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Many of us procrastinate from time to time, but do you know why you procrastinate? Understanding the reasoning behind your behavior can help you identify practical strategies to address procrastination.
Have you ever kept an item on your to-do list for months? Every time you look at it you think, “I really need to do that”, but somehow by the end of the week, you realize another week has gone by and you never got around to it? Fast-forward a couple of weeks and that task that you had plenty of time for has now become an emergency and you have to finally get to it.
With the stress of an impending deadline in front of you, you block out some time and somehow push through to completion. While clicking “send” on your email with the final project attached, you tell yourself “I am going to start getting ahead of things!”. But yet, despite your best intentions, somehow you continue to find yourself in the same place.
The scenario above is one that I’m all too familiar with. Even when I typically proactively plan and manage my schedule, there are often still those tasks that I seem to continuously procrastinate on. I know that I don’t procrastinate on everything, so this made me ask the question: what is it about those specific tasks that is triggering this kind of behavior? Based on my experience, the following are the most common triggers for procrastination:
You procrastinate because you don’t know what to do
My guess is that this is the number one reason why most people procrastinate on tasks. When you know exactly what to do on a project, it’s easy to jump right into it. When you don’t know what exactly to do, you need a lot more prep time and you don’t have the mental capacity to visualize the steps from start to completion. That introduces uncertainty into the project, which will make you start to avoid it. To the brain, uncertainty can equal bad. You also are not able to accurately estimate how much time the task will estimate. You will either overestimate it (making it seem like a big scary task) or underestimate it (setting yourself up for failure).
What to do about it: My first preference is to talk to someone who has done the work you are trying to do. Get an idea of the steps involved and the time that each step might take. If you can’t find this exactly, think about projects you’ve completed that are similar to this project. Again, think through the mechanics of completion and the steps involved. Then identify any skills or knowledge gaps you need to complete the work. Develop your own learning plan to gain competence in this area. Be wary of letting this turn into “procrasti-learning” where you put off doing the work by taking “just one more class”. In everything you do, you will learn by doing, so put in some preparation and training, but set a cut off time for when you’ll start taking action.
You procrastinate because you’ve procrastinated before
This is one of those insidious cycles that can be easy to fall into. You procrastinate on a task and then put in a ton of effort to get it done last minute when you are faced with a deadline. After the fact, you realize how inefficient this is and that the process could be much smoother in the future if you planned ahead. And yet, next time around, you follow almost the exact same pattern of doing the work last minute.
I think the reason for this is that after the heat of the moment, you start to forget the challenges and just remember that you were able to get it done. If you were able to get it done last minute before, why shouldn’t you be able to do so again? You also start to associate the feeling of doing the work with doing it last minute. The more this pattern is repeated, the more it’s ingrained into your brain as the default. Even though you should know better, it actually becomes harder to break out of this because you have more and more evidence that this is the kind of task you do last minute.
What to do about it: After you finish a task last minute, take a minute to document your challenges. Really highlight the problems with the way you completed it and write out exactly what would make it better in the future. If it’s a recurring task, write out a specific better plan for next time and put it in your calendar. When it comes around time to complete the task, go back to your notes from last time. This should remind you of how difficult it was and hopefully motivate you to follow your own advice.
You procrastinate because other people procrastinate
Whether you realize it or not, we are all greatly influenced by the norms within the groups we are part of. A real-world experiment conducted in Minnesota showed that people were much more likely to comply with their taxes when they were told that more than 90 percent of Minnesotans already complied in full. If you think that everyone else is completing a task on time, you’re more likely to do so as well. If you think everyone is behind on something, well, you’re probably more likely to be lenient with yourself and get behind as well.
If you think that everyone else is completing a task on time, you’re more likely to do so as well.
What to do about it: If you are procrastinating on task, ask yourself if it’s possible that you are being influenced by other’s behavior. For example, do you have an unstated belief that everyone turns in their budget report at the last minute? If so, try to expose yourself to evidence that is counter to that belief. Find examples of people who are doing the behavior that you want to emulate and shut out examples of people who are doing the behavior that you want to avoid. By the way, if you are a manager, don’t advertise the fact that everyone else is behind on a task. While this might help folks feel better, it also confirms that the expected norm is to be behind, which can start to influence their behavior.
You procrastinate because you don’t have a “why” behind the work
Many times, I’ve realized I was putting something off because I didn’t really buy into its importance. This often happens when it is something that is assigned to you by someone else or something you have been told to do. You dutifully write it down on your To-do List but skip over it when things get busy. This is a good thing to pay attention to. We are happier at work when we find meaning in the things we do, so if something is missing that, it’s a good opportunity to dig further.
What to do about it: If it’s something you thought you wanted to do, but realize it’s not important, it should come off your list. If it is something that was assigned to you, try to find a way to connect it to a greater meaning. If you don’t see the value in it or why it is important, it’s worth having a conversation with your boss about it. There may be something you are not seeing and once you understand, it will make it easier to find the motivation to do the work. Or you and your boss may realize through the conversation that it actually is not a good use of time and it will come off your list.
If it’s something you thought you wanted to do, but realize it’s not important, it should come off your list.
You procrastinate because you don’t have a rhythm
Sometimes we procrastinate on things because they just don’t seem to fit into our schedules. This might be something you do a couple of times a year. It’s difficult to create a routine for this kind of work. This means that you often are starting from zero when beginning the task and you don’t have any standard time built into your schedule to actually complete it.
What to do about it: For these types of tasks, it’s very helpful to document the step-by-step process needed for them. For example, I do a specific budget report about once every other month. I don’t do this frequently enough that the process is second nature to me. So I have a checklist that I follow each time. This makes it go much faster and smoother and helps me to not procrastinate on completing it. Since you don’t have regular time built into your schedule to complete this kind of work, you also need to consciously block off time for it. I like to block off multiple shorter sessions rather than one long session. This feels less intimidating and there’s wiggle room if you get behind.
Understanding why you procrastinate can reveal important information and help you actually take steps to address it in the future. Each situation needs a different approach to help you break out of procrastination and into action. Next time you are procrastinating on a task, take a look through this list and see if one of these underlying reasons is at play. If they are, that’s great news! You can now take steps to address your procrastination and move forward on your goals.