Do you sometimes postpone important activities that you should be working on and do something at the moment insignificant instead? Do you put off an important decision till tomorrow, avoid answering an unpleasant email or evade an overwhelming task? Then you experience what many other people do – procrastination.
As a final year college student, I met numerous ‘great’ procrastinators and I am one myself. Many students’ homes reach a peak of tidiness twice a year: during winter and summer exam periods. Similarly, my bike was always in great condition when I studied for exams. Without a doubt, these activities are important, but when one needs to pass the exams, they are totally irrelevant. Sounds rational, right? So, why many students tend to prefer such activities? Why they watch silly cat videos, spend dozens of minutes pointlessly scrolling down Facebook or read articles about how frozen pizza is made? Well, our brain is the answer. And although it is highly irrational behavior, it is completely natural as well.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is not a challenge that only students face. Many workers struggle with it too, even the most efficient ones. When we procrastinate, we compulsively postpone the activities that we should or would like to do, and do something irrelevant instead. We usually delay working or studying, but it also affects our private life. Clearly, procrastination does not equal laziness or relaxing. Lazy people do not want to do anything, and they are content with idling, whereas procrastinators want to do the thing but they are unable to force themselves to it.
Similarly, we do not rest when we procrastinate. Conversely, we waste our energy on irrelevant activities and often avoid proper rest: we watch TV shows or spend time on social media rather than go to bed earlier. Also, it is false to believe that we work better under pressure. Despite the fact that you deliver the results, it happens in a highly stressful, inefficient manner which tortures your conscience.
All this leads to frustration, helplessness and lack of energy, which ultimately results in even more procrastination.
Why we postpone? Rational vs. emotional
Imagine that people’s minds are split in two parts: rational and emotional self. Many things that we need to do seem very unpleasant at the beginning, thus our mind creates emotional aversion which ultimately causes postponing of such activities. Consequently, our rational self might have great difficulties to handle our emotional self. When we fail to self-regulate the emotional self, it will start wasting our time on Facebook, smoking, reorganizing old folders in the laptop, watering all the plants in the office, and so on.
Why we procrastinate?
What are the most common reasons for procrastinating? You may be simply tired – your rational self might get exhausted by trying to manage your emotional self. Also, the bigger and more complicated the task is, the bigger the fear of failing. We may worry whether the decision we make will be a good one. Or the task might seem too overwhelming at the beginning. It may also happen that we have too many important things to do (e.g. two equally important tasks or dozens of unread emails in the mailbox), so we do not know where to start, and hence we procrastinate instead. Or the activity itself might be simply highly unpleasant, for example going to gym or housecleaning.
In addition, we may lack motivation or use inappropriate means of motivation – either to motivate ourselves or others. External motivation through incentives and punishments often enhances the emotional aversion to work on the task. Therefore, it only seems logical to seek in ourselves (and to foster in our team members) internal source of motivation. Motivating yourself solely through goals can easily fail you. People often struggle to achieve their goals and only the idea of achieving keeps them from quitting. However, once you buy that dream car or finish your diploma, the joy will vanish quickly. You will need to set a new goal, and the struggle persists. Thus, rather than focusing on goals, it is better to focus on the journey to your personal vision: being happy now, not some time in the future. Only then you can find a true source of internal motivation by finding in what you do.
What to do about it?
The reason why we procrastinate may be just one, or a blend of some or all. There are several tools how to prevent procrastination. It is often about small steps and learning habits, and it is similar to running – it would be a mistake to start immediately with a 10 km run. When changes are gradual and slow, based on regular repetition, we are more likely to accommodate such habits to our long-term life routine (e.g. going to bed earlier, limiting our time spent on social media), and hence overcoming a strong emotional aversion. Needless to say, proper rest is a must. Sleep enough, take short breaks during the day, turn off your phone and email notifications for a few minutes a day, and take a walk.
Even the most efficient workers have days when it is harder to finish tasks, but it does not mean that you have a big problem. Sometimes it is enough to use emotional aversion in reverse, for instance by putting your phone in your bag or hiding the Facebook icon in several subfolders in your phone.
The purpose of this blog post, however, is not to teach you all the tools that may be used to effectively manage the procrastination behavior of yours (or your team members). I would rather want you to start thinking about it as a challenge that can be managed. You should realize that while it is completely natural, at the same time such behavior wastes your precious time and keeps you away from the things that you really want to do. If you learn to manage procrastination, you may accomplish tasks efficiently while having free time to rest and do other things that you like. In addition, you will reverse the negative impact of procrastination on your mental condition. Successful combat with procrastination will activate the pleasure centers in your brain more often, and hence provide you with more positive emotions.
Where to find useful tools and learn more about procrastination:
End of Procrastination by Petr Ludwig: https://procrastination.com/book
Read more about the topic:
How brain affects how much we procrastinate: https://www.businessinsider.com/procrastination-linked-to-2-areas-in-the-brain-study-2018-8
About procrastination and how to deal with it: https://jamesclear.com/procrastination#Why%20Do%20We%20Procrastinate?