You’ve got it all planned out. You have this great vision of how success looks like to you. You know what needs to be done straight out the gate.
You even have a poster on your wall of a Mark Twain quote that reads:
The secret of getting ahead is getting started.
And yet, no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to shake procrastination off long enough to get started on your goals.
If this describes you, know that you’re not alone. In fact, according to one research, a shocking 92% of people that set New Year’s goals don’t actually achieve them.
If we know that nailing our goals leads to positive outcomes, then why aren’t more of us actually working on them?
Procrastination is, of course, the most obvious reason.
It is often said that being aware is half the battle won. And if we don’t know what procrastination looks like, how can we be aware we’re even procrastinating in the first place?
Taking a look at the definition of procrastination, it is simply defined as, “the action of delaying or postponing something.”
Definitions are good and all, but in this case, it doesn’t really tell us what procrastination looks like, or even why we delay or postpone doing something we know is good for us — things like losing weight, studying for a test, or (note to self) finally writing that book.
Why do we procrastinate?
A common misconception is that procrastination is primarily a byproduct of laziness. While it’s an easy target and surely explains why some people procrastinate, it doesn’t quite paint an accurate picture. Even intelligent, normally hardworking people procrastinate from time to time for reasons other than laziness.
Another misconception is that procrastination boils down to poor time-management, and if only we carved out more time for ourselves by unsubscribing from Netflix and deleting our social media apps, we would finally get down to doing what we need to. I’ve had free time on my hands in the past while simultaneously having many unchecked items on my to-do-list, and still chose not to work on any of them.
In an article by Charlotte Lieberman for the New York Times, Lieberman — citing research by Dr. Tim Pychyl and Dr. Fuschia Sirois — argues the case that procrastination is really about an inability to properly manage our emotions instead of our time.
Lieberman explains that we procrastinate in order to cope with task-related, negative emotions such as “boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”
That makes a lot of sense given that on many occasions, whether or not we decide to do something is governed by how we feel rather than what we think. This human tendency to be led by our feelings— and to be affected by the accompanying emotions —is what distinguishes us from the robots after all.
Take the example of a bad breakup experience.
Rationally, you know the last thing you should be doing is moping around all day feeling sorry for yourself. Yet your default response to concerned friends inviting you out for a drink is, “I really don’t feel like doing anything right now.”
Procrastination is the bad breakup equivalent of saying “I really don’t feel like doing [insert task you’re putting off] right now”.
Procrastination and its THREE disguises
It’s not always easy to identify the emotions holding us back from working on important tasks, but based on research and personal experience, I identified three main emotions responsible for our procrastinating ways.
Each of these emotions is well-disguised and not immediately obvious, which explains why many of us don’t even know where to begin when it comes to addressing our procrastination problem.
These are the three main emotional “disguises” that procrastination wears.
1. Procrastination disguised as fear and doubt
Fear is a crippling emotion. It prevents people from ever taking action. The list of fears here include:
- Fear of the unknown — “I don’t know what the exact outcome will be. That uncertainty unnerves me and I don’t want to deal with it.”
- Fear of failure — “There’s a chance that I will fail anyway, and I can’t risk that.”
- Fear of success — “I’m afraid that success will bring with it a new set of circumstances that, although positive, I don’t have the energy to deal with.”
- Fear of being judged by others— “If I do this, others may not approve of it and even ridicule me.”
- Fear of inadequacy — “I just don’t think I have it in me to get this done right,” or more commonly, “I don’t know enough to get started on this.”
Everyone experiences fear in varying degrees. What we need to be able to discern is whether such fear is trying to protect us — as is the case when you’re trying to figure out whether a potential business partner will screw you over — or, as in the case of procrastination, hinder us from actually progressing on our goals.
2. Procrastination disguised as perfectionism
Anyone who takes pride in their craft wants to put up good work, which is great. What is not as great is insisting that everything must be perfect.
Procrastination can be seen as a symptom of a perfectionist streak in some people. In essence, perfectionists fear being unable to finish a task perfectly, and their natural response is, therefore, to put off the task indefinitely until they believe they’ve got it fully figured out.
Perfectionists also tend to get all their ducks in a row before embarking on anything.
Take setting up a website for instance. A perfectionist will read 15 blogs on the best hosting plan, another 10 comparing the best website builders, and spend days if not months agonizing over that perfect domain name. That’s even before generating any website copy (add a couple more months here).
I think you can guess what happens in many of these cases. Absolutely nothing.
How do I know? Well, it once took me a year to go from purchasing a domain name to finally launching my website.
I’ve personally had a lifelong love-hate relationship with perfectionism. It has spurred me to aim for excellence but has also on more than one occasion tripped me up when I most needed to perform.
When I was 18, I sat for my ‘A-level’ examinations, the British equivalent of America’s Advanced Placements. I remember being so stressed out about wanting to achieve perfect grades that when it became apparent I wouldn’t do well for my first paper, I simply didn’t show up for the rest.
The perfectionist in me ensured I didn’t graduate. That’s the “all or nothing” world of a perfectionist for you.
Truth is, outside of surgical procedures that determine life or death, or the design of an aircraft’s safety system, perfection is rarely required in our normal day-to-day working and living.
