Procrastination – Shall we talk about it now or later? 

In our performance coaching and training sessions with students the number one problem that they raise is the issue of procrastination. It is the first thing that comes up when we talk about the barriers to good performance. We find that procrastination is often triggered by one of these thoughts or beliefs:

  1. “It’s too much” – Leading to overwhelm and shut down.
  2. “I don’t know where to begin” – Leading to making another beautiful revision plan/ essay plan/ career plan etc.
  3. “I don’t need to start yet, there’s still plenty of time” – Leading to putting off the start time all together.

It probably helps to know that we all procrastinate. I’ll be honest – I’ve procrastinated about writing this blog. The irony isn’t lost on me! I haven’t procrastinated with any of my other blogs, so what is it about this topic that makes me want to procrastinate? Does thinking about procrastinating make us want to procrastinate, rather like thinking about a yawn makes us want to yawn?

When we procrastinate we are all essentially experiencing the same thing – FEAR.

It might not feel like it but it’s there, in the background in some form or another. Even when we are telling ourselves that there’s still plenty of time, we are actually avoiding our fear that if we used all that time we might have to face the fact that we couldn’t deliver a brilliant grade. In short, we are avoiding facing our fear that we can’t be perfect. Better to leave things to the last minute and then just do what we can in the time and allow the belief to continue that if we could only stop procrastinating – then we would deliver perfect results. Procrastination is often connected to perfectionistic thinking.

Perfectionistic thinking isn’t logical. It feels like it is, but it often fails to really assess the results of our actions. Lets look at the problem of procrastinating within these three scenarios:

  1. Pushing it away – You spend a lot of time feeling guilty and rubbish and lose time when you could do amazing work.
  2. Tinkering around the edges – Your efforts are being dissipated into the wrong activities. It’s a waste of your time and energy but the benefit is that you don’t feel guilty.
  3. Not starting until too late – You never achieve your best results and never know what they might be.

The Benefits of Procrastination:

Recognising the benefits of procrastination is a helpful way to start to take control of our tendency to procrastinate. After all, if we are procrastinating there will be a benefit for us on some level and this isn’t always about what we are avoiding.

1. It is a conscious activity:

If you ask anyone engaged in procrastination they usually know that they are doing it! They can tell you –  “I’m procrastinating! I should be writing my Chemistry essay but instead I’ve cleaned my room”.

We know we are doing it because we are aware of the resistance to start the ‘dreaded’ activity and the choice that we have made to do another more accessible activity. Procrastination can enable other activities that have been put off to be completed.

If we were to embrace this consciously then we could start to have a generalised plan which recognises that some activities which I am currently putting off, will be completed later during a procrastination period. This approach works because we can really throw ourselves into displacement activities. A lot gets done very quickly while we are consciously avoiding something else. Using this to our advantage is one benefit of procrastination.

A good example is my paperwork. I don’t like doing it. However, now that I know that if I put it all aside and keep it ready for the times when I am procrastinating, I can go straight there on these occasions and while I’m busy preparing for something else, I do my paperwork at high speed.

2. It gives us time to think:

Sometimes we have set ourselves a task and we haven’t factored in any time to think about it or formulate our thoughts. Much of our brain power is taken up with everyday activities. When we procrastinate we are creating the space that we need to think, prepare, plan and create. This would be entirely worthwhile time if we could recognise it as such. Instead we feel guilty. These feelings of guilt blind us to the benefits of procrastination time.

Giving ourselves time to think couldn’t be more important. It enables good quality and creative work and saves wasting time on mistakes. In our busy, fast-paced lives we rarely have time to think and prepare. In many instances I find that students are procrastinating because they are needing to think.  If we could simply recognise this feature of our experience and have confidence in it, we would move much more easily from ‘procrastination’ to recognising that we are thinking and preparing to act.

3. It highlights to us what we really do and don’t want to do: 

This is particularly important if you feel that most of your life and your life choices have been guided by others. For instance, where you are studying, the topics you are studying and the plans for your future career. Under these conditions, especially if you have always experienced these conditions, it can be very difficult to know what you feel and think. Procrastination is a guide to where your real interests lie. How you use this information to guide you is another matter, but will almost certainly involve getting help from teachers and professionals around you to talk through the issues and your genuine motivations and interests.

How do we minimise procrastination?

Our number one tip?

Reduce the pressure! 

Too often procrastination is the result of having set unrealistically high expectations. Students will often describe their work in terms of absolutes, for instance, “I’m going to work all day”, or “All night”, or  “Until I have finished,” or “Until I have completed all of the exam papers.”

Thinking in these terms ramps up the stress and anxiety. It instantly becomes harder to achieve the goal of finishing the task and this means that the goal of beginning the task gets harder too. Often in an attempt to push through the procrastination students will set themselves ever harder goals trying to take into account the time they have lost or wasted. The more pressure that they add now is much more likely to create more procrastination. It’s a vicious cycle.

Reducing our goals takes time to adjust to and requires experimentation. It is difficult to go against an established belief system that says ‘more is better’ – even when the evidence is mounting that by putting on more pressure we actually procrastinate more.

The equation goes like this:

More pressure = More avoidance (procrastination is avoidance). 

Here are some strategies to support the overall goal of procrastinating less:

  1. Allow time to think and plan.
  2. Accept some procrastination is a good thing!
  3. Find your way in. Set the first part of your activity as exploration and getting your bearings. This gives plenty of scope for starting slowly and finding your way into the activity without expecting yourself to be delivering results immediately.
  4. Break the activity into sections so that each one becomes manageable on it’s own. Use the period when you are ‘finding your way into the activity’ to think about these different manageable sections.
  5. Remember that you will speed up as you go along, so your efficiency improves further into the task. In terms of procrastination, things get easier as you get into the activity more – this is very encouraging!
  6. Set short working periods (1 hour tops) and allow breaks as this improves productivity in general.
  7. Include the best environment for you to actually sit down and get started – this may be in a cafe with a hot chocolate and lots of cream on top!
  8. If you really have to just bite the bullet and start – adjust your high expectations to absolute minimum standards. This is a highly effective strategy for tricking yourself into just getting started. Allow yourself permission to go back and improve the standards once you have begun working.

There are some superb Youtube videos on procrastination.Here is our top video on this by Tim Urban called “Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator” We strongly suggest that you watch this, take heart, use humour and try some new strategies!