We’ve all been there.
You know what you should be working on. It’s been right there on your to-do list practically growing cobwebs while waiting to be crossed off. You’ve been pushing it back so much you can’t tell if the “remind me later” button is your best friend or your worst enemy. And now you’ve got that little gremlin in the back of your head that’s not letting you enjoy the usually enjoyable thing you do to avoid working.
Then, there’s the fear that your work might not even live up to your own expectations because you’ve waited too long to “do it right.” But you buckle down at the last minute, nearly killing yourself trying to meet the deadline all the while kicking yourself for not starting on the project earlier; “seriously, why do I keep doing this?!”
But maybe the project actually turns out okay. Maybe it even turns out great. And maybe you even begin to tell yourself that you actually “work better under pressure” and accept that you’re just a straight up “procrastinator.”
No, really. We’ve ALL been there.
If any of this story sounds even vaguely familiar — congratulations: you’re a human being. Everyone struggles with procrastination in one form or another and all of us can identify in some way with putting things off until the last minute. But you may have noticed that even if you swear to yourself that you’re “never going to procrastinate again”, or try the exact opposite approach and lean in to your procrastinating tendencies, the agony of it all never truly leaves.
Nobody likes to procrastinate, and many of us — students and professionals alike — would list procrastination as one of the biggest challenges we consistently face (how’s your New Year’s resolution coming along, by the way?). But interestingly, when we talk about how awful procrastination is, what we’re actually talking about is how awful procrastination feels: The guilt. The shame. The embarrassment. The anxiety. The depression. The self-deprecation. These are all emotions we tend to experience negatively while putting things off and the real culprit behind the misery of procrastination.
To put it more bluntly, procrastination itself doesn’t make us feel bad. The truth is: we make ourselves feel bad for procrastinating.
What procrastination actually is (and what it definitely is not)
Though you might tell yourself otherwise, procrastination is definitely not some terrible disease that’s embedded in your DNA. If you’re thinking you procrastinate because of an evil genetic “Dark Passenger”, you’ve been watching way too much Dexter.
If we strip away all the hype and emotional baggage, procrastination can be defined simply as being motivated to do one thing instead of another. Think about it: the moment you decide to work on any task (let’s call it “Task A”), you are automatically delaying or procrastinating all other possible tasks (tasks B, C, D…X,Y,Z, and so on). Get it? If that sounds way too obvious and straight-forward, that’s because it really is pretty simple.
But how does this harmless-sounding definition relate to the Hellspawn demon version of procrastination that we all love to hate?
Stories we tell ourselves.
The main reason why procrastination leads to mental anguish has to do with our beliefs or stories we tell ourselves about how things are “supposed to” be. This is what some psychologists refer to as the “ought self”. We tell ourselves things like “I really ought to write that paper” or “I really ought to start my taxes” or “I really ought to lose some weight”.
While these stories are a generally good thing, the trouble comes when there is a gap between what you think you ought to be doing and what you are actually doing instead (ex: “I ought to be finishing that paper but I’m actually watching Game of Thrones — again”).
Whenever there is a discrepancy between “ought” and “actual”, whenever the math just doesn’t add up in the ol’ brain, we automatically create a story to fill that gap. In other words, we need an explanation for why what ought to happen isn’t what’s actually happening. And this is something most of us do without even thinking about it.
The dark side of procrastination
Unfortunately, in the case of procrastination, the type of stories that automatically fill the “ought” and “actual” gap tend to take the form of guilt, shame, and self loathing which is the perfect environment for our unconscious negative opinions of ourselves to rise to the surface.
The whole equation ends up sounding something like this:
“I ought to be finishing that project, but I’m actually hanging out with my friends. Therefore, I’m the worst bastard in the entire universe and my life is going to collapse because I’m a fraud and I knew I was going to screw this up anyways because I always do, and oh my God I wish I would have started this sooner but I’m such a perfectionist that it’s impossible to just throw things together because people who do that are idiots and I don’t even like this project anyways and I wonder if the top of my refrigerator could use a good dusting…”
And the next thing you know, BAM! You’re on procrastination street yet again.
Perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but it’s truly crazy how easily our deepest, most distorted insecurities can leak into our brainwaves when we aren’t doing what we think we ought to be doing.
We end up mentally punishing ourselves in moments when we’re not moving towards that perfect picture we see in our heads and get stuck in the same-old procrastinator’s groove of avoidance, negative self-talk, and frustration.
Don’t fucking beat yourself up
Ok, enough with the psychology lesson. This site is about taking action, right? So let’s talk about what can be done stop the vicious cycle of avoidance, anxiety, guilt, fear, shame and overly strenuous effort.
There are zillions (yes, zillions) of tips, tricks, techniques and tactics for trying to curb procrastination. Just do a Google search for “how to stop procrastinating” (which you’ve obviously already done before — admit it) and you’ll immediately come across a variety of things you can try: Change your surroundings! Make a list! Buy David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’! Use Evernote! And so on…
These are great tips, but without the right mindset many of these approaches won’t address the emotional root of your frustration. Even if you do create the world’s greatest email tagging system or the ultimate one-ring-to-rule-them-all to-do list, it won’t mean anything if you keep driving yourself down into the same old muck of self-deprecation and shame without the clarity of mind it takes to actually get yourself back on track and getting shit done.
Before loading up on the tactics, try implementing these 3 simple changes to your mindset:
1. Pay attention!
See if you can recognize when you start launching into automatic, negative, self-talk scripts. A little awareness will go a long way toward
2. Tell it like it is!
Readjust the guilting, shaming, and judgmental narratives in your head by calling your thoughts, behaviors and emotions exactly what they are: thoughts, behaviors and emotions!
3. Stop beating yourself up!
Most importantly, quit treating yourself like a villain. You’ll be much better equipped to change your behavior for the better if you aren’t beating yourself up for what you’re doing — or not doing.
At the end of the day, you simply have too much ass to kick in this life to waste time and energy kicking your own. Remember, this is your story — so tell yourself a good one!