3. Procrastination disguised as your ‘Present Self’
Did you know that all of us have “split personalities”?
Well, while not quite the disorder itself, behavioral scientists have theorized that we have two personalities when it comes to procrastination — a present self and a future self.
The present self seeks pleasure and comfort. All it wants is to feel good. This is the self that tells you, “I wantto sit on this comfy couch and binge watch Netflix.”
The future self, on the other hand, is driven by a sense of responsibility. It has your best interests at heart and wants you to make choices that lead to long-term benefits. This is the self that says, “I should go for a run now instead of being a couch potato.”
Naturally, procrastinators tend to prioritize their present selves over their future selves and immediate pleasure over long-term gain. Netflix 1 — Running 0.
So…how do you overcome procrastination?
If procrastination is an emotion-regulation issue, it stands to reason that if we properly manage the emotions responsible for our procrastinating, we should be able to beat it.
Here are three simple (but not easy) ways we can deal with the various emotions that hide behind procrastination’s three disguises mentioned above.
1. Take a teeny-weeny step
“Fear isn’t the enemy. Waiting to stop feeling afraid is.“
— Marie Forleo
Let’s be real. You will never stop feeling afraid. Successful people have the very same fears you do. The difference? They charge ahead in spite of those fears.
In his book ‘Originals’, organizational psychologist Adam Grant writes:
“[Originals’] inner experiences are not any different from our own. They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. They know in their hearts that failing would yield less regret than failing to try.”
If you think about it, it is often more exhausting to stay afraid and delay doing something than it is to actually do it.
One great way to overcome fear is to lower the perceived risk of doing something. The lower the stakes, the easier it is to mentally commit to a course of action. All you need to do here is to take the smallest of steps in the direction of whatever you wish to pursue.
In episode #357 of “The Tim Ferriss Show”, author Susan Cain recalls how taking a series of small steps helped her overcome her fear of public speaking.
In the very first session of a particular public speaking seminar she attended, Cain was only asked to stand up, say her name, sit back down and “declare victory”. The next week, she would take the next small step by standing on stage, flanked by others so she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable.
I imagine the following weeks proceeded in a similar fashion until Cain became comfortable speaking to an audience. Today, Cain speaks to large audiences around the world.
Figure out what the tiniest step is for the thing you’re procrastinating on, then go ahead and do it. Do this repeatedly and you’ll find yourself falling into a groove that outpaces your fear.
2. Start before you’re ready
“Done is better than perfect.”
— Sheryl Sandberg
Perfectionists will never feel ready. It’s hard for them to feel like they’ve got a good enough plan to move forward with. And they want to be sure that certain success awaits them when they do. This fear of failing is strong within perfectionists.
Author of ‘Atomic Habits’, James Clear suggests in this article that one way to overcome this mindset is to start before you feel ready. Clear details how entrepreneur Richard Branson lives his life with a “Screw it, just get on and do it.” philosophy which saw Branson dropping out of school to start a business, and chartering a plane without being able to pay for it. The latter stunt would go on to lay the foundations for Virgin Airlines.
Clear also believes that even though we may feel uncertain, unprepared, and unqualified, whatever we have at present is enough to get started. I can’t help but agree. But if you’re still not convinced, then remind yourself of this question: “If not now, when?”
Start before you’re ready, but as suggested above, take small steps until you put together enough momentum to “go big”.
3. Using fear to fight fear
“ 以毒攻毒, Use poison to fight poison”
— Chinese proverb
When you’re struggling to listen to your future self telling you to start exercising, what can you do?
Similarly, if you’re still afraid and can’t get past your perfectionist tendencies even after attempting the first two hacks, what else can you do?
Can you, as the above proverb suggests, fight fire with fire?
Scientific studies seem to support such an approach. Behavioral psychologists researching the role of regret on various behaviors have found that if you believe you will come to regret not doing something, you are more likely to form an intention to do it.
This is what scientists call the “Theory of Regret Aversion” or “anticipated regret”.
In one such study, researchers asked two groups how many times they intended to exercise over a two week period. However, the experimental group was asked the additional question, “Would you regret it if you did not exercise in the next two weeks?”
What researchers found was that the experimental group which was asked this additional question formed an intention to exercise almost twice as frequently as compared to the control group. All because they were made to think about the possibility of regret.
Many of us fear missing out on the pleasures that our present selves often direct us toward, but we have an even greater fear in the form of regret. By adopting this clever hack called anticipated regret, it is possible to spur ourselves into action.
The next time you feel like giving in to your present self’s desires or are simply too afraid to do anything, ask yourself this: “Can I see myself regretting it deeply if I didn’t do [insert activity]?” If the answer is yes, get your butt moving.
The next time you begin to procrastinate, try asking yourself which of procrastination’s three emotional “disguises” is responsible. Is it fear, perfectionism or your present self pulling the strings? After all, understanding the cause of your procrastination puts you in a better position to address it.
Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest ones. By taking tiny steps towards your goals, starting before you’re ready, and using the fear of regret to spur you into action, you can finally turn procrastination into progression.
What other emotions do you think are responsible for your own procrastination? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.