Procrastination can be a painful human experience – everyone does it at some point, even the most motivated person. Another word for it is avoidance.
Why do we procrastinate?
Three of the most common reasons for procrastinating are either boredom (we are avoiding the tedium or effort involved in doing the thing), magnifying the effort required to do it, or worry that we won’t be good enough, that our ideas won’t be good enough, that we aren’t good enough.
How to overcome procrastination?
When it comes to the boredom part, I often recall one of the first scenes in the Ferris Bueller’s day movie, where the teacher is doing the roll call, and the students are literally falling asleep with boredom. If our mind is that bored, we are not engaging in a fruitful way with what we want to achieve, so we usually turn off completely or turn to more stimulating distractions – which these days is often our phone!
When you’re mindlessly bored, you want to try to create some mindful interest. Try and make it more interesting – this applies when you’re studying something – look for what makes you curious or intrigued – if you’ve always wondered how come butterflies fly from flower to flower, invoke that curiosity now and extend it beyond what you need to know. Or give yourself a bit of challenge, like learning to memorise the periodic table for chemistry – see how quickly you can learn it, time yourself and test yourself by having to say it out loud.
Or another strategy is to mix it up – that is, mix up what you’re supposed to be doing with another activity – playing on your phone or watching Netflix doesn’t help – they tend to be distracting and bring your energy level down, and then it takes more energy to bring yourself back to what you were meant to be doing. My recent experience was having to read some articles before a training course, which I was interested in reading, but somehow kept putting off. It’s funny how the very things you may have put off before suddenly become more attractive. I’m not much of a housework person but the pantry had been getting beyond ignorable for months. It was really interesting to me that while having to read the articles on a Sunday, that tidying up the pantry became quite inviting. So I would tell myself, that each time I finished reading an article, I was “allowed” to tidy another shelf of the pantry (lucky me!). It needs to be something of similar energy or high energy and easy to access so that its easy to return to. I get most of my housework done when I’m trying to write or read, and am able to slip it in between. Though, if you asked me to do cleaning or chores, I probably wouldn’t choose to do it!
When it comes to overcoming the negative in our mind about the effort required to do something, psychologists suggest becoming aware of your self talk so that you can gently work with it, or challenge it. Self talk is that chatter that we have in our mind, that is constantly telling us what to do or what not to do. When it comes to procrastination, I often refer to my self talk as my whingy whiny mind – its like a six year old complaining about having to come inside from playing when its become too dark to be outside! “But do I really have to – its not fair – I don’t want to”. Especially when it comes to exercise. Pretty much every Sunday I go mountain bike riding and climb a hill, which causes me pain and involves effort, and most weeks my brain complains before hand. So what gets me to do it? It’s the down hill excitement – going down hill is so much fun! Visualizing how good it is going to be when you get there is the tip here. It helps you with the “I can do” self talk.
Avoidance is inherent in every type of anxiety, and procrastination is not exempt. The number one suggestion, is make it easy! If you overwhelm yourself with the big picture, it’s not surprising that you talk yourself out of it. To make it easier for your mind to stop complaining, and start doing, make a contract with yourself that is easy and achievable, breaking it into small do-able steps. Your mind will probably still complain, but the step can be so easy and small, that even you can talk yourself into doing it.
In the case of exercise, contract with yourself to do just 10-20 minutes, and you will often find that you get some momentum and start enjoying it by then. Even if you are not enjoying it, you can play with using the “halve it strategy”. When you get to the end of your first contract time, you can contract to do half your original contract again. So, you start with 20, and when you get to the end, you can challenge yourself to do either another 20 or another 10, and at the end of that either another 10 or 5 and so on. When you apply this, you are literally using your momentum.
If your goal is something like writing, and you’ve hit a writer’s block, ask yourself can you write one word? Yes of course you can. It can be any word, you don’t have to police it too much. And if you can write one work, of course you can write two, and even a whole sentence. And if you can write a whole sentence, then you can write a few until it becomes a whole paragraph and then write two paragraphs and so on, until you reach your whole word count for that writing session. Even if you don’t love what you’ve written, you have something to start with, and you can refine it as you go!
Can procrastination become a real problem?
There is no denying that the procrastination can be quite a painful experience for people. In fact its often more painful than doing the actual activity you’re avoiding. The problem with avoiding is that the more that a person avoids, often the more they avoid and it generalizes until they are hiding under the bed with just the redback spiders to talk to. All avoidance is limiting and makes our world a little smaller.
When avoidance escalates to this degree it can become quite debilitating. Doing something sooner than later is the key, with the emphasis on the word doing. I invite you to do something, even the smallest step toward something that would eventually bring you some sense of achievement or enjoyment.