Some of my newsletter topics come to me in the shower, in a moment of inspiration. Some reflect a recurrent theme that I have noticed in the sharing of my clients. Still others take shape from dealing with the challenges in my own life.
This topic was inspired by my own struggles to get this newsletter written and the many stories of procrastination that I have heard from others over the years. I am convinced that there is usually more going on than meets the eye, when someone procrastinates.
May this article deepen your understanding of procrastination, help you loosen its’ grip and increase your compassion for yourself and others in the process.
Here's to getting started!
Something to think about
Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill.
-- Christopher Parker
The problem with procrastination
One habit that is very hard on our relationship with ourselves is the tendency to procrastinate – the tendency to delay or put off doing something.
Even the most able among us are not immune. I have witnessed some of my very talented clients struggle with procrastination around such things as:
- doing their taxes
- completing an important report
- handling a needed home repair
- submitting their research findings
- preparing for a speech
- decluttering their home or office
- and so on.
Aside from the disappointment of not producing the result we desire – or someone else’s disappointment in us for failing to follow through – procrastinating can have a devastating impact on our mood and self-respect. I have heard many individuals judge themselves mercilessly for their tendency to procrastinate. And I’ve been rather down on myself this month, as I have spun my tires trying to get a newsletter written and out.
It’s a matter of self-trust
I have found that procrastination strikes at the heart of our ability to trust ourselves. When I persistently procrastinate, I am communicating to myself that I cannot be counted on to do what I say I will. That doesn’t feel good – and it can cause my self-esteem to plummet!
So I have great compassion for the many people, like myself, who suffer from periodic procrastination -- and even more compassion for those for whom it is a way of life. Many people think procrastination is a sign of laziness or weakness, hence their condemnation of self or others. However I don’t believe it’s that simple.
What’s going on underneath?
Given that procrastination can cause so much pain and self-criticism, we have to wonder: Why do we do it? Because this question has been so relevant to me of late, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned about the causes of procrastination, as I’ve tried to help myself get the job done.
My favourite go-to expert on procrastination is Dr. David Burns, renowned teacher and practitioner of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the author of The Feeling Good Handbook
. He spends an entire chapter on the reasons that we procrastinate and it’s well worth the read. Here’s my summarized short-list. See how many of these might apply to you:
1) I mistakenly believe that I must be motivated in order to take action.
This one really spoke to me, as I was putting off writing until I “felt inspired”. Not so, says Burns. He asserts that taking action actually generates motivation, which then leads to more action. We don’t have to be motivated to begin. We simply need to start. I have discovered this to be true!
2) I have an unrealistic view of how easy success is.
We erroneously think that productive people accomplish things easily and straightforwardly. We may not realize that everyone deals with obstacles and set-backs on the road to accomplishment. Experiencing difficulty or frustration becomes our justification for giving up or avoiding altogether.
3) I fear failure.
For some of us, our sense of self worth rests completely on our accomplishments. If I do a good job then I’m OK – and if I don’t, I’m not OK.
If we should fail in what we’re attempting to do, we risk losing our sense of identity and self-worth and maybe the love and respect of others. So the thinking here goes: If I don’t start, then I can’t fail.
4) I set perfectionistic standards.
Many people set the bar so high for themselves, that it paralyzes them before they even begin. Having to do a “perfect” job is so intimidating that it’s easier to simply not start. And the more important the endeavour, the more paralyzing perfectionism can be. I know this one well. If it resonates for you, see my articles: Recognizing your Inner Perfectionist
and Don’t be fooled by these 3 myths about perfectionism
5) I rebel against a sense that I “should”.
“Should” statements tend to make us feel guilty and resentful and therefore avoidant. When someone thinks they “should” do something, it can also be an indication that they are trying to make themselves do something that they think others expect. When I heard a client say “I should keep my house tidier”, I asked her “according to who?” She discovered that she was judging her home by her mother’s standards, not her own. Her mother was an impeccable housekeeper. My client however, actually wanted a more relaxed home environment, where people felt comfortable to put their feet up on the coffee table. Her “should” was not actually a reflection of her own standards. So no wonder she procrastinated on the tasks that weren’t an authentic expression of herself!
6) I am passive aggressive rather than risk conflict.
We may be afraid to express negative feelings openly and directly. So rather than say “no” or risk conflict with another, we simply neglect to follow through on a request or demand. Most of us were passive aggressive as teenagers, when we “forgot” to clean our rooms or do something our parents asked of us. We may procrastinate to annoy the person we are resisting -- or to avoid a task when we lack the assertiveness to say “no”.
7) I simply don’t want to do it.
Sometimes in trying to complete a task we discover that we simply do not have the desire. Assuming it is something that we don’t HAVE to do, it may be time to re-choose “yes” or “no”. There may indeed be a good reason why you’re procrastinating: The task may not be a high priority and other things are more important. You may feel the project is premature and you’re not ready to begin it. Maybe it isn’t actually a choice that’s “right” for you. Maybe you’re anxious and that anxiety has a message that you need to pay attention to.
Look more closely
It’s always helpful to look a little deeper when procrastination becomes a problem. When I reflected on my own procrastination around getting this newsletter out, I discovered I was influenced by reason #1, #2 and #4:
- I believed I couldn’t start until I felt inspired and motivated.
- I got discouraged when I missed my first deadline and the job was harder than expected.
- Nothing I wrote seemed “perfect” enough.
Recognizing the first of these reasons was enough to get me going! Recognizing the other two helped me to persist until completion.
Like me, you may not be fully conscious of what is behind your tendency to put off or avoid. Reflecting on the actual cause of your procrastination will yield some clues about the true nature of the problem, beyond the usual self-criticism that you’re “lazy” or “irresponsible”. Once the problem is accurately identified, it will be much easier for you to develop a strategy to deal with it and to succeed.
Invitation to action
Next time you find yourself procrastinating around a task or project, take some time to reflect on the “why” by using this list. Ask yourself: Is this actually something that I am committed to doing?
If the answer is “no”, then assess whether you can simply give it up or delegate it to someone else.
If the answer is “yes” then set a time and date when you will begin. Put it in your schedule NOW and commit to spending at least 15 minutes on it. That’s all it takes to get the ball rolling.
Trust is such an essential ingredient in relationships – and trust breakdowns can be so devastating. So I’m always interested in how people define and understand and develop trust with each other. I’m also a big fan of researcher Dr. Brene Brown, as you know. So I was delighted when my daughter sent me Brown’s talk The Anatomy of Trust. It is the most comprehensive definition of trust in personal relationships that I have encountered – and a great tool for analyzing and articulating trust issues that you may be experiencing. If you want more, check out her free online course on the same topic. I am so appreciative of Brown’s commitment to making her work and research widely available. I am currently enrolled in her Daring Greatly & Rising Strong online course and it is superb. See all her courses at courageworks.com.
Shirley Vollett BSW PCC is a Life and Relationship Coach, with over 25 years of combined experience in counselling and coaching. She delights in helping pro-active individuals make positive changes in their lives, their work and their relationships. Her Conscious Dating Program helps single and divorced individuals improve their relationship skills, avoid past mistakes and make healthy dating and relationship choices. Contact Shirley for a complimentary intro phone session. If you are experiencing a challenge or are eager to make some changes, explore how coaching works and how she can help. Visit her website.