Some problems are universal. This is one of the reasons why the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) includes not only individual support but also group activities. Who among us has never procrastinated on household chores, taken a quick peek at social media ‘just for a moment’ when supposed to be working on an important report, avoided an uncomfortable conversation, or decided to start exercising ‘from Monday’?
Research shows that one in five people regularly postpones tasks, but to a greater or lesser extent, this phenomenon affects everyone. It is common, though it may seem illogical, as it is associated with fear, stress, low mood, depression, a lower quality of life, hinders career progress, and makes it difficult to achieve financial success.
Procrastination or laziness?
We talk about procrastination when:
- we want to do something,
- there are no objective obstacles preventing us from doing it,
- we know that by delaying we worsen our situation …
…yet, despite the awareness, we don’t take action.
It is easy to label someone who behaves this way as lazy, yet there is a significant difference in thoughts and emotions. A procrastinating person intends to complete the task and feels bad when not taking action. They want and plan to act, but something hinders them. On the other hand, a lazy person simply does not want to get to work, and it doesn’t particularly bother them. In practice, we often postpone something not because we are inherently lazy, but for much more complex reasons. Therefore, straightforward instructions like ‘Get to work’, whether given to oneself or others, are often ineffective.
How about not postponing anything?
We usually postpone everything: work tasks, household duties, healthier eating, physical activity, medical check-ups, language learning, advancing qualifications, difficult conversations, finding time and motivation for building relationships, important decisions, self-improvement, pursuing dreams, saving money, paying bills and taxes, responding and calling back, and relaxation. When we imagine that we would accomplish these things, it seems obvious that life would be better.
Important matters and urgent matters
What is characteristic, postponed matters often fall into the category of important but not urgent. Urgent matters demand attention, though they are not always significant. When there are many of them, it’s difficult to reach those that are not as pressing, and it seems that nothing will happen if we don’t exercise today.
This division of matters is presented in the book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’. It is accompanied by the message that a good life requires engagement in important but not urgent matters. It is a useful tool for summarizing one’s day or week – you can see what occupied your time and plan your time in a way that consciously includes important but not urgent matters. The lack of prioritization skills is one of the reasons for procrastination. When we cannot say ‘no’ to less important matters, we say ‘no’ to what is important.
How we idealize our ‘future self’
We often procrastinate because we delude ourselves into thinking that tomorrow ‘will be different’. It is much easier to make commitments about the future than to start implementing them now. In studies where participants were asked how much time they could dedicate to helping a friend, on average, people declared 85 minutes when it was about the next month, but only 27 minutes when it was supposed to be in the current week. We think differently about ourselves now than about our future selves, idealizing who we could be.
In the book ‘The Willpower Instinct’ Kelly McGonigal writes: ‘Our future ‘self’ always has more time, more energy, more willpower than our present ‘self.’ It doesn’t feel stressed, is better organized, and more motivated’. We shield our present ‘self’ from stress, discomfort, and effort because we experience the emotions associated with them in real-time. Future emotions are inaccessible to us – hence the error in thinking.
However, if we want to be effective, it’s worth realizing that it will still be us in the future – with our traits, emotions, habits, capabilities, and doubts. Then, we can consider what challenges with ourselves may lie ahead and what we will do when obstacles arise. If we have a weakness for desserts, it’s unlikely that we will be completely free from it in a month.
Instead of waiting for the perfect state, it’s better to think about what slightly healthier dessert we can have. Another method of connecting with our future selves is asking what action taken today we will be grateful for tomorrow. If we plan to write a report, it will be more enjoyable to sit down to it after preparing the data or tidying up our desk.
Fear of Failure and Fear of Success
We wait for a better version of ourselves in the hope that it will deal with things we are not ready to face now, and one of those things is fear. We fear failure. As long as we do nothing, we won’t make a mistake, won’t reveal that we can’t, and won’t embarrass ourselves. Such fears are fueled by the belief that anything not an immediate success is a failure. But perfectionism and setting the bar so high that whatever we do is not good enough also contribute to these anxieties.
We fear more when we treat failures as evidence that we are worthless – we can’t demand from others, perform, or navigate Zoom. And when our own stumbles convince us that we are not fit for it because, surely, if that were the case, everything would be smooth.
