How to Stop Procrastinating: Why People Do It and How to Overcome It

3 College students in a lounge looking at their cellphones and the text: What is Procrastination?

We live in a busy world. Each week presents new challenges, goals and accomplishments that we hope will not only leave us satisfied but also with the energy needed to do it all over again – tomorrow.

But all too often, we avoid doing the things that are lying there on our to-do lists, staring up at us as if to mock us. We procrastinate. Procrastination is associated with a long list of negative traits, such as laziness, lacking motivation or focus, having a poor attention span and so forth. Is it really all of these negatives and then some? Is it a matter of laziness or lack of care? The answers may lie in the abundant research that focuses on procrastination, decision-making and risk.

Procrastination is often equated with “poor time management.” This can be misleading, as it’s less about your ability to adhere to a calendar-based list, but rather that your attention to what may be considered to be “growth” activities (taking a course, following a training regimen, writing poetry) loses in the tug-of-war with activities that we consider to be critical to our survival.

What is Procrastination?

It’s been said that procrastination is not laziness; that it is a misguided sense of activity rooted in a low tolerance for frustration and failure. If we perceive an activity to be unachievable, we tend to avoid that discomfort through diversion. There’s a cognitive aspect as well. For example, when you put off completing a task that seems like it will take a very long time, you’re surprised when you realize that it took less time to do it than to think about it repeatedly.

Dr. Jeff CzarnecWhy Do People Procrastinate?

It may be a relief to know that we are essentially hard-wired to procrastinate. Our ancestors, in order to survive, had to focus on the tasks of hunting and gathering. They couldn’t allocate attention to activities that may delay rewards, such as storing food for a rainy day or practicing correct leaf-picking techniques.

Evolutionary psychologists have theorized that survival of our species has depended on those who have a strong preference for immediate gratification.

Neurologically, procrastination is not even remotely logical. The blame can be placed on the emotional part of your brain’s limbic system bullying the reasonable, rational part of your brain known as the prefrontal cortex. The logical part of your brain gives up when you decide to choose a video game or social media over work, or decide to binge a slew of episodes of “Game of Thrones” when you get home.

Procrastination has been linked to perfectionism as well. If you are a perfectionist, you may fear completing a task or activity imperfectly and subsequently put it off for as long as possible.

Perfectionists may fear that failure will result in ridicule or criticism either from themselves or their bosses and co-workers. As frustrating it may be when you delay writing that presentation or seminar, there is a positive to be had.

For instance, it may be quite prudent to delay some activities or decisions that may need some extra time to analyze and think through. It may be best to hold back when there’s not enough information, or it’s complex and managing it correctly may be difficult at best, or when there are other more important things to be done. In other words, it may best to be right than right on time.

However, we do need to be very mindful of the potential pitfalls that may occur as a result of habitually delaying tasks. Chronic indecisiveness on matters minor and otherwise can create serious problems in our already busy lives.

Indecision itself has been related to a fear of failure, non-competitiveness, poor self-esteem, and public self-consciousness. This can lead to chronic procrastination of tasks which may result in overwhelming stress and feeling that we have lost control of our lives. The toll that this may take on one’s health is something to be taken seriously.

How to Avoid and Defeat Procrastination

What works for one may, naturally, not work for all battling procrastination. YouTube has been a great source of motivational and inspirational videos which has helped me personally, but alone, these aren’t the perfect remedy. If you look at the titles and themes of the plethora of motivational videos, you would see that many directly and indirectly tie procrastination to failure.

When we avoid a task, don’t deliver the goods on time or show up late for important meetings, such as the one with your child’s guidance counselor or the one-on-one with your supervisor, we know full-well that we will have to deal with the grueling after effects of this form of self-sabotage. It’s important to remember that these activities are growth activities that are critical to long-term goals for you and perhaps people near and dear to you.

Here are some research-based tactics and strategies that may help to avoid and overcome procrastination.

  • Recognize and beat-back the procrastination triggers. Yes, many of these activities are perhaps less-than-exciting and present some form of risk. Try gamifying a task (such as writing a report that you dread having to do) by using a timer to see how many words you can write in a short amount of time.
  • Don’t wait until the perfect time to tackle that project. For instance, I provide career counseling to criminal justice professionals, many of whom are contemplating pursuing an advanced degree. Most haven’t started because they don’t think the timing is just right. My unwavering advice to them is to start yesterday; tomorrow turns into next year.
  • Try the “chunking” method. If that project looks daunting, tackling it all at once may seem impossible. Are you able to find 15 or 30 minutes each day to make some headway? This technique has proven to diminish resistance for many a procrastinator.
  • Start something. Often, the hardest part is making that first keystroke. This may help you re-think your initial appraisal of the work ahead of you. You might just find that the actual task isn’t as daunting or difficult as it seems.
  • Identify your long-term goals. You owe it to yourself to set great, long-term goals. It’s important to remember that your long-term goals will only be reached through the growth activities that can easily fall prey to avoidance and delay.
  • What price do we pay? What happens if you don’t honor your training regimen and skip a day or two? What may happen if you don’t attend to the growth activities this coming week? What might be the impact on career, family, stress, health and so on?
  • Get off the grid and disconnect. Unplugging from the things that distract us, overwhelm us cognitively and pull us from what we should be doing is critical to our goals.

From one procrastinator to another, you can do this. It’s important to know that your gifts, talents and abilities can only shine when you cast a light on them. Don’t hide them; the world is waiting but it won’t wait forever.

Dr. Jeffrey S. Czarnec is an associate dean at Southern New Hampshire University overseeing criminal justice, political science, anthropology, sociology, human services and justice studies programs. He served as Manchester (New Hampshire) police officer from 1979 to 2002. He earned his doctorate in leadership studies from Franklin Pierce University and is a member of the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences and the American Criminological Society.

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