How familiar is this scenario to you? You have a stressful work assignment which needs to be completed by EOD, but before you commit, you check your email for the fifth time in 15 minutes, scroll through Instagram, and maybe even listen to your favorite podcast.
Welcome to the not-so-wonderful world of procrastination. We’ve all been there, and it’s nothing new. Humans have been dithering for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato had a different word for it – Akrasia– but it still meant the same thing.
Procrastination is delaying or postponing a task that you know needs to be done. The end result is often regret, depression and self-loathing. So why do we inflict this on ourselves? And what can we do to reverse the troublesome trend?
Why we procrastinate
First, to understand the real reasons why we procrastinate, let’s debunk myth #1 about why we do it in the first place: because we’re disorganized.
Not true. “Procrastination isn’t a time management problem. It’s an emotional management problem,” says Petr Ludwig, author of The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing and Live a Fulfilling Life. In other words, we procrastinate because of how we feel about the task, not because we’re bad at making to-do lists.
In a exclusive interview on the Write About Now podcastLudwig shared his scientific insights into why we procrastinate and the helpful tools we use to combat it.
He argues that the real reasons we put things off are a lack of intrinsic motivation, willpower, and fear of failure.
Lack of motivation
Many of us feel a lack of purpose at work. In a post-pandemic world amid a global economic crisis and political turmoil, feeling inspired by the world can be difficult – let alone your job.
“We’re not motivated at work because we don’t believe in what we’re doing,” says Ludwig. “If you’re working on a project and you lack purpose, it’s really hard to stay motivated.”
The result is to escape the stress and strain of a particular task by doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing. As the great American writer Mark Twain once joked, “Never put off until tomorrow what can just as well be done the day after tomorrow.
fear of failure
Another reason we procrastinate is that we fear, often irrationally, that the outcome of our work will not be well received. “We are often so afraid of failure that we are unable to start,” says Ludwig.
Lack of will
When faced with great demands or stressful situations, our willpower often wanes, making it harder to resist the lure of social media, video games, and other procrastination tools.
How to Stop Procrastination
Rekindle Your Purpose
As we noted earlier, procrastination points to a larger problem, which is that you don’t have an overall purpose in your life, so it might be time to reclaim it. Ludwig encourages you to think about what activities you really enjoy doing in your life and what tasks make you feel most fulfilled.
“At work, ask yourself what your strengths are and how you can deploy them on a daily basis,” he advises. “These are small steps that can improve your daily life because the more intrinsic motivation you have, the more often you are in what is called a state of flow. You enjoy the process. Time stands still for you.”
This state of flow, he says, is the exact opposite of procrastination, because when you’re doing something meaningful, you’re more likely to have positive emotions.
Enjoy the journey, not the destination
Ludwig encourages people to focus more on the journey than the end goal.
“Process is the best solution to fight procrastination because when you enjoy the process, you love what you are doing and won’t put it off.
Divide large tasks into smaller tasks
Sometimes the overwhelming nature of a task you dread can be paralyzing.
Overcoming this paralysis often involves breaking the task down into smaller, more manageable steps, making it less overwhelming and more achievable.
This is what Ludwig describes as emotional management. “Your very intense negative emotion towards the task lessens and your willpower kicks in,” says Ludwig. “A stronger will also leads to greater satisfaction because when we are able to prioritize better, our brain’s reward centers are activated, dopamine is released, and we experience positive emotions.”
Cut yourself some slack
The next time you catch yourself procrastinating, practice a little compassion instead of blaming yourself. “Self-forgiveness” is a useful strategy for combating procrastination, says Ludwig.
He points a study done at Carlton University in 2009, in which 119 freshmen were asked to perform procrastination and self-forgiveness measures just before two midterm exams. The results revealed that students who forgave themselves for procrastinating in preparing for the first exam were less likely to procrastinate in studying for the second exam.
“Sometimes it’s just about forgiving yourself and starting over,” says Ludwig.