[Is there a cure for procrastination? The reasons. Why it hurts. What’s underneath (and it's not the lack of strong will) and what CAN we do about it.]
I was on the plane from Phoenix to Chicago and I decided to read few chapters of “You are not so smart” by David McRaney from my slim ibooks library. And… you got it, there it was: a chapter on procrastination.
So you know what many people think when they catch themselves procrastinating? “I’m lazy, I can’t manage my time well…” - but, according to David, it’s a misconception.
David cites a long term experiment (children followed into adulthood) which results showed: people who procrastinate less are not smarter, but “they know how to trick themselves into doing what’s best for them.”)
When we procrastinate we choose a pleasure over what needs to be done. We choose “want” over “should”. People who don’t procrastinate know: “want” never goes away. People who procrastinate don’t have a plan for times when they will be tempted.
Some “can get things done, not because they have more willpower or drive, but because they know productivity is a game played against childish primal human predilection for pleasure and novelty, that can never be excised from the soul.
Your effort is better spent outsmarting yourself than making empty promises through plugging dates into calendar or setting deadlines for push-ups” *
This single chapter filled with logical information did it for me. My time management is still terrible. But the realization that my human nature will want to lead me to the fridge 10 x a day when I need to finish writing something – is enough to reduce this need significantly.
Either you control it or it controls you.
David Mcraney gives us one reason and one trick – certainly a good one. Let’s see what are other reasons we procrastinate, and what we can do about them. When we think about it…
…we really put off things in so many areas of life, that expecting to control and completely eliminate procrastination from life may not be realistic. It may not even be the wisest choice… (see below “good things about taking your time”)
But in some cases we can help ourselves to avoid unnecessary problems.
8 serious reasons to do something about it.
- Procrastination undermines your self esteem. (You didn’t do it, or if you waited to the last minute you have done it to your lowest standards. Involuntary comparison: you look at other people if that’s the case and compare your project to theirs, the nonprocrastinators. They are usually close to perfection and you hate them. You beat yourself up for not starting sooner and you feel like a loser.)
- It’s a source of unnecessary stress.
- It may (and often does) lead to sleep deprivation. (which equals more stress, leads to worse performance, compromise of the immune system)
- It leads to health problems.**
- It wastes time, consumes us emotionally.
- It simply hurts.
The only ability that is increased by procrastination is our imagination, which goes wild, when we think of reasons why we haven’t done something. (I’m always being abducted by aliens.. and you?)
So why, why, why do we procrastinate and what’s the cure?
I’m the right person to ask because I have done it all. Why do you procrastinate? What are you afraid of? What can’t you harness? Why do you STILL believe in your ability to do things fast under stress while being sleep deprived, if you have done it 22 times already?
- You overestimate yourself.
- You don’t have realistic expectations about how long things take.
- You are paralyzed, because… – whatever it is - it got to be perfect.
- You can’t focus, overwhelmed with ideas: there is too many of them, all great, all flying around. You don’t know where to start. There is too much tension.
- You see no reward in handling things on time. No reward in doing things now vs. next month (right eating, exercising)
- Your dopamine, serotonin, testosterone levels are out of balance. (very high levels of neurotransmitter, serotonin, are associated with obsessiveness, perfectionism. Testosterone provides sustained attention. Lower dopamine level allow to increase effort, higher causes more curiosity and ability to envision things, including fact there is no reward coming anytime soon) ***
- There is always something more pleasant to do, and you don’t know the secret (well, now you do), that “want” never goes away.
- You may actually create something big and you are scared of the consequences. The results will force you to step up, you’ll need to assume more responsibility.
- You are avoiding dealing with difficult emotions (procrastinate contacting someone, listening to a voicemail they left, because you are scared) This may be the same thing that prevents you to sue someone, because of past trauma, or clean up the back room in your house… the stuff may bring up too much emotions, which now are safely hidden deep inside.
- The project is just something you can’t stand. You are not passionate about it, you dislike the teacher, the team, you hate the whole package.
- Short term reward is real. Long term vague. You know what you should do (where “should” = something good for you) but the reward is a year / 10 years from now. It’s vague anyway and NOW you WANT something else. Think broccoli soup vs light chocolate cake topped with whipped cream and strawberries soaked previously in Grand Marnier, maybe with candied pecans… yay! there is fruit in it. (broccoli… now or later?)
- You rationalize: ”I work better under pressure”. Truth: you work only under pressure.
- You may be depressed. Can your procrastination be a sign of depression? Or is your depression a result of procrastination? The insight can motivate you to address one or the other.
Perfectionism, self sabotage, fear, human nature, avoidance of pain, the need for comfort and safety, inability to organize ideas, lack of plan, constant distraction, lack of boundaries.
Should we now choose our medicine?
I don’t know how you learn. What helps you to stop doing what hurts you, and start doing what serves you? Choose the remedy that works for you. And if you know of something that is not here… please share in the comments!
1. Logic. Your own [secret key, formula, mantra]
Just like the aforementioned book said: “want never goes away”… when we anchor this mantra in our mind, we will recall it next time we have a desire to watch a movie instead of doing what needs to be done. And then we can actually act on it…
Examples of other mantras “Back to work, Back to work” (Brian Tracy), “Do what needs to be done. Do what needs to be done” (Brian Johnson), “The time is NOW” (Joanna), Yours? _____________________
2. Save yourself the emotional stress. When you really can’t face a task, because of your emotional attachment, and all attempts to “detach” yourself fail, there is a way to shorten your distress. It gets much easier with a help of a supportive friend who has no attachment (or even someone you hire). They will move thru the thing like a storm without a blink. Seeing it being handled you will feel your strength coming back to you.
