Understanding and Overcoming Procrastination

Procrastination means different things to different people. Many associate procrastination with being lazy or an inability to track time. However, procrastinators as a whole show no deficit in their ability to tell time or schedule things and many even accomplish large numbers of tasks, debunking the myth of being lazy.

So what is procrastination?

Simply put, procrastination is the purposeful delay of the start or completion of a task. Note the word “purposeful” in the definition. We decide to procrastinate, usually based on our feelings (mostly negative) at that moment. It reflects our ongoing struggle with self-control and our inability to accurately predict how we will feel in the future.

Procrastination is the gap between intention and action. It is the needless, and often irrational, delay of some important task in favor of a less important, but seemingly more rewarding, task – one that makes us feel good in the moment but can have harmful consequences down the road. Procrastination is a thief of our time, sabotaging our lives.

First, let’s take a look at some of the causes of procrastination. Then we will offer some ways to overcome procrastination in life.

Causes of Procrastination

Procrastination can arise from what psychologists call “cognitive distortions”, or faulty thinking. It is a complicated failure of self-regulation mostly caused by an inability to regulate emotions.

Many studies have been conducted on the causes of procrastination. Here are the top reasons for delaying or avoiding tasks as reported by researchers:

  • Perfectionism – perfection is unattainable. Having standards that are unreachable is discouraging and keeps one from completing a task.
  • Fear of the unknown – venturing into new field or unfamiliar area means not knowing how well one will do or what the results will be. Uncertain outcomes can inhibit the desire to begin a task.
  • Lack of personal resources – not being able to handle the task due to lack of training, ability or skill can lead to completely avoiding a task.
  • Lack of defined expectations – uncertainty of what is expected of oneself by others can make it difficult to start a task.
  • Resistance to another person’s goals – When a project or task is imposed on someone by another person who does not share common interests, one may be reluctant to complete a task.
  • Critique or evaluation anxiety – the expectation of how others will respond to completed work can cause anxiety, possibly delaying the completion of the job at hand.
  • Lack of meaning or relevance – if the task if not meaningful or relevant to the one doing the work, they may find it difficult to get motivated to start.

The Emotional Element of Procrastination

Studies have found that procrastinators can carry the accompanying feelings of guilt, anxiety or shame with their decision to delay starting or completing tasks. When procrastinators put off more unpleasant or challenging activities in favor of more pleasant activities, there is almost always an accompanying sense of dread about the work being set aside, leading to high levels of guilt. Procrastinators recognize the immediate harm in what they are doing, but cannot overcome the emotional urge toward a diversion.

High levels of emotional stress, insecurity and anxiety can also cause one to procrastinate. Procrastinators will comfort themselves in the present with a false belief that they will be more emotionally equipped to handle a task in the future. They rely on their future self to be better able to handle the frustration or insecurity with the task, believing that they will somehow develop miraculous coping skills to deal with emotions that they cannot deal with right now.

Conquering and Overcoming Procrastination

In order to overcome procrastination, you have to learn effective strategies for starting and keeping to task. Here are some ways to overcome procrastination, based on mental health science:

  • Start with the easy part – simply start with whatever is manageable and easy, and does not fill your mind with dread. Breaking a task down into smaller chunks will make it seem much less overwhelming. Starting with a small chunk will build momentum and the harder parts will naturally flow. You do not have to know exactly where to start, just start anywhere.
  • Avoid excuses – excuses like “not feeling in the mood today” or “waiting for the right moment” or “I’m in poor health” can sabotage your ability to start or complete a task. Maintaining vigilance over thoughts like these is vital to overcoming procrastination. Push past the excuses and focus on the rewards of completing the task.
  • Just show up – when you expect a project to be hard to complete and you are not sure of what the outcome will be, you have to at least show up to find out if you can accomplish the task. Not showing up and not committing to completing the task will definitely lead to failure.
  • Find the positive – when the reasons behind the task do not align with your goals, look for what is positive and worthwhile about the task itself. It will change your emotions from negative and reluctant to positive and engaging.
  • Forgive yourself – a recent study has shown that forgiving yourself for past and recent procrastination can actually help you break out of the cycle of procrastination. People tend to criticize and put themselves down for their procrastination. Forgiveness allows you to move past your maladaptive behavior and focus on the task at hand.

Procrastination is a time thief. It is a self-inflicted wound that robs you of life. You only have so much time in your life to accomplish your goals, so do not allow procrastination to sabotage them through delay and avoidance. Implement the above strategies now to live your life at its best.

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