Why We Procrastinate & What To Do About It

Do you tend to procrastinate, even when you know it will only cause you more stress in the long run? Learn why procrastination is an emotional issue – not a time management problem – and try the process we are testing out to overcome it.

Listener Feedback

After our last episode, Personality Types in Relationships & Life (which we recorded with our husbands Darren and Brian), we heard so much interesting feedback from listeners about their own results from the 16personalities.com assessment.

It turns out we have a lot of dear friends who are INFJs, Advocates – like Melia (she also thinks her son, Evan, is one, too. They have similar ways of interacting with the world but also can butt heads!).

A couple of other parents shared how their personality types interact with their children’s. Monica, who is an ISFJ, The Defender, resonated with this description: “Defenders are uncomfortable when their children don’t behave as expected, and oftentimes more insightful children see, and sometimes exploit, this potential weakness with tantrums and mind games.” She said, “This is my son, and it drives me nuts!”

After recording this episode, we both shared the personality assessment with our husbands’ extended families while on vacation. It sparked interesting conversations and helped us get to know people in deeper ways. We recommend trying it with your friends, family, or coworkers. It’s not only a fun activity, it can also help you thrive in work and relationships by knowing your strengths and growth areas.

Have you done this? We love hearing from you, so let us know what resonates with you. We’re on Facebook and Instagram!

Why We Procrastinate & What To Do About It

We’ve mentioned in past episodes that we both have a tendency to procrastinate – and then create more stress for ourselves in the long run because of it. And we’ve heard from others that this is something they struggle with as well. So if this sounds familiar, you’re not alone! And it’s timely as a lot of us get back into work after summer travels.

We recently came across a NY Times article called “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control)” by Charlotte Lieberman that we found really helpful. It says that procrastination is not a time management problem, but an emotion regulation problem.

Lieberman writes:

Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks — boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.

Thinking about procrastination as an emotional issue instead of a productivity issue is a game changer. We’ve both tried so many productivity hacks, but they tend not to stick because we haven’t figured out and dealt with the root emotional causes.

Why Procrastination Hurts Us

It’s a vicious cycle: if we avoid a task because we associate it with a negative emotion (self-doubt, anxiety, insecurity), we only make the problem worse, because those negative feelings will still be there when we eventually have to deal with the task later. Only now we have even more stress and anxiety because we put it off.

This kind of chronic procrastination can have long-term harmful effects on our mental and physical health, like: chronic stress, psychological distress, low life satisfaction, symptoms of depression and anxiety, poor health behaviors, chronic illness, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.

How We Procrastinate

Gill has spent a lot of time beating herself up about procrastinating over the years (probably since middle school!). She’ll put off tasks that are unpleasant or tedious (like doing household chores), but she also procrastinates on tasks when they make her feel anxious or insecure. This ties into her perfectionism; when she worries something won’t be good enough, she delays even getting started on it. This applies to everything from school papers and work projects to personal finance and having difficult conversations.

Melia often finds herself dealing with a debt from the past that she created when she chose to kick the can down the road – whether because she shoved a box of random items into a closet instead of sorting through it, or kept pushing tasks from one day’s to-do list to the next…and the next. Then it feels like she is never going to catch up. It makes her feel desperate and panicky and mad at herself for not having it together.

A 5-Step Process for Overcoming Procrastination

What can we do to get to the heart of the emotional issue and break the procrastination cycle? Here’s a five-step process that we are trying out for small tasks and big projects alike.

1. Identify the ways you procrastinate (without judgment).

Simply notice which kinds of things you procrastinate on, and what do you tend to do when avoiding them. For example, “procrasti-cleaning” is a common practice, where it suddenly becomes crucial that you clean out the hall closet the day before you have an important presentation to give. When you notice your own procrastination habits, you’ll be more aware of when you’re doing them.

2. Name the emotion.

Ask yourself questions to get to the heart of what is bothering you. What am I feeling about this? Why am I feeling this way?

It’s easier in the moment to avoid a task and put it out of sight, out of mind, but Future You is going to pay that debt. You can give a gift to your future self by getting real about what’s causing you to procrastinate.

