Why We Do It & What We Can Do About It
Can’t manage your time? It’s all about managing your emotions first.
Everybody does it — we at N-K definitely do. And, most likely, you do it too. In fact, you’re probably doing it right now, as you read this article. That important task you were supposed to finish by now? Yet you find yourself here, reading an article about how you could bring yourself to do it, instead? Yep, that’s it right there.
If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t get yourself to do the things that need to be done in time, maybe you’ve pointed fingers in the wrong direction. Most people do — because many believe that procrastination stems from laziness, or that it’s about poor time management. If only it were that simple!
In reality, procrastination is an emotion management problem, meaning it comes from negative emotions that we’re unable to regulate. When we talk about ‘emotion regulation’, procrastination inevitably rises from the universal human need of delaying negative emotions to an unknown point in the vague, distant future, just in order to feel better in the now. So you’ll swap out doing taxes for baking a batch of cookies, or starting that heavy project for going out for a drink with friends. If a task rouses feelings of stress or anxiety, or just seems overwhelming or unpleasant, our usual reaction is to try and avoid it.
People procrastinate for different reasons. It can be to avoid anxiety, out of boredom, out of the need to do things perfectly, feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, or frustration. Take a moment to think about what you usually experience, and how these feelings present themselves in your mind and body. Perhaps you want to do something to its ultimate perfection, and you think that you’re not good enough for it right now. You could be putting off a long-pending message because it causes you to feel dread or anxiety. Or perhaps you’re just the kind of person that thrives under last-minute pressure. Whatever the reason may be, the common thread in procrastinating remains that we do it to avoid facing those unwanted feelings in the present, preferring to put them off to be dealt with by a future self. This is also because we usually don’t feel a tangible emotional connection with our ‘future self’, which exists somewhere further along the timeline — which is not such a bad thing in the end, as it’s also important to cherish the present moment. We don’t mind handing over the tedious tasks to this future version of us, which we imagine might be better equipped to handle things than we are now.
The additional layer to the problem with procrastination is that it is a habit whose consequences one is typically aware of. You know that delaying something important is probably a bad idea, that you have to do it at some point, and that you will later regret not having done it before, therefore ultimately feeling worse. This conscious irrational postponing of tasks makes it even more taxing on one’s mental state, setting in motion a vicious cycle of putting things off, feeling bad about it, but doing it anyway. This is why procrastination is an ‘irrational’ habit.
»We know we’re doing something which we will regret, but we do it anyway.«
People also procrastinate in different ways. Many people procrastinate at night — something called ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. Since they don’t have enough time for themselves in the day, they will stay up into the wee hours of the night, watching YouTube videos that they’ve been waiting to watch. Safe in their bed with no e-mails to answer and no people to deal with, they can spiral down their Internet rabbit holes, but always at the expense of sleep or risking being awfully tired the next day.
Other people procrastinate by doing a bunch of random things at the same time, while not really doing anything fully at all. Organizational psychologist Adam Grant introduces the brilliant concept of ‘time confetti’ in his TED talk ‘How to stop Languishing and start finding flow’, wherein he exposes how we shred moments of our life into tiny, useless pieces. Find yourself looking at your phone, laptop and TV screen together all at once? Yep, you’re time shredding. In essence, you’re not doing either of those tasks really, but more like doing all of them at the same time half-heartedly. Find your attention drifting after two minutes of reading this article? It’s the same thing.
So what do we do about it?
Much like many other things, you can’t just ‘stop’ procrastinating. The first step to addressing your personal procrastination is by understanding why you’re doing it.
We often procrastinate on different tasks because of the nature of the task. Perhaps you put work tasks off because you feel insecure and inept of completing something in a particular moment, believing that your future self will be in a better place to finish them than your current self. You want the perfect result, and you feel like your current self can’t deliver.
Once you’ve reached the roots of why you’re putting things off, you can tackle it by offering yourself a solution that matches. Research suggests that the starting point to stopping procrastination is being mindful about it — bringing in self-awareness, then forgiving yourself for doing it. Once you forgive yourself, you reduce the guilt which plays a large part in propagating the procrastination cycle. And then you might think about doing the things you were so guiltily stealing away from. Then comes the part of actually doing it. More often than not, getting started is so hard because we don’t know where to begin, because the task at hand seems too overwhelming, complicated or tedious.
