The Psychology of Procrastination and How to Overcome It

Procrastination is one of the biggest obstacles to productivity and a guilty refuge of creatives everywhere. It’s something we’re all guilty of, and something we all have our own tactics (with varying degrees of success) to combat. What makes us procrastinate? Why is the temptation so great, even when we know we need to complete the task at hand? First, let’s look at the psychology of procrastination.

While everyone procrastinates to some extent, not everyone is a chronic procrastinator. There are relatively harmless instances of procrastination—not starting a project until you’ve gone to the washroom, checked Facebook, refilled your coffee and organized everything in your top desk drawer, or leaving your least favourite task for Friday afternoon. But there are also the unhealthy procrastination habits that find you staring at a blank computer screen for an hour, or that leave you awake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, agonizing over the work you didn’t complete, wondering how you’ll ever get it done the next day.

For the purpose of this blog post, I’ll be speaking about chronic procrastination. However, these tips are helpful for anyone looking to improve your understanding of procrastination and boost productivity. Alright! Pause everything important you’re doing, and procrastinate with me while you read.

Understand Procrastination

There are a lot of misconceptions about what causes procrastination. For many years, I felt that procrastination meant that I was lazy and unfocused. Whether it was a university paper due or a client presentation I had to have ready at 9 am, I’d find myself awake in the middle of the night skimming articles on the Battle of the Bulge or the care and feeding of chinchillas (I’ve never had a chinchilla) while sweating about all the work I hadn’t done. Conventional wisdom denotes the source of procrastination to be a lack of willpower or poor time management, and so that was what I believed my problem to be.

However, in more recent studies psychologists have understood procrastination to be closely related to our emotional brain—a coping mechanism driven by our own fear of failure. By avoiding tasks that are intimidating and overwhelming, and focusing on something less stressful, we give our brain temporary relief. Unfortunately, as all procrastinators know, the end result is usually the last-minute rush to complete projects, coupled with intensified anxiety, a lack of sleep, and reduced quality of work.

Once we understand that procrastination is mostly fear and anxiety based, we can learn more meaningful methods to overcome it. The age-old “just get started!” advice doesn’t fit as neatly into the narrative of procrastination when we are aware that most people are avoiding things they are anxious about.

“It really has nothing to do with time-management,” says Association for Psychological Science Fellow Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University. “To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”

Set Tiny Goals

Staring down at a week’s worth of projects can feel understandably overwhelming. As much as I value the clarity of a well organized agile sprint, looking at the 8 large projects I’m expected to complete in a week can me in a self-defeating mood before I’ve even begun. I’ve learned that when I am in this headspace, setting tiny goals can help me get started.

Similar to how project managers will break down a large creative project into smaller deliverables, procrastinators may find it easier to break down their work into more manageable parts. For an easy example, we’ll use getting ready to leave for work. Breaking this down into tiny, manageable goals would look like this: brush teeth, wash face, put on clothes, feed pet, put lunch in bag, put computer in bag, put on coat, put on shoes, leave house, lock door.

Why does this help? Simply put, our brains release dopamine when we accomplish goals, even the tiny ones. We can then use that dopamine to build momentum towards accomplishing the next goal, or more challenging goals. By breaking work into its smallest parts, we essentially “trick” our brains into feeling like we’ve accomplished something and use that motivation to propel ourselves forward.

Block your Time

Some projects simply can’t be broken down into small parts. If you’re designing a logo or mapping a large website, you’ll eventually reach a goal that still feels insurmountable, and the procrastination sets back in. This is when I start to block my time.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management skill that teaches us to break down tasks into manageable chunks of time. Traditionally the method suggests 25-minute chunks of focus time, separated by 3-5 minute short breaks. Depending on the complexity of the project and my energy levels, I’ll play with the duration of the blocks. Always block your time based on how long you feel you can focus effectively, not how long the project will take. It’s more effective to complete multiple short blocks with breaks than try to work for an hour straight and struggle to focus.

Try to turn away from your computer on your mini-breaks—refill your water bottle, stretch, check in with a coworker, take the dog outside, or even meditate. There are studies that show that periodic screen breaks improve productivity, so make the most of your breaks by giving your eyes and brain a break. (Note: no judgment if you send a text or two.)

Be Gentle on Yourself

Creative work is stressful, even without the added anxiety from procrastination. When your time management has completely gotten away from you, the stress and late nights can lead to sleep deprivation, insomnia and even illness. Beating yourself up won’t help. Acknowledge your errors, but forgive your procrastination habits and move forward. Guess what—psychologists say that forgiving yourself for your procrastination can even help reduce it in the future.

Chronic procrastination can’t be solved in a day, but the better we understand the psychology of procrastination, the better we can work to overcome it. I’d love to hear your own procrastination-busters, advice, and life-lessons, so leave them in the comments.

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