Everyone knows the feeling. You have a deadline coming up. If you start the work now, you will get it done efficiently and proficiently, without too much stress. If you leave it until later, you will have to rush to finish work that is not up to scratch. You will experience a high level of stress, which will not dissipate even once you have given the subpar work to a teacher, colleague, or boss.
Knowing all of this, you still find it almost impossible to do it now. You procrastinate as long as you can, until any further delay would mean you could not get it done.
Everyone procrastinates, although some do so far more than others. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is stopping us from just doing what we have to when the stakes are so much lower?
The explanation behind procrastination might surprise you. Hopefully, it will make it easier to kick the habit.
Laziness: the lazy explanation
Ask people who rarely procrastinate and they will tell you it is nothing more than laziness. You will hear this from frustrated teachers and managers, and you might even tell yourself this. But if you dig a bit deeper into this explanation, you will find that it does not hold up.
What is laziness? The term is usually used to describe a general lack of motivation when there is seemingly nothing in the way of doing something. However, there is an element of judgment inherent in the term “lazy.” It implies that a “lazy” person would simply rather be doing something else and cannot be bothered to complete important work.
If you procrastinate a lot, you probably apply this label to yourself. But think about it for a moment. Procrastinating rarely feels good. You are constantly aware that you “should” be doing the work. In fact, if you just did the work now, you would have a far more satisfying downtime.
Furthermore, if you really “cannot be bothered,” then the quality of your work and consequent results would not bother you as much as they do.
Laziness is not a description of a lived experience. Rather, it is a label liberally applied in judgment of people who seem to not work very hard.
So, if laziness is not a useful explanation, what is?
Examine how you feel when you are procrastinating and you will probably detect a fair amount of anxiety. Anxiety that you cannot do quality work. Anxiety that you will let your loved ones, colleagues, and managers down. Anxiety that this will lead to consequences, such as poor grades or job loss.
This anxiety is distressing enough to make the prospect of procrastination seem more attractive than simply doing the work. You expect that when you start working, your anxiety will surge and that you will be unable to do what you need to at a high enough level.
Sometimes, when you do begin the work, the first evidence you detect that your work may not be good enough is enough to make you close your laptop and go back to procrastinating, feeling worse than ever.
In short, procrastination is generally a way of trying to avoid feeling that distress. Unfortunately, it is not a particularly good coping mechanism, as you continue feeling anxious and eventually have to do the work anyway.
Berating yourself for procrastinating is rarely good motivation. So how do you learn to stop procrastinating?
Attend to the anxiety
Instead of obsessing over the habit of procrastination, you will need to take a look at the anxiety underlying it. What are you scared might happen if you do “bad” work? What is the worst case scenario your mind comes up with?
Being aware of the anxiety is the first step to managing it, and it will already provide some relief. The good news is that the relief does not have to end there. There are a number of practices which will help you manage the anxiety.
Sit with the feeling
One of the most effective ways of managing anxiety is to change your perspective of it. The feeling of anxiety serves a purpose. It makes us feel like we need to do something to remedy the situation. When at a low level, this is truly useful.
However, when the feeling is intense it can paralyse us. When this happens, you can subvert the feeling by reminding yourself that it is just that: a feeling. You do not have to do anything with it. Acknowledge the feeling and appreciate what it is telling you. Then just let it be.
Without the associated urges and feelings, anxiety is no longer so distressing. You can continue feeling that anxiety and do what you need to do in spite of it.
This sounds deceptively simple, but is actually part of a holistic mindful approach to life. The technique can be used in isolation, but is more intuitive in a broader mindfulness context.
Another approach to managing anxiety is the cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) approach. CBT uses a number of methods for anxiety. A useful one in this context is reality testing.
By listing the anxious thoughts you have about a scenario, you can look at them rationally. See if they hold up under the scrutiny of your rational mind.
CBT works on the premise that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors all influence each other. Therefore, changing your thoughts affects your feeling of anxiety, as well as your urge to procrastinate. Be systematic about it – the more clearly you see each thought, the more you will relieve your anxiety. And the less anxious you feel, the more likely you are to do the work you need to do.
Drop the judgment
Most people who procrastinate judge themselves for it. This judgment only lowers your motivation. No matter what techniques you use to manage the anxiety driving your procrastination, it is best built upon a foundation of non-judgment.
Remind yourself that you are not procrastinating because you are lazy. Rather, the thought of doing the work is distressing, and procrastination is simply a defective coping mechanism. Without the judgment, you will feel a lot lighter, which will make it easier to do what needs to be done.