This is a three-part feature written to cover different angles of Procrastination and how to stop / prevent it.
You’ll read about how forcing yourself is the wrong option when it comes to fighting procrastination and that you can go much further by being nice to yourself. You’ll also read about how expectations attached to tasks can make them impossibly difficult to complete and how to work around this. Finally, you’ll read more about short-term vs long-term rewards, and why, in cold hard numbers, procrastination is a bum deal for you.
This is based on my own experience in dealing with procrastination, insightful sessions with close friends on how to deal with unrealistic expectations and what I’ve learned from reading a diverse amount of helpful material on the topic, including Anthony Robbins, Michael Masteron, Robert Ringer, David Allen and many others. You’ve all been a great help in improving my life, thank you.
- Stop Procrastinating By Being Nice To Yourself
- Procrastination and Unrealistic Expectations
- Procrastination and Short-Term v Long-Term Rewards
Stop Procrastinating By Being Nice To Yourself
Procrastination starts with how you talk to yourself.
The moment you tell yourself “I have to do this” or “I should do that” or “I must do it” (or any variation), you’re essentially trying to force yourself to complete a task.
And how successful has that been with the last kid you’ve tried that with? It works sometimes but usually it’s a pain in the ass until someone smarter than you comes along, gives the kid some love and positive incentives, and gets the job done.
We’ve grown up, but emotionally our sub-conscious is primal, geared to rebel against force (what we mistakenly call ‘free will’) and resist ‘control’, or in other words, resist anything that leads us to do what we haven’t decided to do ourselves in the first place.
The sub-conscious definitely responds to something (otherwise we’d never get anything done), and that’s incentives. “What’s in it for me?”, far from being a ‘bad’ question to ask, instantly helps you focus your priorities in terms of WHY doing a particular task is important to you (financial gain, personal image, social acceptance, altruism, avoid going to jail – all tangible, solid incentives for us to do something).
By talking to yourself in terms of how completing a task will benefit you (instead of ‘forcing’ yourself to do something), you’re far more likely to WANT to do it. And once your attitude shifts from ‘resisting’ to ‘looking forward to’, most imaginary obstacles (I don’t have enough time, it’s too difficult, I don’t know how to do it) are replaced by positive thoughts on how to get things done (how can I take out time for this, I can do this step by step, maybe I can ask someone for help).
‘Just doing it’ doesn’t work on everyone, and failure to bring yourself out of a state of procrastination can make you feel worse about yourself. But if you’re change the questions you’re asking yourself, if you simply stop trying to force yourself and find out how to motivate yourself, you’ll learn two things:
1. You’ll realise that some of the things you’re beating yourself up about not doing are actually things that have no benefit for you. You can just NOT do them, guilt-free, by accepting that these tasks have little or no meaning to you.
2. You’ll find out that for the things that really matter to you, you have massive incentives to get them done. And once you complete those tasks, you’ll have made tangible progress in your life, something that will make you feel 100 times better (warning, exaggeration) than when you were procrastinating.
Once you get addicted to that feeling of accomplishment, there’s nothing quite like it.
People will tell you that being lazy is bad, or that you have to meet certain expectations in life. The thing is, it’s OK to be lazy if you don’t have any pressing goals or if you’re not aiming too high in your life. It’s OK to switch off once in a while and take it easy. What’s not OK is beating yourself up over things you might not want to do.
Procrastination and Unrealistic Expectations
A common reason for procrastination is the extraordinary amount of expectations attached with important tasks. The more important a task, the greater the expectation attached to it that you MUST do it. The greater the expectation, the greater the resistance, meaning that the things that really matter in your life are those that you are subconciously resisting the most.
What usually happens when you’re procrastinating? You find it a lot easier to motivate yourself to finish small, unimportant tasks or laze around – there are far fewer expectations from you in these situations, and it’s a surefire way of deflecting the stress that the high expectations create. In fact, the expectations can be so extreme that you could procrastinate about something for months, even years, with your life suffering irrepairable damage in the process.
Sidenote: I have it on good authority that this stress has led to otherwise smart, dedicated people dropping out of university in their final year. The stress of expectations can bring anyone down, no matter how smart or how intelligent they are. In fact, the smarter you are, the more you tend to think about things and the worse it will be for you.
