I’ve been meaning to write this blog for a couple of weeks now and have only just realised how much I have been putting it off. Why? I enjoy writing blogs, and procrastination is something I know a lot about, and not just from first-hand experience.
There are different reasons for not doing things immediately. Sometimes, when I put off a writing task, it’s because I’m mulling it over, refining my ideas, then, when I sit down to work, I get it done in a fraction of the time I would have if I’d forced myself to do it earlier. It’s a constructive rather than destructive delay.
However, there are times when I’ve let things remain undone indefinitely. I can even think of examples of exciting plans for future work that haven’t happened because I put them off for too long and got fed up transferring what I’d meant to do to a new to do list.
I know I’m not alone. Why do we do this to ourselves? I once read in a great book called The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, that suggests that procrastination is not the problem but the solution. Fiore explains that we don’t spontaneously start to procrastinate for no reason. We usually procrastinate because there is an underlying fear – of success, failure, exposure, ridicule or getting it wrong - the list is endless. The procrastination is a protective mechanism that is trying to save us from that underlying fear. Focusing on the procrastination itself is like trying to heal the plaster cast while ignoring the broken leg beneath it!
I think it helps to recognise that procrastination is a behaviour often driven by fear, because then you can stop thinking of it as laziness or incompetence and address the real issue. We all feel fear at times and the adrenalin rush we get from it helps many people give their best, so it’s not an inherently bad thing. When it gets in the way though, we need strategies to overcome it.
Perfectionism is a form of procrastination. We all want to produce and deliver great work, as close to flawless as we can manage, but when that ambition moves into an endless cycle of improvement or revision, it becomes a form of paralysis. This is often accompanied by self-flagellation as we convince ourselves that it and possibly we, will never be good enough. If this sounds familiar, then you have shifted from conscientious hard work to procrastination.
The first step is to recognise this is happening, then work out what you are going to do about it. It may be time to drag your work out into the daylight and ask someone you trust to give you an honest opinion. Good or bad, this will help you shift from where you are.
Sometimes you might find yourself going around in circles amending one aspect of your work while remaining unaware of other flaws. A second opinion can help you assess whether the work is good enough or does need to be revised further. Feedback whether it is positive or negative is always useful. It’s difficult to create good work in a vacuum, so use constructive criticism to improve your work for next time.
Sometimes we worry about how difficult the task is or how unpleasant or boring it is going to be. A useful way to deal with this is to set a timer for 20 minutes and focus on this task and only this task for that time. Then you will have made a start, which you can build on later in another 20 minutes. What often happens when I do this is, once I’ve made a start, and the timer goes off, I’ve forgotten my concerns and I’m focused on and happy to finish the task at hand. Of course, sometimes I sigh with relief and put it down to come back to later but, at least I’ve made a start and usually have an idea of what I want to do next.
This strategy is also useful if you have a blank piece of paper and are struggling to know where to start or have got hooked into thinking that you have to get your ideas right first time. For many of us, it’s much easier to edit something than to start from scratch. Getting something down without judgement or attempting to make it right first time, gets you to the next step when you can build and develop your initial idea.
If you need an imposed deadline, create it yourself and ask someone who will hold you accountable to make sure you complete the task when you said you would.
Ask yourself if this is still something you really need or want to do. Some tasks stay on our to do list when they are no longer relevant, so rather than feeling haunted by something you meant to do two years ago, but which you no longer feel the same way about, ditch it and move on.
The big thing about all this is to be a bit kinder to yourself when you catch yourself procrastinating, have a think about what the underlying fear might be and find ways to address that. One great book packed with useful tips and strategies is Feel the fear and do it anyway by Susan Jeffers. Then hopefully we can all start saying with conviction, “Why put off until tomorrow what I can do today!”