Procrastination is a common behavior, even among high-achievers. About 20% of people are procrastinating at any given time, and mystified by their own, often self-defeating behavior. Often we are harshly judgmental of ourselves and others when that happens, which is why it is so critical to understand that procrastination and laziness are not one in the same. Lazy behavior is framed by exerting the least amount of energy possible for a task while procrastination is framed by exerting a ton of energy into tasks, after waiting, and waiting to do it. As a matter of fact, procrastination requires far more effort than laziness or proactivity…combined. Additionally, procrastination takes a greater emotional toll and yet, too many of us keep doing it. What gives?
Procrastinators tend to worry and fret over the things they know need to be done, but somehow, they can’t seem to find the intrinsic motivation to make it happen until they are up against the wall. The time spent worrying and anxious about what needs to be done can causes:
Over and under eating
Putting off actions that need attention causes a lot of distress. Procrastinators aren’t thoughtless people without regard for others. They are often highly aware of how their procrastination causes themselves, and those who depend on them, problems.
Still, there’s one thing about procrastination that many of us overlook: even with all these negative results of procrastinating, neuroscience shows us that we also get a powerful dopamine hit every time we manage to delay “the thing we aren’t doing” a little longer. For a short period of time, we feel blessed relief, just before we go back to feeling all that anxiety. When we continue to delay and put off the inevitable activity, we get the anticipated dopamine hit once more—just enough to keep us caught in ongoing procrastinations as long as we are able. This is exactly the dynamic that creates addictive behaviors as well—a small, temporary relief that satisfies us in the moment, generally attached to dopamine.
Working Better Under Pressure is a Myth
One of the arguments for procrastination is the misguided belief that we may perform better under pressure. Many people, especially those who are high-achievers despite their tendency to procrastinate in certain areas, defend their approach by claiming output done last minute is superior to work they would have completed when they had more time. Their defense is that the resulting time crunch actually helps them focus and activate a genius mindset. Many suspect that these individuals’ surges of productivity indicate their true scope of productivity is actually untapped; that if their output and energy were not crammed into short bursts, they may actually be capable of far more.
Again, turning to neuroscience for insight, although it is true that managed stress can enhance performance, when we are under chronic stress, our breathing is shallow, blood circulation is restricted, and our full capacity for creativity and problem becomes diminished. Not only that, errors compound and ability to be flexible, empathetic and resilient are compromised.
When it comes to procrastinating, there are a handful of reasons frequently used to justify avoidant behavior. Along with “I work better under pressure” there are:
“There’s never enough time to get things done”
“I’m pulled in too many directions”
“I need time to think things through”
Let’s break these rationales down and see what drives them.
“There’s never enough time to get things done”- Procrastination is far easier when you simply don’t have enough time in each day. This type of procrastinator has two problems- failure to set boundaries and/or self-sabotage.
Failure to set boundaries includes saying yes to things you know will keep you from your priority but failing to say no. This can be intentionally to avoid a task or unintentionally to create a time deficit in your schedule that justifies procrastination and make it seem like it’s out of your hands.
Self-sabotage looks like adding items to your to do list so you can’t possibly get everything done or failing to be disciplined during the day resulting in doing activities that aren’t vital but seem important enough to justify procrastinating your main projects. In this case, you are creating the time deficit rather than an external force.
“I’m pulled in too many directions”- This is tied to shiny object syndrome or being easily distracted and can also include getting bored easily. People who use overwhelm and being interested in many things as justification for procrastination find it harder to stay focused and get things done because they scatter their attention. Instead of taking ownership of their schedule and time, they abdicate their power to their boss, their families, their friends, and various commitments as if they have no ability to set limits and boundaries.
“I need time to think things through”- this is how procrastinators use analysis paralysis to put things off. By overthinking and over-analyzing decisions, they never make any. This form of perfectionism can derail everything from redecorating a bedroom to pulling the trigger on a product launch. Spending too much time reviewing information, sorting out thoughts, or gathering data can prevent action that is important and often has a deadline.
Breaking the Procrastination Cycle
Like any addiction, procrastination is not solved by pure willpower. Its payoff is too enticing. But that doesn’t mean you are doomed to be at its mercy either.
I have certainly procrastinated with the best of them. I knew I was procrastinating on activities that either felt too difficult or tedious, yet I seemed unable to stop myself from taking on another exciting project I most definitely didn’t have time for given the enormous one already on my plate.
I was also prone to overdesigning a proposal or developing a new strategy because it was fun to do, rather than that tedious expense report. Doing so broke trust with clients, employees and most of all, myself. It didn’t always, because I knew how to push through at the last minute, but it did when the unexpected challenge came up, which was too often for comfort.
There are several important steps I took (and you can too) to loosen the grip of procrastination:
Step 1: Awareness – Reflect on why you procrastinate, your habits and thoughts that lead to procrastinating. Understanding the physiological component made all the difference for me.
Step 2: Assess – Look at the underlying feelings lead to procrastinating, which can include boredom, fear of failure or anxiety over the difficulty and challenge.
Step 3: Perspective – Often we become used to viewing a task frm only a single vantage point. Instead, try viewing larger tasks in terms of micro steps to make it less intimidating. Look for what's appealing about, or what you want to get out of the endeavor so you are viewing the positive results that are possible.
Step 4: Commit – If you feel stuck in an infinite procrastination loop, start simply by committing to complete a small task—any task—and write it down. Finish it and reward yourself. Write down on your schedule or "to do" list only what you can completely commit to, and if you write it down, follow through no matter what. By doing so you will slowly rebuild trust in yourself that you will really do what you say you will, which so many procrastinators have lost.
Step 5: Surroundings – Neuroscience demonstrates that our environment is the single most important influence on our productivity. Limiting distractions, including disorder, is a powerful way to create the environment where you can become more proactive. Repeatedly placing yourself in situations where you don't get much done can actually be a kind of procrastination, a method of avoiding work.
Step 6: Goals – Focus on what you want to do, not what you want to avoid. Think about the productive reasons for doing a task by setting positive, concrete, meaningful learning and achievement goals for yourself.
Step 7: Be Realistic – Achieving goals and changing habits takes time and effort; don't sabotage yourself by having unrealistic expectations that you cannot meet.
Step 8: Self-talk – Notice how you are thinking, and talking to yourself. Talk to yourself in ways that remind you of your goals and replace old, counter-productive habits of self-talk. Instead of saying, "I wish I hadn't... " say, "I will ..."
Step 9: Un-schedule – If you feel stuck, you probably won't use a schedule that is a constant reminder of all that you have to do and is all work and no play. So, make a largely unstructured, flexible schedule in which you slot in only what is necessary. Keep track of any time you spend working toward your goals and reward yourself for it. This can reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and increase satisfaction in what you get done. For more see the book Procrastination by Yuen and Burka.
When I understood the internal body chemistry going on (the dopamine effect) my awareness was raised, and I stopped making excuses. Then I would intentionally do one thing (just one!) each day that had been avoided the day before. The resulting satisfaction increased my desire to do more. This isn’t to imply that I never procrastinate, only that the dopamine effect from doing things in a timely manner is more satisfying and longer lasting than it was with procrastination. I invite you to try it, and if you need help making that shift from procrastinating to proactivity, reach out and let’s see if coaching for you or your team is a good step.