We all procrastinate. Usually procrastination involves putting off something we have to do but don’t want to do. We know we have to do it. We know we will feel better once it’s done. But we still don’t do it. Why?
The blocking power of procrastination goes beyond the fact that the task may be unpleasant. We do lots of things every day that we don’t particularly enjoy, but which we don’t procrastinate about. I hate flossing my teeth, for example, but it’s part of my morning routine so I just get on and do it. In fact, sometimes we procrastinate about tasks we enjoy. I like watering my houseplants, but I procrastinate about it, because I have a tendency to tell myself that I should be dealing with my email or I should be hanging the washing out, or some other task that I convince myself is more important, albeit less enjoyable, than watering my plants.
Procrastination is, really, a failure to prioritise – in the present moment – the task that is most important. You might know, logically, that writing your report is more important than checking your email, but when you sit down at your computer something inside you – your inner rebel – convinces you that, right now, you just have to check your email. You prioritise checking your email over writing your report, even though you know logically that writing your report is more important.
I recently watched an enlightening TEDx talk by Nic Voge [Self Worth Theory: The Key to Understanding & Overcoming Procrastination] in which he describes procrastination as an impasse between two opposing forces. On the one hand, you have the necessity or desire to do the task, which provides a motivating force. On the other hand, you have a fear or reluctance to do the task, and this creates an opposing resistance force. For a while the two forces balance out and you procrastinate. However, what usually happens is that, as the deadline approaches, you add in the fear that the task won’t get done. This provides the extra force needed for your motivation to overcome your resistance, and you finally get started. The problem is, in the context of looking after your mental health, by the time you start the task, you typically haven’t left yourself time to complete it properly. So you end up dissatisfied with what you manage to do. You may have completed the task, but you haven’t done it to your satisfaction, or you’ve caused yourself more stress than you needed to, so you resolve to do better next time. But when you resolve to do better next time, you are effectively telling yourself that – right now – you aren’t good enough. And so your self-esteem and sense of wellbeing suffer.
Nic Voge suggests a strategy to overcome procrastination that involves reminding yourself of all the reasons why you want to do the task. A lot of the things we procrastinate about are things we originally chose to do, or at least were happy to do. The problem is that as more and more time passes and we continue to procrastinate, we start to feel under more and more pressure, we start to question whether we have left it too late to complete the task, we wonder whether we are going to have to cut corners, or, worse, admit we can’t get it done. All this stress that we put ourselves under adds to the resistance force that is stopping us from doing the task. If we remind ourselves of why we want or need to get the task done and of all the benefits we will get from completing it, we add to the motivational force, and increase the chance it will overcome the resistance force and enable us to move forward.
I think there is also benefit in being mindfully aware of why we don’t want to do the task. Usually there is some kind of fear involved. Fear of not doing the task perfectly. Fear of what others will think if we don’t do the task to their expectations. And more subtle fears, such as the fear of success or the fear of stepping out of our comfort zone. By mindfully acknowledging those fears, accepting them without letting them paralyse us, we weaken the resistance force, which is another way of allowing the motivation force to dominate and bring an end to the procrastination.
The next time you are procrastinating about something, take a few minutes to reflect (yes, you can procrastinate for just a few more minutes!). Ask yourself why you want or have to do the task, what benefits will it bring you? Then ask yourself why you don’t want to do it. What do you fear? Why is your dislike of the task so powerful? Hopefully you will find that the task becomes less daunting to the extent you are able to get started on it, and hopefully in the process you will also learn something valuable about how your mind works and what does and doesn’t motivate you.