The 3 Most Common Ways We Procrastinate (And What We Can Do To Stop)

woman sitting drinking coffee
Keenan Constance

Many of us have heard the adage “Why put off until tomorrow, what can be done today?” In essence, why procrastinate? Well turns out; there are plenty reasons why we delay on completing the tasks we know need executing, many of which seem like logical rationales for saying “I’ll do it later.” But as reasonable as they may seem at the time, sooner or later the to-do list becomes longer than a receipt from your shopping excursion on Black Friday to Target. Putting off the necessary assignments may seem like a good idea initially, but in the long run, prolongs the trouble. Below you will find some common “excuses” many of us like to employ so that our procrastinating seems more tolerable. If you can relate, then this is just the article for you, and I would suggest reading through. The last half will provide five simple steps to combating procrastination. So let us get on the path of motivation and least resistance so that you can turn the “to-do” list into one that reads “have-done.”

Putting Motivation Before Action

Of course, having the motivation to do what we need to is helpful. Motivation can give us the extra push to hit reply to an encumbering work email. Motivation can also get us into the spirit to pick up a paintbrush and explore our creativity. Whether the task is cognitively mundane or sensually invigorating, chances are sometimes we just do not feel like doing it…whatever “it” is. So instead, we linger on the idea and wait until the proverbial spirit moves us…or in more colloquial terms, wait until we feel like it. But there are a few problems with waiting for that spirit. For one, life happens. You may think that a week from now, taking care of that email or carving time out of your schedule to paint will be easier, but life throws curve balls. As chaotic as today may seem, there are no guarantees that next week, life will be any smoother. Secondly, and forgive me being the bearer of bad news, that “spirit” (aka motivation) may never come. So rather than waiting for life to become even more complicated, of which at that time we are often so focused on just staying ahead, that motivation has even less space to enter, choose to be proactive and take action. Many will say motivation precedes productive action, but that is incorrect. By inducing movement, you overstep the hesitancy and take charge. Taking charge gives you the confidence to move forward and therefore, leads to even more action. Before you know it, the email box is empty and the easel filled with emotion.

Trying Too Hard

Yes, trying hard is essential. We should all strive to put forth best efforts, especially for those things in life that build our character. Sometimes though, we can become paralyzed at the thought of having to produce the “perfect” result. When this is the case, desire to replicate an ideal outcome, we can often feel procrastination sink in. Maybe we did not intend to delay presenting that graduate school thesis or forgo sending in the final revision of our novel to a publishing company, but we become riddled with fear that it was not our best work. Not to say that considerable time should not be devoted to tasks as such (apparently they require enduring effort,) however, sometimes placing such grave pressure on ourselves suppresses the ability to be creative. In turn, we often produce less than stellar work. We also lose the enjoyment and fulfillment we gain in the process. If we are always focused on the end goal being perfect, not paying attention to the current moment, guaranteed frustration followed by procrastination will stop us dead in our tracks. Instead, try adopting an open mindset, of which welcomes vulnerability and failure. It is when we stop trying too hard and allow the process to continue organically; we learn just what we are capable of achieving.

Not Being Honest With Yourself

Being honest with ourselves can be one of the most challenging measures that at some point in life have to face. There is some real utility in the statement “the truth will set you free.” Many times when we procrastinate, we just do not want to do what is calling to be done. And instead of being honest with ourselves that cleaning out two-week old leftovers from the middle shelf is a tedious task that can be put off until tomorrow, we began to conjure up a personal assessment of our behavior. We start to label ourselves as “lazy” or “too busy,” when in all actuality we simply did not feel like chucking the styrofoam of Kung Pao and eggrolls. While this may sound like a silly example, it leads to a more important aspect of life. Each lie we tell ourselves is like a tile used to build a foundation. Eventually, after enough little lies stack upon one another, we end up with a foundation of falsities. But you can only keep a lie going for so long. In the end, all that exists is an unstable structure that inevitably becomes susceptible to life’s unpredictable nature.

There is a litany of justifications we use to stall doing the necessary, so if one of the three mentioned above does not suit your style, do not worry, one exists. But all the aforementioned discusses how we procrastinate (which subliminally could be interpreted as me procrastinating on giving you the vital information,) not the remedies for this self-induced illness.

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The extensive list that garners procrastination excuses is almost endless. On any given day, in any given circumstance, we can create an excuse as to why right now is the best time for the task in question. That is relatively normal human behavior. I say relatively because, on the one hand, procrastination can be a useful tool (i.e., not feverishly replying in the midst of an argument, but instead thinking your position through.) On the other hand, too much delay can land you in a place to complete several menial tasks (doing a load of laundry) while simultaneously topping off those that are crucial for survival (paying your taxes.)

Procrastination has its place in our history as a species. In earlier times, the French predominantly existed in an aristocratic society. Simply put, the hard work and physical labor was a characteristic of the bourgeoisie, not of the noble elite. Royalty valued leisure time and scoffed at the idea of having to “do.” Even the demise of the monarch after the French Revolution, some of the culture clung to this notion of procrastination, more as a vehement reaction toward Capitalism. American society views this idea of delaying tasks as sort of an anxiety-producing measure. An urgent sense of the question “if not now, when” is one we face every day. With the pressure to perform at work, school, home, and socially, we are continually confronted with task completion. If methodically approached, having a “to do” list is quite beneficial. Checking off these items once completed gives us a sense of accomplishment, a necessity of the human psyche. I’ve found that by following these five sequential steps, to-do lists shrink and free time expands.

