Perhaps you are the kind of person that always waits until deadline to hand in a report. You might tend to put off a difficult conversation or be reluctant to start a piece of work because you don’t like the thought it won’t be perfect.
We’ve all thought this way to avoid a task. Ultimately, the reasons for procrastination can stall progress.
Our proclivity for putting things off comes from a variety of sources:
- Fear learned from experience. If we had a particularly bad experience in the past, our brains will associate the negative outcome of that experience with what we are about to start. Regardless of how illogical it is to link two very different events, the primitive part of our brain is likely to have learned “presentation” equates to “public humiliation.”
- Perfectionism. We might delay starting a task due to the fear it won’t be good enough. In so doing, we are negotiating with ourselves—“‘I can’t start because I’m not good enough.’” This rules us out of the deal before we even get into the negotiating room. In its extremity, it can lead to impostor syndrome.
- Low self-confidence. In some societies, expressing what you want is seen as pushy and arrogant. “‘I want isn’t I get’” was a phrase my parents used with me a lot. This perception of pushiness leads to downplaying your rights and overemphasizing the rights of others. The thinking goes, “‘I won’t start this conversation because I don’t feel that I have the right to begin.’”
- We are anticipation engines. If we think something is going to be unpleasant, then our bodies produce the hormones, enzymes, and physiological responses that make it an unpleasant experience without us even beginning. Just believing something will be bad makes us feel that way immediately.
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At its root, procrastination makes us feel guilty. We know we should have started something, and we feel we have let ourselves down when we have dodged the issue. Unfortunately, we are, as human beings, adept at finding reasons why we don’t want to do something.
In our world of email, WhatsApp, social media, and 24-hour news, there are many distractions to lead us away from our main task. Our guilt is assuaged if we can find plausible reasons for our procrastination—“‘something more important came up, so I’ll do it another time’”—and our modern, interruption-driven world provides us with plenty of such excuses.
The problem is that if we repeatedly put things off, it can begin to get in the way of a productive life. We fail to deliver at work and regret the actions we haven’t taken. Rumination and self-recrimination can be debilitating.
How can we turn ourselves around when we find ourselves repeatedly avoiding starting work? Here are a few suggestions that may help:
- No one did anything remotely interesting right the first time. Perfectionism is nonsense. Do great books get written without editors, drafts, and rework? Great science builds on the work of others. We didn’t get to the moon without failure along the way. Being a perfectionist isn’t just being hard on yourself—it’s being impossibly hard on yourself. Give yourself a break. Just start and learn as you go.
- Get into habits. Use a “to-do” list and clear the difficult stuff first. Put aside time in the day to close your phone, ignore email, and concentrate on clearing down the tough things on your list. Do this every day, on repeat, until it becomes a habit.
- Reward yourself for having cleared a worrisome item. Have your favorite coffee, pick your favorite chocolate bar, walk in your favorite park—whatever small reward you would look forward to. It not only gives you a positive goal to work toward but helps your primordial brain generate positive associations with getting things done and resets those learned associations.
- Break down a task into manageable chunks. Big projects become much less daunting in smaller chunks. Plan your work so it delivers a series of short-term wins you can celebrate. It’ll make you feel good about your achievements and give you a sense of progress.
- Walk toward the issue. When you least want to do something is the time you need to do it. Shy away now, and you’ll get into the avoid-guilty-justify cycle. That cycle makes it more likely you will dodge the issue repeatedly. If you don’t want to speak to your boss, do it now.
- If you are worried about the consequences of starting, visualize the problem as something small and humorous. A difficult performance conversation can put you between a rock and hard place but will help put things into perspective. Usually, the issues that concern you are never as large as you anticipate them to be. They certainly aren’t as large as the guilt and regret you will feel if you duck the challenge.
We should all be cautious about the power of short, self-help articles and seek broader support if procrastination is a really debilitating issue. We’ve all been in a situation where we have put something off and regretted it. That’s always painful, so let’s get on with things positively. Starting now.
The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.