If you struggle with chronic procrastination, there’s a good chance you’ve tried all the tips, tricks, and productivity frameworks without much success.
Which means you might need to take a deeper (and maybe pretty uncomfortable) look at the psychological dynamics underneath your habit of procrastination.
Here are 3 uncomfortable ideas that might just help you get to the root of your chronic procrastination problem…
1. Reframe procrastination as values problem, not a productivity problem
Our culture tends to frame procrastination as a bad thing that we should avoid or try to overcome. But frequently, it’s your mind’s way of sending you an important (if uncomfortable) message:
You don’t really want the things you say you want.
Obviously, there are some things we just have to do: Take a shower, submit our taxes, etc. But most people who struggle with chronic procrastination procrastinate on things they tell themselves they want…
- Starting a new creative project or hobby
- Exercise and getting fit
- Dating again after divorce
If you find yourself chronically procrastinating on something like this, it could be your mind’s way of telling you one of two things:
- You want to want that thing but you don’t really want it. For example: You love the idea of doing CrossFit at the local gym, and all your friends are doing it, so you keep telling yourself you want to. But maybe—deep down—you don’t actually want to do CrossFit. In this case, procrastination is your mind trying to help… it’s saying, Stop lying to yourself! Yes it’s the cool, trendy thing right now, but there’s probably a form of exercise that’s much more conducive to your personality and preferences which will make it easier to stick with long-term.
- You do want the thing, but you’re not clear enough about why. Values help motivate us to stick with and follow through on difficult tasks. But here’s the trick… only if they’re really clear and specific. Maybe you value creativity. But creativity in the abstract will not motivate you to write that book you keep thinking about. On the other hand, if you were to clarify your value of creativity, it might be a lot more motivating… Creativity matters to me because I feel most alive when I’m being creative, even though it’s often difficult and frustrating. I LOVE the excitement and rush—the flow!—of being so caught up in explaining ideas that I totally lose track of time.
Working harder is rarely the solution to chronic procrastination because it just begs the question of why you can’t work harder. The uncomfortable but obvious solution is often that we can only work hard for long periods of time if we truly value the thing we’re working on.
If you struggle with chronic procrastination, ask yourself this:
Do I procrastinate because I’m lazy or do I procrastinate because I’m not being totally honest or clear with myself about how much I value my work?
2. Stop using self-criticism as motivation
Many people grow up with a deep-seated belief that you have to be hard on yourself if you want to be successful. In most cases, this was either modeled or communicated directly at a young age.
So we grow up believing it implicitly and relying on toughness as one of our main tools to accomplish hard things and stay motivated.
Then—and this is the critical thing to realize—it seems to work! After all, you probably got decent grades, finished school, got into college, did well there, got a job, etc.
But as statisticians are fond of reminding us…
Correlation is not causation.
Just because you beat yourself up with self-criticism anytime you had a tough challenge ahead, and then succeeded, that doesn’t mean you succeeded because of your self-criticism.
Most people are successful despite their self-criticism, not because of it.
In most cases, you have plenty of ability and skill to get things done. But what most people don’t realize is that they actually have far less energy and enthusiasm for their work immediately after a tirade of self-judgment and condemnation. Yes they get it done. But they’re working at 70% capacity which leads to work that is much lower in quality than it could be. And takes far longer to complete!
In the end, self-criticism makes you less productive, not more.
Rather than beating yourself up ahead of a big task or challenge, try being supportive—like you would to a good friend who was facing something similar.
- Remind yourself that it’s normal to feel resistance to doing meaningful, hard work.
- Give yourself a few examples from the past where you felt really unmotivated but still got the job done.
- Visualize what it will look like—and how it will feel—do have finished and been successful.
It’s not rocket science. It’s just giving yourself permission to not be a jerk to yourself.
Yes, it’s an old, strong habit. And yes, it would be nicer if you didn’t have parents and coaches who installed this in you. But at the end of the day, you are the only one who can make a change now. You are the only one who can substitute a self-criticism habit for a self-compassion habit.
3. Get out of your head (and change your environment instead)
I said at the beginning that chronic procrastination is often the result of deeper psychological obstacles. So it might seem contradictory that my last suggestion for dealing with procrastination is to get out of your head and focus on your environment instead.
But your environment is just as big a part of your psychology as your thoughts, beliefs, emotions, or any of the other things we typically associate with the mind.
Think about it…
- Do you have a hard time resisting junk food because you’re lazy and lack willpower? Or is it difficult because your house is full of unhealthy snacks and everyone else in your home is constantly eating junk food?
- Do you have a hard time writing your first novel because you lack discipline? Or could it be that you keep trying to work on it at the end of the day when you’re exhausted?
- Do you have an attention problem because you find it hard to get things done at work? Or could it be that your company’s open office plan makes for an absolutely terrible work environment for people who actually want to focus and concentrate?
My point is this…
Most procrastinators overestimate the importance of their mental environment and underestimate the importance of their physical and social environment.
It’s not all in your head!
If you struggle with chronic procrastination, take some time to think deeply about the environment in which you keep procrastinating…
- What could you remove from your environment that would make it easier to start working and stay focused?
- What could you add to your pre-work routine that would make it easier to get started?
- Which people in your life help you focus and do good work and which people distract you from or pull you away from following through on your commitments?
- Are there small ways you could make doing your work easier or more enjoyable?
- Are there alternative times or places where you could experiment with doing your work?
A word of caution:
If you think carefully about these questions, I can all but guarantee that some relatively simple solutions will present themselves. But that doesn’t mean those solutions will be easy…
For example: Suppose you realize that you’d probably procrastinate a lot less on your goal of exercising more if you had a small home gym in your garage so it was simpler and less time-consuming to get a workout in. However, making enough room in your cluttered garage might require a lot of work (including a difficult conversation with your partner about how much “stuff” you hang on to.
Or, to be really extreme, if you’re having a hard time focusing and getting work done at the office because of the way your office is designed, you might have to have a tough conversation with your boss or manager about being able to work from home sometimes. Maybe even changing your job entirely.
Your environment matters. A lot.
And if you’ve struggled with chronic procrastination for a while, and tried lots of other things without much success, it’s entirely possible that what you really need is a significant change in your environment.
All You Need to Know
If you struggle with chronic procrastination, here are three uncomfortable ideas that could help you get to the root of the problem:
- Reframe procrastination as values problem, not a productivity problem
- Stop using self-criticism as motivation
- Get out of your head (and change your environment instead)
If you’d like to learn more about overcoming procrastination and doing great work, you might enjoy these: