The Important Difference Between Procrastinating and Letting Go

Sometimes, you can’t make progress on a project or task, and it isn’t due to procrastination. Sometimes you need to let go.

Procrastination pops up so innocently. It offers you so many tempting options: answer that email first. Go ahead and return that phone call. Better take a quick break before you start. Check social media; it will only take a few minutes.

On and on.

Procrastination sounds convincing. But the results are ugly. If you listen, breayou’re choosing to do unimportant tasks — usually the ones with a quick-feedback loop — rather than get started on the one thing you need to do.

But sometimes you can’t — or don’t — move forward on a project or task, and the reason isn’t procrastination. Sometimes the best thing you can do is let go. The key is knowing the difference between these two times, so your brain can’t fool you into thinking you are doing one (productive letting-go) when, in fact, you’re doing the other (inefficient procrastination).

Let’s take a quick look.

What Triggers Procrastination

The main reason we procrastinate is simple: we don’t know how to get started.

It’s a silly thing, really, but when getting started is difficult, your brain finds all sorts of other things to do.

We could put the brainwork into figuring out how to get started; instead, we get distracted, answer another email, make a phone call, get a snack, take a break, or do one of a hundred other busywork tasks that don’t give us any real results.

You know of the Pareto principle: 20% of your actions produce 80% of your results. The inverse is the scary truth that 80% of your actions produce negligible results. When we procrastinate, we’re spending a lot of time in that pointless 80%. It feels easier — because, generally, those tasks are less complex and more familiar — but it ends in frustration. If you’ve ever spent a day working on task after task (usually with a sense of urgency and desperation) only to feel that you got nothing done, you’ve been deep in the pit of procrastination.

The other main reason we procrastinate is that we are afraid.

Maybe the task is very important, with a chance of great reward or great failure. That’s intimidating. Maybe the project is complex, is challenging, and requires us to stretch, learn, and grow. Maybe we have to work with people we don’t enjoy, or use abilities we’re not confident in. Feeling intimidated by or uncertain about a task is a common trigger for procrastination. After all, putting off pain feels a lot better than marching straight into it.

The problem is that the imagined pain is often much, much greater than the actual pain we’ll experience doing the work. By procrastinating, we also create the frustration of doing pointless work, being inefficient, and seeing few results. Meanwhile, that big scary task is still hanging out there, waiting for us to get started.

When You Need to Let Go

Sometimes, we can’t make progress on a project or task, and it isn’t due to procrastination.

When that’s the case, the best choice to make is to let go.

Here’s how you know it’s time to let go:

  • When you’ve done all you can do on a task.
  • When you’re missing a key resource or piece of information.
  • When you find a tool or automation that would complete the task in a much better way.
  • When the next step is out of your control.
  • When you have to wait on someone else.
  • When you know the project doesn’t match your priorities.
  • When you’ve completed the output (the part you can produce) and you have to wait on the outcome (the results).
  • When you’ve realized that the project isn’t sustainable.

In any of the cases above, you’re either a) not able to control what needs to happen next or b) able to see that the task or project isn’t worth your time.

If you can’t control the next step, you’ll waste your energy trying to do something about it. Do all that you can, communicate what you need to, and take a big step back. Take a deep breath. There. Let it go. It’s out of your hands. Turn your attention and energy to something else.

If you can see that the task isn’t worth your time, do what you need to do to get it off your list. That might mean choosing not do the task at all (if so, communicate to people who need to know). Perhaps you need to delegate it to a more appropriate person. Perhaps you need to close the entire project and put your attention on projects that have a higher priority for you. Or perhaps you need to invest in the tool or automation that will complete the task more efficiently for you.

Letting go is a proactive step forward to making the best use of your time and energy. Procrastination, on the other hand, is a passive step backward that wastes your time and energy.

If you feel hesitation about a task or project, take a few minutes and ask yourself why.

  • Are you unsure about how to start?
  • Are you intimidated by or uncertain about the task or project?

You’re probably procrastinating. Break the task down into smaller pieces. Write out a list of ways to get started. Ask for help. Put in the first five minutes, and see how far you can get.

  • Are you unable to control or complete the next step?
  • Are you aware that the task isn’t worth your time?

It’s probably time to let go. Take one of the steps mentioned above. Be proactive in your communication to the people involved. Then mentally close out your involvement and turn your attention to something that is right for you: something that’s under your control and worth your precious time.