Since we’ve so far established that procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, the solution would be to manage the emotions that stop us from moving forward. The key point here is to essentially ignore how a task makes you feel, and to just get started. But how do we do that?
Here are some N-K faves on how to deal when you don’t want to deal:
One way to bring yourself to actually getting down to a task is by mapping out priorities. People mostly spend no time thinking in what order they should do things, which is essentially why they procrastinate seemingly daunting but important tasks to a distant time in the future, instead hopping on to some useless chore that might have zero urgency.
• Eisenhower Matrix
This is where the Eisenhower Matrix steps in. Named after American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Eisenhower matrix is an excellent way of directing your productivity and action into the right order of priority.
Using the Eisenhower Matrix, you can tackle procrastination by forcing your attention to tasks that are important and urgent, instead of wasting time on things that belong in Quadrant 3 (Delegate) and 4 (Eliminate), which is the procrastinator’s place of choice.
This sort of breakdown actually forces one to sit down and focus on facing priorities, short-term in Quadrant 1 (Do) and long-term in Quadrant 2 (Schedule). This takes away from the instant gratification habit as you make a conscious turn towards focussing on things that matter, which will lead to actual relief rather than avoidant guilt, as well as long-term growth.
For example, your to-do list consists of tasks ranging from paying your insurance, sending invoices to your clients, cleaning the fridge, buying a gift for your friend’s birthday next month, and shopping for a plant. Take a look at those activities, and decide which ones are the most pressing: most likely, it is going to be making sure your invoices are sent off and that your insurance is paid — these would go into the Do quadrant. The fridge is a bit of a mess already, but since you’re so busy at the moment, you ask your flatmate if they could step in for you this time, and that way you Delegate the task. Since your friend’s birthday is only coming in a few weeks time, you put it into the Schedule quadrant, and go on a birthday present hunt in two weeks only. And, as much as you love plants and want to have more of them, you admit that you already have quite a few, and buying a new one is not anything extremely important — so you Eliminate it. This way, you’ve identified your priorities and offloaded a bit of not only work but also concern and time pressure.
2. Minimize Distractions
Needless to say, one big reason we procrastinate is because we have other, more lucrative things in sight.
If you feel like you can’t focus because you keep being pulled towards something(s) in particular, the answer is simple. Take yourself away from the distraction. There’s nothing that fertilizes a procrastinator’s habit more than the things that will please their hedonistic mind in that very moment, instead of completing the task they are so keen to avoid.
Choose to perhaps take yourself out of this environment, or the distractions away from you. If certain apps have got you too hooked for your own good, delete or lock them till your work is done. If necessary, go as far as switching your phone off completely, to make sure you really focus on the task at hand. There’s no need to deprive yourself of everything you find pleasurable for hours on end — you can reward yourself with short indulgence periods every time you manage to complete a significant chunk of work.
3. Manage Time and Anxiety
We often put things off because the large whole of a task looms before us like a mountain. We feel like starting with it will be long or boring. It may cause anxiety or we just don’t have any motivation to begin.
But consider this, if you were to, say, do a small part of it today, you’d probably find it easier to get the ball rolling. Getting a part of it done would also incite feelings of success/accomplishment and a general idea that the work has already begun. And there’s a lot less left to do.
One of the key things to keep in mind when dealing with procrastination is that action leads to motivation, not the other way round. Procrastinators often sit around, waiting for motivation, believing that at some point they’re going to ‘feel like it’, and then they’ll get to it. Facing an impending task with the idea of starting it when ‘the time is right’ is a typical form of procrastination that bases itself on the idea that you need motivation to do something. So you’ll spend hours watching Netflix or researching what that bump on your tongue might be, instead of starting that project you need to work on. You believe that there will be a time that motivation or inspiration will strike and off you’ll go, finishing things up and saving the day!
But that’s rarely how it works. The trick is to just start, get the ball rolling, let it gather momentum and keep moving as motivation builds. Instead of putting off starting a project, you could say — let me make the first slide or just write the introduction. And before you know it, you’ll feel better already because the work is already in motion.
