Why do we Suffer the Pain of Procrastination?

HRHQ thinking woman

By Deirdre Murray, Managing Consultant/Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with PEOPLE RESOURCES

“My advice is to never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time.” Charles Dickens

You are feeling anxious. You are feeling guilty that you haven’t tackled that big project yet; you know you have a big report to finish before the end of the month that could be really impactful; you have a draft outline of your latest book to send to the publisher; you have an assignment to hand in to your college professor, but you will do anything, and I mean anything, even mow the lawn, rather than sit down and do the thing that matters most. You will tidy your desk, become engrossed in mindless emails; sort out email folders, ring a colleague to moan about how much you have to do, rather than just sit down and do it!

Some may argue that all their energy and focus comes together at the last minute, which may be true, but this approach can run the risk of missing the deadline altogether and making silly mistakes, as everything has been left to the last minute.

What stops us? We have an uncanny ability to think our way out of doing something rather than focus our attention on why we want to do it in the first place.

We know that it’s important and it will add value to our career or help us move on with our lives. However, something always holds us back and that mountain keeps getting higher and higher until it gets to the stage, that we think, “Oh dear, sure it’s too late now; I may as well not bother!”

Why do we procrastinate?

Our two intentions in life are to experience pleasure and the other to avoid pain. Why then, do we create such pain in our lives through procrastination? We love being in our comfort zone and even though we may feel uncomfortable about not doing something, the emotion is not powerful enough to shake us out of the cage of this comfort zone and into positive action. What stops us from tackling the one key thing that would help us achieve greater success in our lives?

The 4 reasons why we procrastinate:
1. The No. 1 fear is fear itself, one of the most powerful of the 8 basic emotions. As Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The thing to remember is that it is an emotion, and as some authors state that fear is simply ‘False Evidence Appearing Real!’

The author Brené Brown tells us that this basic human emotion of fear impacts us at every level, as we live in a world of ‘never enough.’ We may fear that we are not good enough, or know enough, are clever enough or are confident enough to achieve anything. It is only by tackling the thing we fear most, that we gain the courage afterwards. Sometimes, it may be the fear of success itself that stops us. We fear rejection or feeling foolish or rejected if our work is not valued.

2. Procrastination is impacted by our level of self-worth and self-belief, not by the notion of laziness. We fear that people might ridicule us rather than congratulate us for our success. Psychologists define procrastination as a form of ‘neurotic self-defensive behaviour’ linked to self-worth. We can fear failure and withdraw rather than be disappointed before we have even started! We may feel the task seems too enormous, and we might never accomplish it, so we never start at all! As I always say to people, “the best place to start is at the beginning!”

3. We may seek perfection in everything, therefore, we are never satisfied that it is good enough. A goal of perfection is paramount if we are trying to save lives but according to the Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, we should apply the 80/20 Pareto principle to every aspect of our lives. Sometimes 80% is good enough. Companies would never achieve ‘first mover advantage’ if they waited to perfect everything. Think of the mobile phone – a new model is deliberately released early so developers can discover all the bugs in it! If they waited, another competitor would copy their ideas and get to market first!

What questions can I ask myself to ease the pain of procrastination?

Here are 4 key questions you can ask yourself today to help you tackle that big project:

1. What is the pain I associate with not doing anything?
2. What pleasure do I take in procrastinating on this?
3. What will happen if I don’t do it now?
4. How will I feel when it is done?

Five Proven Steps to Stop Procrastination:

1. Pick the top 2/3 goals that are important to you and focus on them, not 20! As Brian Tracy tells us – eat that fat frog! Follow the 80/20 rule. When we tackle the top 2/3 big ticket items on our list, the rest of the day goes much more smoothly, as we are much more productive. How many times have you gone home from work thinking, “What did I do today?” There have been so many distractions that you never did what you meant to do in the first place!

2. Spend a few moments to visualise how you would feel having completed the task successfully. How do you feel? How proud do you feel about what you have done and reflect how persistent and disciplined you were in getting it done? Relish that achievement in reaching your goal!

3. There is no such thing as time management – it is about control. Replace the word ‘value’ against the lower value activity that is distracting you. Ask yourself, “Why am I here?” “Is this something I should be doing or do I need to stop doing it or delegate it?

4. Practise the pomodoro technique – focus your attention for 50 mins and then spend 15 minutes doing a lower value activity. The brain can only focus on one thing at one time. We do not multitask well – even though we might think so – we just do ten things not so well! Daniel Goleman tells us that there are two types of attention. One is ‘attention,’ what we focus on; the other is ‘attentional’ – what distracts us and takes our attention away from what we should be focusing on. When we are distracted, it takes the brain 20 minutes to refocus again. So when you want to concentrate fully, shut down the phone, move office if necessary, close down the email, i-messaging, whatsapp notifications – anything that will distract you. Give yourself a mini reward like a cup of coffee for your focused efforts! When I was studying, I always took a break every hour to go for a short walk – it helps your attention span.

5. Chunk down the task into manageable pieces – as they say, ‘eat a little piece of the elephant at a time.’ Take a few minutes to scan the task and plan approximately how long each step will take. When I’m writing a big report, I always start with the Table of Contents – it provides a template and focus for the rest of your work.

When we become aware of what is making us procrastinate, we can then begin to tackle it!  Best of luck!

About the author

Deirdre Murray, Founder and Director of PEOPLE RESOURCES, partners as an Executive Coach, Trainer and Facilitator with leading multinationals and public sector bodies across all sectors.

Deirdre is co-author of “Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – A Leadership Imperative!” Her second book in the management briefs series, “Communicate with Impact! Communicate & Influence Successfully,” is out now at www.peopleresources.ie. She is a regular motivational speaker at conferences, seminars and on radio broadcasts and provides journal entries for leading business magazines.