Helpful thoughts to detach yourself: “ what’s the worst that may happen?”, “Why do I feel guilty about this?”,” Is this really my responsibility?”
3. Eat better for focus. One of the excuses we have for not getting things done is ADD. I encourage you to look into this. It is not only about avoiding sugar, simple carbs, aspartame, soda, coffee. It is not only about increasing good proteins, magnesium, probiotics, vitamins, particularly B, C, E.
Doctor Haas brings out attention to food addictions, food allergies, poor diet, toxicity. “Common food allergy reactions associated with hyperactivity are to wheat, corn, milk, eggs, gluten containing grains (barley, oats, rye). To be avoided also are sugar, soft drinks, coloring agents, particularly yellow 5.”**** Check your food allergies. Don’t be afraid of good quality supplements from sustainable sources (supplements are also not created equal).
You may also look into balancing the neurotransmitters (I can’t speak on that at this point, but when I have more knowledge about it I will update this post)
4. Plan visually. Plan in details. Plan ahead. Grab a pen. Draw a visual plan of action. Make a list. Create a sequence of tasks.
The big project that is levitating in your mind… if it seems too big for you – grow up to match it. Eventually it will need to happen or you will face resentment… when you see someone else realizing it. Because you may know that IDEAS and not hidden in the privacy of our thoughts… they are floating above and whoever catches them and act on them is the winner.
5. Instead of hiding your head in sand- learn from pain. You had your share of shame caused by being late. Now.. plan ahead.
6. Address your perfectionism. There is perfectionism that is necessary for things to work and be safe. There is perfectionism that is killing your creativity, freedom, progress.Don’t spend too much time thinking about stuff. Realize, it will never be perfect. And if you don’t start, you won’t know what to improve anyway. “Clarity comes from action” (Marie Forleo)
7. Know yourself. When do you perform your best? When are you most creative, when are you handling stress better? When do you have access to support?
8. Set a system of rewards. Have a big project to do? Reward yourself after each finished section – choose a reward if the satisfaction from a completed task is not enough.
The reward may also be a change in perception. Procrastinating to pay bills? See a pleasure coming from having it done on time. Focus not on the feeling that you spend money again, but on the fact that you can afford to pay for all the services, things that you enjoy in everyday life. Paying off cars, house, furniture? See if you can feel again the gratitude and joy you felt when you were buying them.
9. Balancing pain and pleasure. Do you hate the subject you are working on? If delegating is not an option, make a list of pros and cons. Again we are back to simple awareness.
When I procrastinated to finish a big project in business development class- which I couldn’t stand- a coach helped me to see all the pros and cons of doing and not doing the work. it was beyond just making a list. She pressed me to make a list of 20 painful things that may result of me not doing the work. 20 good things that may result from completing it. Brainstorming, looking for those negative consequences made me feel how much more painful it will be, if I don’t accept it and do it.
10. Use your subconscious mind (the ~85% of your mind) In hypnosis the reasons for procrastination may be reversed, released, and if there are deeper issues preventing you from moving forward the insight may bring you awareness of something you didn’t suspect. Often just the awareness is enough to release the problem. Though we don’t know how exactly hypnosis work you can achieve your goal much faster than working only with your conscious mind (~15% of your mind) Ask me how.
But wait, ain’t there any
good things about taking time, delaying, avoiding?
For the past 2 weeks I procrastinated on writing the post about procrastination (lack of focus). I wanted it to be deep and good (perfectionism). I wanted to give you easy action plan to free yourself from this condition (purpose).
At this point I can only rationalize that maybe this is a better version than the one that wasn’t written few weeks ago. But I actually read a chapter in “Antifragile…” called “In praise of procrastination – the fabian kind”. Taleb – in his own mischievous way – praises certain types of procrastination, giving examples from history, ancient and recent, and from his own life. Let me make a list of the general message here… We need something to support ourselves in case it comes up again.
Procrastination and delaying may be a wise choice when:
- We delay engagement in a fight (Romans respected the act of voluntary omission)
- We delay engagement when our goal is a moving target and only time can show what is the best choice
- It’s our natural defense mechanism – some things and problems actually do take care themselves – and he gives an example of body healing on its own without undergoing a recommended surgery.
- Procrastination may be a message from you inner self. A message reminding to be true to yourself, sometimes to avoid trouble, of not pushing. To let things happen naturally.
- “In fact we humans are very bad at filtering information, particularly short-term information, and procrastination can be a way for us to filter better, to resist the consequences of jumping on information, [...]” *****
Now your turn. Share in the comments below: Do you struggle with it? What’s the worst part? Have you overcome it? Can you share how you succeeded?
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* McRaney, David. “You Are Not So Smart.” PENGUIN group, 2011-09-21. iBooks.
** A group of students was asked to write a paper due late in semester. They were also asked to report any symptoms of physical illness early and late in semester. procrastinators not only obtained on average lower grade but they also reported more illness symptoms late in semester (due to more stress). The non procrastinators reported some symptoms early in semester, but the consequences for procrastinators was a great increase of stress and physical illness in the end. they felt most ill at the time when they needed to be in good health to finish the work. Philip. G. Zimbardo, Richard J Gerrig “Psychology” Longman 1999, p 509-511
*** Pierce J. Howard, PhD “The owner’s manual for the brain” HarperCollins 2006, 2014
**** Elson M. Haas M.D. “Staying healthy with nutrition” Celestial Arts 2006
***** Nassim Nicholas Taleb. “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.” Random House, 2012-11-27. iBooks.