Why we procrastinate and what to do about it

We’ve all been there. Late at night, glued to our desk chair, bleary-eyed from hours of screen time and harsh fluorescent lights, cramming as much productivity as possible into the fleeting hours before a deadline. In accounting, it’s virtually unavoidable. A filing deadline is a filing deadline, and no amount of preparation or foresight is going to get you out of the office with the rush-hour crowd.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe the full afternoon spent catching up on random emails could have waited until after you finished the massive board deck due first thing the next morning. (Definitely not speaking from experience here).

So, how can we stop overburdening ourselves when it’s not truly necessary? Shouldn’t we save the stress of a last-minute scramble for when it’s truly warranted? Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

I’ll spare you the etymology and dictionary definition of procrastinate because most of us are all too familiar with it. This isn’t about laziness. There’s nothing inherently lazy about clearing 150 unread emails from an overflowing inbox. Nor is it some fatal character flaw. For the vast majority of us afflicted by this annoying, endlessly repeating cycle, it comes down to the way we cope with challenging emotions.

Negative feelings

When procrastination occurs, it’s often because the task in question conjures one or more negative feelings, including boredom, anxiety, frustration, insecurity, resentment or self-doubt. The immediate urgency of managing these emotions overwhelms the logical pursuit of desired long-term outcomes.

Why have that difficult confrontation with my roommate now when I can busy myself with less mentally taxing household chores, and put off an inevitable argument until later?

Part of the problem is that we perceive our current and future selves as almost entirely different people. It’s much easier to visualize the instant gratification of an Amazon shopping binge for my current self than the long-term benefit of a few hundred extra dollars in the retirement account of my 60-year-old self.

Although these particular instances are fairly benign, this pattern of behavior can have real, detrimental consequences if left unchecked. Our lives are stressful enough without self-imposed chaos. Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to nudge your brain into compliance.

Forgive yourself.

The irony of procrastination is that, in its desire to avoid immediate pain, the mind creates even more suffering by adding the guilt of inaction to the anxiety already caused by the original task. If you find yourself increasingly stressed as a deadline approaches, try not to beat yourself up over time already wasted. Think of it as a sunk cost and refocus your attention and energy on the task at hand.

Hypothetically take action.

Right now, I’m staring at a blank Word document. But if I were going to write a blog post, what steps would I take? Maybe I would brainstorm topics, do some research, make an outline, draft a few paragraphs, and hopefully come up with something mildly interesting. Making the whole situation hypothetical takes some emotion out of the task, in turn making it easier to come up with a plan of attack. You’re not committing to actually doing any of this stuff, so who cares if the plan is perfect?

Make temptations difficult and desired behaviors easier.

You’ve heard this before. If you’re having trouble getting to the gym in the morning, sleep in your gym clothes. Distracted from work by your Instagram feed? Turn your phone off or put it in a drawer. The goal is to make the distractions and excuses just a little bit more inconvenient, and your goal behavior just a little easier.

Bundle temptations.

Make a list of things you enjoy doing, another of things you have to do, and see what you can combine. For instance, limiting your favorite show to the treadmill can make cardio that much less painful. The immediate payoff of knowing who dies in the next Game of Thrones episode is more relevant to your current self than the uncertain benefit of possible weight loss tomorrow.

None of these tips alone are going to cure procrastination. Habits are developed over many years and can take just as long to undo. But once you begin to notice and address the underlying issues, you have a fighting chance at earning back some inner calm, and combating procrastination and taking back control of your future.

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