Eliminating these expectations is easier said than done, but it’s something you can become better at through self-awareness. We try too often to fit ourselves in an idealistic mould, an imaginary description of ourselves made up of social expectations, childhood dreams and peer pressure. Thing is, we’re changing all the time, evolving so to speak, so to stick to one description of ourselves is ridiculous, and it’s just as ridiculous to use the dreams of 10 years ago or the expectations of people who’ve NOT lived your life to be the foundation of that self-image.
Learn to build your own self-image, from your dreams today and from what you expect of yourself, today. Don’t let the past or anyone on the outside try to weigh upon you, it will only distort the truth, bring you down and generally get you to waste a lot of your time and energy. You don’t have to burn bridges – far from it. But having the awareness to know who you are and how that doesn’t change simply because you don’t do something ‘important’ will help in managing those extremely high expectations.
And mind you, these expectations have to be reduced to a point where they stop bothering you and you can start thinking of these tasks in more positive, incentive-based terms. It will happen with time as you learn to create a truer self-image and learn to reduce the importance of the expectations attached to each task and instead focus on the benefits of the task itself.
And you know what? When you let go, when you can look at a ‘to-do item’ without feeling the weight of attached expectations, you’ll realise that you have a clear picture of what’s really important to you and what’s not. It’s becomes a simple matter of picking tasks based on their value, and that in turn makes it easier for you to get them done.
Procrastination and Short-Term v Long-Term Rewards
An inevitable outcome of procrastination is the overvaluing of short-term rewards over long-term rewards. As the famous procrastination quote goes, hard work pays off over time, but laziness pays off right now.
Thing is, it doesn’t pay off (unless you use the time to think and work through the crushing expectations and focus on the incentives, thus motivating yourself to go back and get the task done). It doesn’t pay off because you’re if that task is important to you in value (not expectations), then putting it off for the future means you’re denying yourself the rewards of getting it done. So for as long as you defer this task – be it your quest to lose weight or do your MBA or spend time with your family – you are losing, every day, the rewards that you would have gained by getting these important things in your life sorted out as quickly as possible.
There’s no equivalent mathematical model for this, but if you put the value of losing weight at 5 / day (important but not top priority) and the value of eating junk food at 2 / day (fun but not your life’s main goal), then you’re effectively getting lesser rewards every day by continuing to pursue an unhealthy diet / by not working out.
To take a different, and equally common example, let’s suppose the decision is between completing your higher education and getting work experience / enhancing your professional career. Both are important, but the weight of expectations might lead us to skew the importance of the less-important task higher than it actually is.
So let’s say the value of doing your MBA (or completing your bachelor’s degree) is at 10 / day – one of the most important goals in your life. On the other hand, gaining work experience and furthering your professional career is also very important to you, let’s say around 7 / day. The thing is, when you have to decide between two important tasks, your decision-making gets needlessly influenced by stress and an inability to accept change. It might be that you find studying too stressful and working, with less expectations since you’re starting out fresh, a lot less demanding. It might be that you’ve already starting working and feel comfortable, and don’t want to uproot yourself and push to a new environment.
The mind can create all sorts of rationalisations to justify decisions, but the only reason that matters is this – what’s more important? You do what’s most important first, and the rest can follow.
As a rule, “I’ll do this some other time” is not an acceptable reason not to finish something right away (or in the near future). If you don’t have time now with your current workload, do you think you’ll have time in the future, where not only you will have a similar workload but also have a dozen or more ‘deferred’ items that you want to do at ‘some other time’? Of course not. If you don’t have time today / now, you’re not going to have time for it tomorrow / next month / next year.
It’s not just short-term v long-term, it’s also about maximising your life’s value and making sure that you don’t waste what you have. I said earlier that being lazy isn’t bad in itself – it’s not, but deliberately choosing to do something less important and foregoing the more important things in your life is criminal.
So be lazy if you’ve got nothing better to do, stick to what you’re doing if that’s the most important thing in your life, but if you’re procrastinating, snap out of it. You’re only hurting yourself, and you’re missing out on doing what’s important in the best possible time – now, the best years of your life left to you.