• Salami Slicing
One excellent way of overcoming the fear of seemingly large or overwhelming tasks is to divide and conquer, a technique called — ‘Salami Slicing’, breaking a big task down into smaller items. For example, if you have a report or essay to write, focus on just one section of it, and divide it by sentences or paragraphs. Write one sentence, tick it off your to-do list, grab a glass of water or a cup of tea, and then resume with the next sentence or paragraph. This way, you will trick yourself into getting motivated.
• Pomodoro Technique
Another tool to help you with managing challenging tasks is the Pomodoro Technique. Developed by Francesco Cirillo, it is based on the idea that calculated pauses and action time can help the mind pace its focus, and not abandon tasks because they become approachable once broken down.
This technique traditionally involves a small tomato shaped kitchen timer (pomodoro in Italian), which is used to divide time spent working on broken down parts of a task into chunks of 25 minutes, with a 5 minute break after each interval (called a pomodoro). One must use the full 25 minutes or the pomodoro needs to be restarted, and if the task is finished before the 25 minutes are up, you must add more from the upcoming task to fill in time. Once you’ve completed a full set of 4 pomodoros — you can take a longer break of 20–30 minutes.
The benefit of this technique is not just that it helps take on tasks because they’re suddenly smaller, but also because it helps build your own pace based on how much time certain tasks take you to perform. Moreover during the breaks, you can do something of your liking, something that refreshes your mind and gives you a little change of energy between work sessions. You can maybe water your plants between your pomodoros, take a short walk, or make yourself a cup of tea.
The idea of micro-tasking in a timed manner, more often than not, makes life easier for a procrastinator because it promises smaller spurts of work, and the added boundary or regulation of imposed time. This works exceptionally well for those who like to work under pressure and deadlines, because it constricts things to concrete time restrictions.
If you’re not the kind who’d get a tomato timer, you could try some of N-K’s top favorite digital timers:
E.ggtimer.com — Free website for timing yourself with Pomodoro + more
Tomito — Pomodoro app for Mac
• Time blocking
You can also deal with procrastination by using uninterrupted time blocks on your calendar — a technique also warranted for by Adam Grant. The idea is simple — build focus zones. For example, focus on doing one thing each day instead of making endless lists that don’t get scratched off. Just have one goal, and then do it. Or set time goals as focus zones — no interruptions between noon and 4pm. This will help direct your full attention to that one task dedicated to that one time block which becomes its guardian boundary.
4. Give yourself a break
Once in a while, the best thing to do is to do nothing.
We can talk about endless time management tips and productivity hacks that will help you deal with procrastination, but sometimes the best thing you can actually do is to allow yourself the break that you keep reaching out for.
When we talk about time blocking, you shouldn’t just chart out time in your calendar for responsibilities, but also block out time slots during the day for breaks. During these breaks you can do a quick yoga session to reconnect with your body, meal prep to make sure your body stays fueled even during busy times, or call a friend to offload a bit.
Sometimes the problem with procrastination is not the fact that we’re doing it, but that we’re judging ourselves too much for doing it. Perhaps if we spent a little more time trying to figure out what’s causing it, we’d see that this might be a call for a long-needed break, or just having maxed out on our energy. Or perhaps those underlying feelings of self-doubt or anxiety might need to be looked at a little deeper. You can’t keep running a machine that’s out of battery, and no number of productivity matrices or techniques will give you the reboot if that is, in fact, what you need. Productivity is a skill that can be cultivated with a tonne of tricks and mechanisms, but when the problem is fundamentally emotional, it might be worth checking in with yourself.
As we said, It’s totally NORMAL to procrastinate. We all do it. Sometimes you might do it more than other times. Is it because you’ve been going through something lately? Do you perhaps have a lot going on that you’re not admitting out loud? Some things are harder to do than others, and you find yourself putting them off more. Are you just avoiding writing back or is there something larger that needs to be addressed there? Or are you just not clear about the task in itself?
Eventually, procrastination is a problem of managing feelings and emotions. And if we can bring some mindfulness topped by ‘just do it’ action into it, there’s nothing we can’t get done. Or at least started with.
So now go back to doing that thing you were planning to do instead of reading this article. And don’t forget to get the pomodoro ticking!