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  • Donna Richardson, CEC, ACC

2 top tips for overcoming procrastination

Updated: Aug 10


“Tomorrow, maybe.”


During a tropical vacation with my family a few years ago, my brother-in-law said this to a timeshare representative after he invited us to come in and hear his pitch. Then when we walked past him the next day, and the next day, the exchange went the same way with my brother-in-law saying, “Tomorrow, maybe.”


I’m not so sure any of us ever really intended to hear the pitch. Now it’s more than a decade later and that message—tomorrow, maybe—has stuck with us. In our home, it has come to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to when one of us is procrastinating.


Tomorrow, maybe.


Procrastinate? Who, me?


Yes, you. Most of us procrastinate now and then, putting off tasks on our to-do lists.


Organizational behaviour professor Piers Steel says studies show that about 95 per cent of people admit to procrastinating at least some of the time. For some people, it happens occasionally. About 1 in 5 people tend to be chronic procrastinators.


In simple terms, procrastination is delaying or postponing something. Steel says the delay is intentional in spite of knowing there could be negative outcomes.


Besides not completing the task at hand—or completing it after the deadline—procrastination is also known to have negative effects on our well-being.


The illustration below highlights some of the ways we are affected when we procrastinate.


Procrastination affects well-being in these ways: 1. Increased stress, anxiety and depression. 2. Risk to mental and physical wellness. 3. Feelings of regret. 4. More sleep disturbances. 5. Lower task performance.

The procrastination cycle


Procrastination seems to be one of those things we do in spite of ourselves.


When we avoid a task, we know we’re doing it and probably know it’s a bad idea. We distract ourselves with activities—maybe even useful ones, like organizing the pantry—to avoid the task and help ourselves feel better. In the end, though, we feel negative emotions, such as stress, distress, or guilt because we’ve avoided the task that still has to get done.


There are five stages in the procrastination cycle: 1. Avoid task. 2. Feel guilty. 3. Engage in distractions. 4. Enjoy short-term rewards. 5. Feel stressed.

Researchers Fuschia Sirois and Timothy Pychy found that procrastination is a “form of self-regulation failure.” We opt for feeling good now—short-term mood repair—over feeling good later when we complete something.


Why we procrastinate


There is a commonly held view that procrastination is a result of how we manage our time. If it was that simple, we’d be able to overcome it with tools—an app, project management software, or an old-school paper planner.


What if procrastination isn’t a character flaw or a result of your inability to manage time?


What if procrastination is a way of coping with emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks? Feelings may range from boredom, anxiety or insecurity to frustration, resentment or self-doubt. This is what researcher Pychy has found.


For starters, maybe we can delete the productivity app or toss the paper planner and shift our focus toward our emotions and what’s really bothering us about tackling a task.


2 top tips for overcoming procrastination


From books and blogs to newsletters and research papers, there is no shortage of resources available to help us overcome procrastination. My Google search for “tips to overcome procrastination” netted 9.9 million results.


There’s the five-minute rule where we’re advised to commit to doing something for five minutes. If it’s overwhelming, just stop. Then there’s tackling the project the way you’d eat an elephant—one bite at a time. And if you’re prone to distractions, you might set up your workspace to minimize them.


But here’s the thing. All the tactics and the strategies in the world won’t change your tendency to procrastinate if you haven’t figured out what’s driving it. “The problem is you never get to the source of the negative emotions that cause you to avoid the task in the first place,” explains psychologist Fuschia Sirois.


Here are two top tips—yes, only two—for overcoming procrastination.


Show self-compassion – “To be human is to procrastinate,” says Sirois. So cut yourself some slack. Beating yourself up when you procrastinate won’t help.

 

To be human is to procrastinate. - Fuschia Sirois

 

Get to the root issue – Think of procrastination as the symptom and figure out the negative emotion or belief that’s getting in your way of getting something done.


Here are some examples:

  1. Worry – We may hold irrational negative beliefs about our ability to complete a task about how others will view our work.

  2. Impulsivity – We may lean towards a preference for living in the moment and pursuing something more interesting than that thing on our To Do list.

  3. ConscientiousnessOur tendency to become easily distracted or to be poorly organized may interfere with our sense of conscientiousness. Just think about all those notifications popping up on your phone.

  4. Self-confidence and self-efficacy – Our fear of failure, which is linked to a sense of worry, can lead us to put off a project.

  5. Task aversion – Sometimes we simply don’t want to do the task because we want to avoid feelings of discomfort—physical, emotional or otherwise. Have you ever put off making a dental appointment

  6. Perfectionism – Holding the unrealistic expectation that we must get it right can lead to a fear of failure which, in turn, may cause us to hesitate even starting the work.

Choose what works for you


Once you have a deeper understanding of why you’re procrastinating and a new way of looking at tasks and yourself, you’ll be able to respond in a kinder way and choose the tools that will work for you.


Working with a leadership coach may be just what you need to help you figure this out. A credentialled coach is equipped to help you become aware of your blind spots, get below the surface to reveal the real barriers, and help you move forward by designing strategies that will be most effective for you.

 

Related links:


The procrastination equation: How to stop putting things off and start getting things done

The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure

Psychology of procrastination

Procrastination and the priority of short-term mood regulation: Consequences for future self

How to stop procrastinating and the psychology behind it

Why you procrastinate (It has nothing to do with self-control)