1. Identifying Risk to Reward Analysis

Believe it or not, procrastination serves its purpose. All that we do, regardless of how illogical it may seem, is done for one reason or another. The first step is figuring out what procrastinating is giving you. Maybe naively it seems to free up time. Quite possibly it serves as protection against facing failure. Whatever its purpose, it does indeed have one. But rather than focus on one task, in particular, try creating a list of advantages as well as a list of disadvantages, should you get started today on whatever job is at hand. Notice we are not defining a specific task, but rather examining the overall mindset of getting started. By doing so, a more holistic ideal of your beliefs about procrastination will be achieved.

2. The Power in Planning 

Simply put, plenty of good comes from planning. We live in a world where reminder tools and task organizers are at our fingertips morning, noon, and night. Whether you prefer the technological approach or old-fashioned pen and paper, apps on phones and planners on Amazon both provide us with the perfect landscape for getting started. The most important part of planning, however, is time. When you set a time to start on a project, no matter how big or small, this step will aid in your guarantee of accomplishing the task. Time is concrete and is also one of our most significant assets, should we use it in our favor. By dedicating a specific portion of your most valuable resource, this reinforces the importance of task execution. It removes the option to forgo completion any longer. Plan to set 9 a.m. today as the time to clean your room and take out the trash? Great! Then tomorrow’s 9 a.m. was just freed up for that extra cup of coffee.

3. Making Tasks Easy Peasy 

The late great Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Nothing worth having comes easy.” While there is an element of truth to that statement, sometimes we have to cut ourselves a little slack. Yes, I am a firm believer in trying your hardest and scrutinizing yourself when necessary, however, being self-dictatorial has its implications. A harshly over critical approach can often lead us to feel vastly overwhelmed by tasks and emotions. As a result, we perform at a less than optimal level. This is where chunking can suddenly become our best friend. Let us say, for example; you have an upcoming project due work or school. The project consists of some reference reading, analytical writing, creating a slideshow, and then finally, presentation. All that at once can seem too much and indeed would be if you attempted to fit all into one evening..especially the evening before it is due. So rather than placing yourself in such precarious parameters, trying chunking out the work. More often than not, we are given ample time to finish a project. We just happen to fail too often in cutting the project into more manageable pieces. Starting with small time slots is ideal. Plan to give the project attention at least 15 to 30 minutes a day. The first 15 to 30 minutes, use just to assess how to ideally break up the task, formulating a plan (remember step two?) Once you have your plan in place, try picking a time every day that is roughly the same so that you build this into your mental schedule. By approaching daunting tasks in a more tractable manner, you will likely bypass feeling overwhelmed and end up with a better result.

4. Negative Thoughts Negate Action

At some point or another, either we have or we know someone who tends to use the all or nothing approach. Thinking in such bipartisan ways is not very conducive to getting what we need to, done. Let me give an example. Suppose you have been procrastinating on writing thank you cards for people who attended your wedding (or birthday party, baby shower etc.) With all or nothing thinking, we might say to ourselves “I have all those thank you cards to write.” In psychological terms, we may refer to that as a Task-Interfering Cognition, or for short, TIC. Now to combat such a viewpoint, we can instead reframe our thoughts to be something like “Not all the cards need to be written tonight, but I would possibly feel better if I wrote one or two of them.” This is what we would refer to as a Task-Oriented Cognition or TOC. The replacing of “TICs” with “TOCs” is referred to as the TIC-TOC Technique (how clever,) and can be used for several faulty cognition distortions. Simply speaking, this technique teaches you to come up with less extreme positions, thus, in turn, causing less cognitive angst.

5. Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

Not giving yourself credit can by far, be the most challenging step to remember, despite its importance. After you have folded the heaping pile of laundry on your bed or wrapped up month’s end statements at work two days before due, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back. There is no need to go all out and reward yourself with a shopping spree or front row tickets to a Lakers game everytime you complete a task. An excellent little “good job” will suffice. These are vastly important in boosting self-confidence and increasing your ability to proceed to the next task at hand. If you are always berating yourself and throwing pity parties, there is simply no room for growth. No one evolved to the next level by labeling themselves a victim or thinking in such terms. You have very little to gain by telling yourself that your efforts are never good enough. You finished a task on the to-do list (albeit A+ work or C-.) Congratulations! Give yourself the notoriety this deserves and move on to the next one.

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If you can relate to the topic of procrastination, relax, you are in good company. I put off finishing this post so I could see a local band play. Before I left, I knew this article needed to be completed tonight and viola, despite the clock ticking towards 2 a.m., I had this on my to-do list, and now it can be checked off. In that statement alone, I was honest with myself (the band came before finishing the task) however, I knew it needed to be done, and so I utilized the power of planning and wrote it down on the list. You can do the same. It is ok to put some socializing time ahead of doing the dishes, just maybe not a work deadline that pays the bills. By taking the five steps listed above, however, you can regain power over procrastination and have more time to enjoy life. TC mark

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