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Why We Procrastinate & How to Fix It

Photo by Matheus Lira on Unsplash
“Procrastination is like a credit card: it is a lot of fun until you get the bill.”
— Christopher Parker, English Actor

There is countless ways to procrastinate when we need to get stuff done: watch Netflix (Just one episode!), make something to eat (I can’t concentrate when I am hungry!), get lost on Instagram or YouTube (Just checking quickly.), check your email constantly (What if it is something important?), but also more “productive” ways like planning, learning or researching (I need to prepare better for this before getting started).

And although it all sounds fun, it’s usually painful. For some more than for others. But procrastination almost always comes with an uncomfortable guilt that taints the otherwise joyful activities we procrastinate with.

Unfortunately, procrastination is not easy to fix either. Quick fixes and productivity hacks usually turn out to be just that: a quick fix, but not a longterm solution.

But if we look beyond superficial productivity strategies and delve deeper into the underlying reasons of why we procrastinate in the first place, we might as well find a way to fix it.

So WHY do we really procrastinate?

1. We Set Our Expectations Too High

Overwhelming ourselves by setting ridiculously high goals for what we want to achieve on any given day is like taking the high road to procrastination. No wonder we are dreading and procrastinating the work if our to-do list is full of tasks like “learn French”, “make a website” or “find an idea for a business”.

The Fix:

Break it down, (wo)man! Split up big projects in bite-sized pieces and set achievable daily goals like “research language apps to learn French”, “make a sitemap for website” and “read first chapter of Pat Flynn’s Book Will it Fly?”.

2. We are relentless perfectionists

Second-guessing our work, doing the same things over and over again and spending way too much time on research and preparation can severely damage the effectiveness of our work. But even worse: it can keep us from getting started in the first place because we know exactly what our perfectionism will make us do — and we already dread it.

The Fix:

Stop yourself from spending 80% of your time on the last 20% of the project to get the details right by reminding yourself over and over again that “done is better than perfect”. Furthermore, make it a rule to get started on something as long as you have 70% of the information, 70% of resources and are 70% sure that you will succeed — because you can never by 100% prepared for anything.

3. We lack purpose

Sometimes we are simply not that interested in doing the thing we need to do. Whether it is a goal we set for ourselves like running a marathon or completing a project at work, we kind of CBA (can’t be asked). Deep down, we either just don’t see the point or the reward is not attractive enough for us.

The Fix:

Two options: 1) Don’t do it and focus on the things that are actually more important in your life or 2) Find a strong enough reason WHY you want to do it (for example: because it makes your mum happy or it builds the relationships that you can later build on).

4. We let fear hold us back

Other times our procrastination is actually a defense mechanism to keep us “safe” and in your comfort zone. Whether we are afraid of failure, success, other people’s judgement or the unknown — our fear is subconsciously holding us back from doing what we need to do.

The Fix:

There is different strategies for different fears, but what usually works very well are the following fear-busting strategies:

  • Get clear about what exactly you are afraid of: Imagine the worst case scenario, realise that it is not that bad and make a contingency plan for what to do when it actually happens.
  • Practice mindfulness through meditation, yoga and journaling to calm down pointless worrying and overthinking.
  • Make it a habit to go out of your comfort zone: The more steps you take towards the things you are afraid of, the more your fear will turn into confidence and catapult you forward.
  • Develop a deep trust in god/the universe. Trust that you are on the right path, that you are being guided every step of the way and that everything that is happening is for your ultimate good.

5. We have bad self-management

Imagine you are just about to start your work, but then you realise you are hungry. You go and have a burger, come back home and feel sluggish. So you watch Netflix instead of doing work because now you are too tired. And after two seasons of your favourite show you think “It is 4pm already — no point in starting my work now”.

Of course this is highly hypothetical — but it is a great example for explaining the domino effect of bad self-management. Just by failing to plan for having regular, healthy meals you can enter a chain of destructive behaviour. Thus, not organising your life and managing your time, energy and physical needs like food and sleep can be a serious procrastination trigger.

The Fix:

Structure your day by scheduling EVERYTHING into your calendar — even your commute, grocery shopping, cooking and free time. This forces you to estimate the time that things will take as well as set actual priorities in your day. Secondly, take care of your body by eating well, sleeping well, working out and taking time off.

6. We only Work Well under External Pressure

It’s the classic thesis case: You haven’t started writing anything until the deadline is approaching so close that you have no other choice than to sit down and get it done in one week — pulling multiple all-nighters. Whereas some people might call this “efficient”, it can also severely impact your well-being by producing a constant feeling of guilt, self-hate and anxiety in the months leading up to the deadline — although you are not even working on it. Let alone the mental and physical pain in the final days and hours before the deadline.

The Fix:

Impose artificial deadlines on yourself and gamify the process by giving yourself rewards or punishing yourself for not meeting your goals. If that doesn’t work, get an accountability partner. Even better: give him control over the punishment (like donating a significant amount of money to a cause you absolutely don’t support or colouring your hair blue).

7. We are Victims of our Circumstances

Your environment can play a major role for your procrastination. You might not be able to resist the temptations of your fridge and your TV when working from home — or you might end up chatting the entire afternoon if you bring your best friend to the library. Furthermore, other external triggers like email notifications, recommended videos on YouTube and open browser tabs can be the starting point for procrastination loops that are impossible to get out of.

The Fix:

The key is to pro-actively engineer your working environment and external distractions. Find out what works for you and replicate it as often as possible when working on important projects. This might require you to work from a specific place, around specific people, turn off notifications and not allow yourself to access certain sites or devices until you have completed your task.


TAKE-AWAY:

If you are struggling with procrastination and you are trying to fix it — don’t just ask “What can I do to change?” but ask “Why is this happening?”. If you start with WHY, you will actually find a solution that fixes the underlying issue instead of just putting a band-aid on it.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by +386,607 people.

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