quickly followed by regrets.
So how does procrastination manifest day to day?
How We Procrastinate
Often, people like to clump all procrastination into a single type: putting things off. It’s absolutely not true. Procrastination 4 strikes us all in different ways at different times. Here are the two main types that we experience.
Type 1: Can’t get started and stay started
Type 2: Can’t make a decision / afraid to make decision
Let’s dive in a little deeper. 5
Video: Perfectionism procrastination
6 minutes, 16 seconds | subtitles available
Type 1: “Can’t get started” procrastination
Or, more accurately, “put off starting big, ugly tasks by doing anything else instead, then only start when the deadline is looming like a boulder about to crush you” procrastination. Stuff like taxes, or:
- Studying for tests in courses you are paying for
- Planning your spouse’s birthday party
- Projects at work, like the quarterly widget defect analysis
- Looking for a new job before your severance pay runs out
There is also a subtype called “put off big, ugly tasks without a hard deadline so long that you eventually decide not to do them” procrastination:
- Studying for tests in free courses you are taking for self-improvement
- Planning your retirement
- Projects at home, like replacing the super ugly carpet in the guest room
- Looking for a new job because your current one sucks
Type 1 procrastination items don’t usually cost money, or at least much money (new carpet isn’t free). They just take time and effort, often mental effort (although you can’t just think the ugly carpet out of your house).
Aside from the total lack of activity (followed by frenzied activity), how can we identify this type of procrastination? By the awful results that are produced, such as:
- Dismal test scores
- Upset spouses
- Barely-good-enough projects
- A job that still sucks
Type 1 is often combined with Type 2, but the second category (below) can also stand completely on its own.
Type 2: “Decision Paralysis” procrastination
This type almost always involves significant money and/or commitment that is hard to undo:
- Deciding on pet
- Deciding on a spouse
- Deciding on a new house color
- Deciding on a new car
- Deciding on a new home theater system
Type 2 procrastinators 6 will often engage in extensive research that can stretch on for months or years, always afraid to pull the proverbial trigger because of the “what ifs.”
Let’s walk through a “choose one from each category” exercise in remorse. What if the:
- house color
- home theater
… ends up being OK, but not as good as the option I decided against? I’ve already invested:
- emotional commitment
… that I:
- won’t get back
- can’t afford to invest again
And, even worse, I’ll be stuck with my bad choice for:
- a long time
- a very long time
- until death does us part
Another word for “what if” is our old friend, “fear.”
This procrastinator will research the heck out of a topic and may even take a few halfhearted stabs at moving forward. But the list of things to consider never grows shorter because when something gets crossed off, another item takes its place.
Using procrastination against itself
So we’ve walked all around this out-of-control horse called procrastination and can identify every dimension of it: how it damages our dreams, why it happens and two ways it manifests in our lives. Now it’s time to start taming it.
I gave up on entirely eradicating procrastination from my life; I know when I’m up against a foe who can never be completely vanquished. Instead (staying with the horse analogy), I figured out how to put a saddle on it and ride it, so to speak.
I now make procrastination itself the driver of getting important things done.
Yeah, I know, that sounds like a scam. Stick with me on this. I’ll warn you though, it’s not easy – it still takes willpower and desire to change. I’m just providing a framework to make your willpower more effective. But you still must have some willpower.
If you are willpower deficient, then you at least need to have a sincere desire to change your ways. We can work with that.
Unfocused willpower accomplishes nothing. You must learn to focus whatever shred of willpower you have on the right target at the right time to start getting stuff done.
How does it work? I’m glad you asked. First, consider that we all have two lists, whether they are written down or not: Big Ugly Tasks and Small But Important Tasks.
Here are the key concepts about how to take advantage of these lists.
Key Concept 1:
A Big Ugly Task staring you in the face will make you work on Small But Important Tasks as a way to procrastinate
Hold it! That behavior – “working on everything but” – is exactly what we are trying to avoid, isn’t it?
No. That behavior – which as I point out above it so ingrained it is unavoidable – is your ticket to beating procrastination. You just have to channel this impulse correctly, so:
The small tasks that you use to procrastinate must come from your list of Small But Important tasks, not random, time wasting tasks.
These easier-to-do items really are procrastination, but they eventually must be done and they are better than playing video games.
But what about the Big Ugly Tasks?
Key Concept 2:
Finishing is MUCH easier than starting
Here’s a truism from my line of work, which is creating these articles for you:
“Editing is much easier than writing.”
As any writer will tell you, the hardest part is getting the first draft done. After that, editing may be tedious but it’s much easier. 7
Tweaking something – whether it’s writing or a project – is much easier than creating it from scratch. Here’s another way of saying it:
Revising work in progress is easier than creating that work in the first place.
“A job begun is half done,” is the classic saying. I’ve always liked to say, “To start is to finish.”
Or, to put it yet another way that might make sense to you:
Once you get over the hump of getting started, it’s much easier to finish.
And how, exactly, do you “get over the hump?” By reading Part 2.
What you’ll find in Part 2
I walk you through overcoming both types of procrastination, with a detailed, day-by-day example. Procrastinators Anonymous is in session!