Why Do We Procrastinate?

And what to do about it.

Why do I procrastinate? I know it’s not a good thing, but I do it anyway. And the worst part is – I KNOW when I’m doing it. Have you ever said that to yourself?

How’s that for a big “oh dear!”

So first, let me make you feel better about it. Bet no one’s ever said THAT to you before!!

Science says that procrastination isn’t just a human problem. Yup, it does, I promise!

There’s something called Newton’s First Law of Motion. You’ve probably heard a version of it before. It goes something like – “a thing at rest stays at rest and a thing in motion stays in motion” – or something like that.

It’s that physics thing that says “a body at rest will stay at rest until forced to do otherwise.” Dare I say it? It’s physics! It’s not my FAULT! The entire universe procrastinates! Science said so! YAY!

OK, that may be stretching it a bit. But it is true. If you’re not moving toward your creative goal, it’s a well known (physics) fact that it’s a bit more difficult to get moving again.

It’s Universal

However, just because procrastination is a “universal” thing doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. We find ourselves procrastinating when we know we shouldn’t be. We grumble, “I should really be (fill in the blank here),” as we look for the next great idea on Instagram, stand in front of the open fridge for the fourth time in an hour, or realize we’re watching trumpet videos on YouTube when we don’t own an instrument.

It’s not just about our creative work either. Procrastination can affect every other important part of our lives if we let it. You know, like delaying an important decision that’ll have us sitting in this same place next year. Or not getting that strange sound coming from under the hood checked that leads to a much bigger repair. Or maybe avoiding a difficult conversation with Aunt Melba that leads to getting yet another strange and useless Christmas gift.

When it’s all said-and-done, we end up chastising ourselves as deadlines whoosh past, time runs out, and opportunity slips through our fingers.

Why, why, why do we do this to ourselves?

I’d say the solution is simple: Just do the thing already! But, if you’re anything like me, reality is far more complicated. Like I said before, procrastination is universal and it’s in our very genes. It’s baked in! Some studies show it’s genetic! Excellent! Blame it on my genes. NICE!

Or maybe not so nice! Studies also show that procrastination is, unfortunately, a lifelong trait. DANG!

So, what’s that mean for us procrastinators? Are we doomed? Are we destined to spend our days absent mindedly watching videos of gerbils playing on wheels on YouTube? (Fitting if you think about it!)

Good news ladies and gentlemen – the answer is NO!

We’re learning creatures after-all! Just as the worriers among us can “let it go,” and the restrained among us can “loosen up,” we procrastinators can learn strategies to help us focus and resist temptation.

Procrastination comes in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it’s all about choosing enjoyment over discipline. Sometimes it’s about avoiding something negative. Sometimes it’s simply paralysis from fear and expectations.

Whatever the reason, let’s tackle them one by one!

Here are five reasons we procrastinate, and five even better ways to stop!

1. It’ll wait – aka It’s not urgent.

Whether it’s a tantrum, a notification on our phone, or a date on the calendar, we tend to pay attention to what’s right in front of us…regardless of its importance. It’s hard to prioritize things that aren’t screaming in our face. We all have things we never get around to doing. Lots of things, big and small, sit neglected at the bottom of the to-do list for months, if not years. Even things that could have a huge, long-term positive effect on our lives.

The Fix: Long Game – Big Picture

OK, we’re back to science again, specifically – evolution. Humans are hardwired to consider their present needs much more than their future needs. (Retirement savings anyone?) This makes sense because the present is in our face, so naturally we pay more attention to it.

The fix is to take on a longer and wider perspective rather than nit-picking the present-day details. Look at your everyday tasks through the lens of the long-game.

For example, if you’ve been wanting to learn to draw, or play Bach on the piano, but just never seem to get around to it, take a step back. What would this mean for your self-esteem three years out? What are your values and goals around your creativity? What would your success demonstrate to your kids or grandkids? What’s the big picture? Taking a look at the long-game can jump-start the process of taking action.

Of course, once you’ve decided to take action, guess what happens next?

2. I have no idea how to start or what to do next.

Yep. Reason number two for procrastinating is that we’re not sure what to do first. Maybe we feel overwhelmed, confused, or disorganized. We put off getting started because we’re not sure what the first step is. We don’t really know HOW to start.