Fortunately, there is much we can do about the fear of failure:
- To begin with, it’s beneficial to embrace this fear a bit, because if we care about something, it means it’s important to us.
- Accept that on the journey to a goal, there will likely be stumbles that may evoke unpleasant emotions, require extra effort, or necessitate modifying the goal, but they don’t have to mean we’ll be stuck forever.
- It’s worthwhile to anticipate more than one scenario – for “I’ll try to do it, and if not, I’ll give up,” have an alternative, such as asking someone for help.
- Goals can be formulated to make failure more challenging. You can decide to “have the highest sales” or “take actions to increase sales.”
- It’s also helpful to set small goals. When creating a presentation, today’s task could be: “I’ll open PowerPoint and choose a background” – with such a goal, the fear of failure diminishes. Another small goal could be doing something for 5 minutes.
- We can try to replace the thought “What if I can’t do it?” with “What if I can?” and the thought “What if they criticize me?” with “What if they praise me?”
- With a tendency towards perfectionism, it’s essential to recognize its various aspects. It’s possible to appreciate high quality without agonizing over not always achieving it.
- Fear significantly limits the ability to approach different experiences with openness, curiosity, and a learning attitude.
Sometimes, however, what holds us back is not the fear of failure but the fear of success. When we contemplate what will happen if we succeed, thoughts may arise that pressure will increase or relationships will change. Perhaps others will discover that we are not suitable – it’s the “impostor syndrome,” thinking that we were promoted by mistake, they will realize it soon, and it will end. We may also have a deep-seated belief that we don’t deserve good things. Indeed, achieving a goal usually means confronting a different reality and our own barriers. However, delaying this process is often exhausting and, in the long run, drains our energy.
On the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path
A helpful metaphor in overcoming procrastination is presented in the book “Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard” – it’s the metaphor of the Rider, the Elephant, and the Path, which are equivalents of reason, emotions, and the situation. When we imagine the Rider navigating the path on an Elephant, the goal of the journey appears to be controlled by the Rider—until the Rider and the Elephant disagree on the direction, as the powerful Elephant gains the upper hand. However, regardless of their relationship, the configuration of the path influences the journey.
In practice, we often set goals using the rational thinking of the Rider. And we tend to blame the emotional Elephant for failures. What’s the use of the Rider having a travel plan when the Elephant turns towards bananas? And what good is having a training schedule when we don’t feel like getting off the couch? It seems that if it weren’t for the Elephant’s weaknesses, everything would succeed. We fail to see to what extent emotions contribute to success, how much we need the energy, motivation, and passion they provide. We can force ourselves into obedience in the short-term using self-discipline, but we all know how exhausting tasks can be, which may be reasonable and logical but lack positive emotions.
Therefore, it is important to take care of all three elements simultaneously:
- What the mind needs – setting goals, prioritizing, action plans, analyzing experiences, progress, what worked, obstacles, acquiring necessary knowledge.
- What works on emotions – an attractive vision of the future, not too big changes that won’t cause fear and stress, rewards along the way, not just at the end, the pleasure derived from action, and curiosity about undertaking it.
- Arranging the situation to support our actions – which includes choices regarding the people we surround ourselves with, the information that reaches us, shaping habits and rituals, and interacting with others.
For example, wanting to increase physical activity, we may have a training plan and learn about various types of workouts, but it’s also good to feel why we are doing it, think about activities we enjoy, and perhaps keep in touch with friends who exercise or place our sneakers in a visible place.
Procrastination can sometimes be helpful
Gaining perspective allows us to see things in a different light. New information, circumstances, and opportunities emerge. Some problems ‘solve themselves’, and tasks become irrelevant. Some pressure that builds over time can be motivating. During the procrastination period, we often accomplish other tasks. Moderate procrastination also positively influences creativity.
Research has shown that the solutions that appear first tend to be obvious. Having some time to process the topic allows us to notice more and connect information in new ways. On the other hand, dealing with a task at the last-minute narrows attention because time begins to run out.
As in many other matters, balance is crucial when it comes to procrastination. It can be effectively managed, and it is worth doing so to prevent it from reaching levels where it causes stress and significantly complicates life. On the other hand, the vision of a world where we would immediately tackle absolutely every task does not seem appealing.