3. Practice self-compassion.

We touched on some of the benefits of self-compassion in Episode 18: How Our Language Shapes Our Reality – and there’s so much to talk about on the topic, we’re planning to do a full episode on it soon.

Treat yourself with kindness and empathy. Forgive yourself for past mistakes, and focus on doing things differently next time. Beating yourself up doesn’t help you change your behavior and can actually get in your way.

In the NY Times article, Lieberman mentions a 2012 study that examined the relationship between stress, self-compassion and procrastination. It found that procrastinators tend to have high stress and low self-compassion, suggesting that self-compassion provides “a buffer against negative reactions to self-relevant events.”

High stress and low self-compassion…sound familiar to you like it does to us?

4. Focus on the future reward.

On this podcast, we talk a lot about thinking of our future selves when we choose our actions – it’s a way of counteracting the natural human tendency toward “present bias,” which prioritizes our short-term needs over our long-term needs.

Visualize how Future You will benefit if you work on this task now. How will you feel when it’s finished? What enjoyable activities will you be able to do – sleep, watch TV, spend time with friends – if you get it done? You can plan a reward for yourself, like reading a good book or spending time on a hobby, when you do.

5. Just start.

This is a highly practical strategy for when you’re feeling overwhelmed by a big project or the big emotions associated with it. Set the bar super low, and pick one small action you can take just to get started. Once you’ve completed that small step, celebrate it as a success. Keep going if you can. Come up with a list of more small actions you can take now or in the near future.

It also helps to start with an important task you know you’re likely to procrastinate. That kicks off the day with a win.

Listener Takeaways

That five-step process again is:

1. Identify the ways you procrastinate (without judgment). Simply notice the kinds of things you procrastinate on and what you tend to do when avoiding them.

2. Name the emotion. Get to the heart of what is bothering you, and explore what you are feeling and why.

3. Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and work on taking action now.

4. Focus on the future reward. Visualize how Future You will benefit if you work on this task now.

5. Just start. Set the bar very low and take one small action to get started.

Bonus Procrastination Hacks

Now that you have a process for addressing the emotional side of procrastination, you can use a few hacks to your environment and schedule to set yourself up for success.

1. Minimize temptations.

Make your regular distractions inconvenient. Cell phones and social media are big ones! Close browser tabs that aren’t related to the task at hand, including email. There are apps or extensions you can use on your computer or phone to block sites at certain times, like StayFocusd for Chrome (a few more in Resources below).

Setting guidelines also helps, like saying “At work, I only do social media and chat on my phone” and putting your phone away until you take a break.

2. Try “structured procrastination.”

We can accept that we’ll probably never be completely free of procrastinating. We all do it from time to time, but we can plan for it to avoid getting sucked into a never-ending loop.

Keep a list of things you want to do at some point but aren’t necessarily time-sensitive. These tasks can be one-offs like scheduling a haircut or looking up a restaurant for a friend’s birthday dinner. Or they can be ongoing activities you want to spend more time doing – going for a walk, listening to a podcast or audiobook, texting friends or family.

When you feel the urge to procrastinate, set a timeframe and pick one of the items on your list to do instead of the task you’re avoiding. You’ll still get the break you’re looking for, but you’ll feel better spending time on an actual priority instead of reflexively scrolling through social media.

3. Brainstorm and daydream.

Adam Grant, a psychologist and the host of the Work Life podcast, says, “When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.”

It’s not procrastination, it’s creative brainstorming time, if you’re intentional about it! Give yourself a few minutes of unstructured time to let your mind wander, and keep a notebook handy to write down the thoughts and ideas that come to you. Some of the most successful leaders in business block out unstructured time into their schedules to think and read — for Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, it’s two hours a day.

Get It Together / Got It Together

We each share something that’s going well for us at the moment, and something else that we’d like to work on.

Melia Get It Together: Waiting until the last minute to pack before her weeklong family trip

Melia Got It Together: Making sleep a priority during her trip

Gill’s Get It Together: Letting her money management habits slip while traveling

Gill’s Got It Together: Taking her own advice from the latest e-news and making a gentle restart after vacation

Get In Touch

Do you struggle with procrastination? What strategies work for you? Let us know. Email us at podcast[at]semitogether.com, or send us a voice memo. You can also leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram.

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