This kind of procrastination is less about avoiding the task, and more about avoiding negative emotions. Who wants to feel incompetent or clueless? Good heavens! Who could blame us for turning to Netflix or sorting our socks instead? It might feel productive but it’s still procrastination. Anyone who’s ever organized their inbox or shopped online for Christmas ornaments in July knows what I mean. At least I’ll be prepared – that’s good right?

The Fix: Build It In

You’re gonna feel all this stuff anyway so why not build it in! Acknowledge that it’s totally normal to feel overwhelmed or stupid when you’re just starting out, especially if it’s something that’s new to you. Build the confusion and overwhelm into the task. “Figure out steps” is step number one. “Scream into pillow” is step number seven. Put “17 seconds of self-pity” at the top of your list if that gets you started.

Some people need outside help to get that first step identified, so throw around a couple ideas with a friend. And remember, it’s perfectly normal for the beginning to include a lot of pivots, do-overs, and just plain messing up. It only feels crumby if you think it shouldn’t be happening.

Which leads us to…

3. What if I fail? Better not start!

A little bit of “I wanna do a good job” isn’t bad. After all, high standards lead to high-level work. A lot of celebrities, entrepreneurs, and artists are self-proclaimed perfectionists. But watch out! Because sometimes extremely high standards have the opposite effect. We blow off our projects, convinced there’s no way we can meet the standards we set for ourselves. Perfectionism is procrastination in a business suit. Don’t fall for the sales pitch!

The Fix: Don’t Confuse your Performance with your Self-worth

Perfectionism and procrastination are linked, but it’s not necessarily the high standards that get you in trouble. It’s the high standards combined with a belief that your performance is somehow tied to your self-worth. That combination will stop you in your tracks!

There is a huge difference between who you are and what you achieve. You are so much more than your accomplishments—your family, your passions, your experiences, travels, and friends, your knowledge, your efforts, the challenges you’ve overcome, and, most importantly, how you treat other people.

So what if you fail! You learn something in the process and then move on! Done!

4. Some people work better under pressure.

Did you ever know someone who could crack open the textbook for the first time a few days before the final exam and still do better than the rest of us? Maybe that person was you. Maybe that pressure energizes you! Maybe not, but never-the-less….

The Fix: Know Thyself.

Turns out those kids were planning ahead, just in a different way. So, there are two types of procrastination: passive and active. Passive procrastination is what we typically do: get distracted by videos of Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg making brownies while our art sits waiting.

Active procrastination is a bit more deliberate. There are some people who work better under pressure and prefer the adrenaline rush and intense focus that comes with a close deadline. Those people prefer active procrastination. For those of you in that camp, that choice pays off big time.

That’s not me, not judging! The lesson here is to know thyself. If the high-pressure intensity works for you, go ahead – make that pot of coffee and get started at midnight. I’m headed to bed.

5. We just don’t wanna!

What we’re supposed to be doing is hard. It’s boring. It’s confusing. It’s 3 p.m. on a beautiful Friday, and we’d rather be doing anything else.

There are some things no one wants to do—taxes, housecleaning, the dishes, getting off the couch to go to bed—I mean, Cosmo’s on top of me? I don’t want to disturb him! What to do in this case?

The Fix: Plan and Compensate.

This will come as no surprise.  Studies show that some people who procrastinated did so simply because there were more fun alternatives. DUH! Who needed a study for that? But seriously, in their minds, they weren’t blowing off their work—they fully intended to do it. Just not right now.

And just like the active procrastinators, these procrastinators also knew themselves well. The study found that they compensated for their tendency to procrastinate by “intending to work earlier and a little more” than non-procrastinators. In other words, they allotted for wasted time from the get-go. And in the end? They actually DID do more—not a lot more, but still.

Alright! Now it’s Your Turn

So, there you have it: if you want to stop procrastinating, play the long-game and look at the big picture, know it’s okay to be “dazed and confused” at the beginning and plan accordingly, remember your worth isn’t tied to your achievements, and, most of all, know thyself. Work with who you are. So, go ahead and get started—right after you watch that video of a tiny baby stoat meeting a new friend!

Join me LIVE on my Facebook page, Virginia Leigh Studio, at 3:00 pm Central every Wednesday and we’ll chat about this. I’d love to hear from you.

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