Most books and courses on procrastination focus on tips and techniques about how to get over it. But we rarely ask what procrastination actually is and why it happens in the first place.
The key purpose of procrastination is short-term mood regulation. Meaning when we’re feeling bad about what we’re working on, we find ways to delay the work and switch to something that makes us feel better.
Whether it’s about being overwhelmed with too much work or you have to do a task that you hate, procrastination is a short-term solution to improve your mood.
Using Procrastination as an Indicator
Most tips focus on how to improve your mood or how to manage your feelings in order to stop procrastinating. But I’d like to go one step deeper and ask, “Why am I procrastinating in the first place?”
Instead of trying to push through the procrastination, I like to use it as an indicator that something is wrong with the process. I don’t automatically assume that I’m lazy and need to get more disciplined. I assume that either the goal I’m working on or the process itself isn’t quite right.
For example, it might mean that I don’t really care about the goal and it’s not really a priority. Or it might mean that it’s too challenging for me right now, and my current time would be much better spent on something else.
If procrastination is an indicator of something, why would you ignore it and try to push through as if it didn’t exist?
If the low fuel indicator in your car was on, would you ignore it and try to push through?
3 Wasted Years Working on Somebody Else’s Goal
For years I was trying to get a college degree that I didn’t really care about. It was a goal of mine just because “it’s what you do”, not because I really wanted it. As a result, I constantly procrastinated with my exams. Next month became, next semester. Next semester became next year. And 3 years later, I still hadn’t done much progress on getting that degree.
Eventually, I figured out that it wasn’t just because I was horribly lazy. I just didn’t care about that goal. With procrastination, my subconscious mind was telling me that what I’m working on is pointless. There were better ways to spend my time.
Fast forward to today, almost 10 years later, I’ve never needed that degree. It wasn’t something that would have been useful in my life anyway.
I still have the option to go and get it if I want to. And every time I tell that story, I hear the same feedback, “You have to get it. Sooner or later you just have to.”
Exactly the same reason why I had that goal in the first place. But it wasn’t mine, it was just social pressure. Deep down, I knew I could make it without that degree.
So unless I really have a solid reason to get that degree, there is no way I’m going to start working on that goal again. I’m just going to be procrastinating again anyway.
What is procrastination trying to tell you?
So if we accept that procrastination is an indicator, how do we know what exactly is wrong?
If we know the reason, it would be much easier to reframe the goal or the process. Instead of pushing through, we can change the part that isn’t working until the system runs smoothly and you’re naturally motivated.
Here are some of the most common reasons why we procrastinate.
The Goal Doesn’t Matter
As in my example above, we often pick up goals not because we really care about them, but because we’re influenced by society.
- Do you really care about getting that degree?
- Do you really care about losing those last 10 pounds?
- Do you really want to get your driving license?
- Do you really want to learn a new language?
- Do you really want to get rid of your accent?
There’s nothing wrong with any of these goals if you truly want to. But it might be possible that you’re procrastinating because you don’t really care about getting those results. You’re doing it because of social pressure.
It’s Too Difficult
Sometimes the thing we’re working on is just too hard for us. It feels daunting, either because of the amount of work or because we don’t have enough expertise.
Is there a way to get somebody to help? A friend, a colleague, a professional in the field? Why would you try to do it yourself if you can find help from somebody more experienced?
It’s Not the Right Timing
Even if the goal is truly yours and you want it, it’s possible that it’s just not the right time. You might be procrastinating because you haven’t picked up enough skills to make it happen. Or it’s not the right season. Is there a time where doing this goal will be easier for you?
I procrastinated on starting my own blog for years. It has been a very serious goal of mine that I definitely knew I want to achieve. However, every time I thought about starting it I got that procrastination impulse.
And I knew it wasn’t just because I was lazy. Other goals that I was working on were going great. After a while, I just figured that it wasn’t the right time for the blog yet. I didn’t feel ready and I needed more experience.
So instead of beating myself up about it, I worked happily on other goals and kept the blog goal on the backburner.
Finally, last year I felt ready. I had no problem starting it right away. It took me a week to buy hosting, create a simple design and start posting every week consistently. It was all a matter of right timing.
Hell, I even procrastinated writing this article for 3 days because the idea wasn’t formulated in my head yet, but no need to beat myself up about it. 🙂
The Goal Isn’t Realistic
If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, “I’m quitting smoking tomorrow. No really, this is my last one.”
This is very often an issue for people who are new to goal setting and building habits. Most of the set goals are very unrealistic and difficult to accomplish, like quitting smoking cold turkey.
To change a habit, especially a deeply ingrained habit, you have to make a lot of changes in your life:
- Get people to support your new habit.
- Eliminate the triggers from your environment.
- Create a support structure for when the going gets hard.
- Find a substitute habit to fill the need that the bad habit was filling.
- Use an anchor to start your new habit.
These are just some of the critical elements to be successful with a new habit. Without these, you have a very little chance of making it long term. So no matter how motivated and disciplined you are, if the goal is unrealistically difficult, you will procrastinate.
If you are new to this and you want to save yourself a few years of trial and error hire an experienced coach to help you with the transition and set a more realistic goal.
The Opposite of Procrastination
Very often, the solution to a problem isn’t to work on solving the problem directly, but to find the opposite.
For example, you’re always broke and trying to save money. But you can only go so far with savings and budgeting. Working on increasing your income, on the other hand, has no limit. You can always find more ways to earn money.
So what if we don’t focus on overcoming procrastination? What would be the opposite of procrastination that would improve your results?
For me, it’s the feeling of flow, also known as being in the zone. That state where you’re completely engulfed by your work and time flies by. You don’t feel like stopping for food or sleep because what you’re doing feels so good and you’re crushing it.
So instead of trying to stop procrastination, how about looking for more things that get you in that flow state? What are some of the projects that get you so excited that you can work for hours without getting tired?
It sounds like an oxymoron, but what it means is to strategically postpone instead of waste your time.
Don’t procrastinate with Netflix and gaming. Use that time for accomplishing something meaningful. Maybe it’s not yet time to work on that goal, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t pick another goal that will be better suited for the current time.
What other projects or goals could you work on instead? Is there something that you were trying to do 5 years ago, and it didn’t work out? Perhaps now would be a better time.
And if you’re dead set on that particular goal and now is not a good time, when would it be a better time? If you lack the skills to make it happen, what could you do to learn the skills meanwhile? If everything seems right but you keep banging your head against the wall, who could you ask to help you with your goal?
Love Procrastination without Guilt
The worst thing about procrastinating is not the time lost but the guilt.
You get nothing done and you feel guilty about it. On the next day, you still feel terrible that you didn’t get anything done, so you’re not in the mood to work again. The whole thing is a downwards spiral. A self-perpetuating cycle of guilt.
This goes back to the mood regulation thing. So unless you find a way to temporarily feel better you can’t really go back to work. Forcing yourself to overcome the procrastination is just going to make matters worse.
So instead of feeling guilty about not doing your work, how can you use that time to improve your mood? What could you do in your procrastination time to start loving it? What would recharge you so much that when you go back to work again you’re in an awesome mood?