the action of delaying or postponing something.
If you ever found yourself putting off a task, for example working out, by choosing to do something else instead, be it simply watching TV or even doing something super productive like washing all the dishes, you’ve procrastinated.
Procrastination is not about being lazy, as you’re not lazy in the first place if you’ve decided to clean all the dishes instead of doing the task you keep avoiding, but it is about emotions. In specific, it’s about the negative emotions we associate with the task we should be doing.
Although these negative emotions are completely understandable, as I will explain in a minute, there are tasks we simply need to get done. Delaying them will often result in negative consequences such as bad grades or bad job performance, alongside increased anxiety, stress as well as self-blame and feelings of low self-esteem.
Simply put, we procrastinate because doing the task we should be doing is not enjoyable. It could be that the task is boring or tedious, that it provokes us feelings of insecurity, anxiety or self-doubt, or that the prospect of no instant rewards leaves us unmotivated.
So what is happening exactly?
Fight or Flight
Whenever our mind is faced with negative and stressful emotions, such as being faced with having to do something we don’t want to do, we enter in a fight or flight situation and search for an immediate solution to get relief: in this case, by procrastinating and avoiding the task.
This behaviour is deeply wired into our brain and, over the course of our evolution, it actually helped us survive situations where we were faced with a threat. However, it’s not so handy when we’re trying to get things done.
The other factor at play is that we’re wired to value instant rewards over long-term rewards.
For most of our evolution we lived in an environment which required short-term thinking. Everything we did had an instant effect on our lives, often battling with life or death, and thus we learned to value and prioritize short term rewards.
However, nowadays modern life often provides only long-term rewards, e.g. working and getting paid at the end of the month, learning a new language, saving up for retirement etc. Everything is set out to reward us at a later point in the future.
But, modern life is only a recent phenomena compared to the years over which our brain evolved, and there is still a mismatch between how our brain is wired (valuing instant rewards) and how the modern environment works (valuing long-term rewards).
Under this lense, it’s clear why working on long-term goals, which do not bring instant rewards, is difficult for us. It requires us to go over our natural instinct of seeking instant gratification and enduring the hard work or negative emotions for a gratification that will, maybe, come some time in the future.
Lastly, when we decide to procrastinate and delay a task, we overestimate both how much time we’ll have at our disposal and underestimate how much time it will take us to complete the task. We also miscalculate how motivated we will be in the future and wrongly assume that we need to be motivated to do the task. The reality is that such motivation might actually never come. Yet, the task at hand won’t get done by itself and delaying it will only build up more and more stress.
Continuous procrastination might bring short-term relief but it will also quickly build up stress and negatively influence your life in the long run. In order to stop procrastinating, you need to counteract the above mentioned reasons on why you procrastinate.
Reframe your feelings
As you’re having an internal battle with your feelings towards a certain task, you’ll need to reframe your emotions: find the positive aspects of the task and don’t beat yourself up for feeling the way you feel. Rather try to be compassionate towards yourself, as that can help you decrease the feeling of stress and ultimately fuel your motivation.
Create instant rewards
Since it’s difficult to work towards long-term rewards, you need to make the results of your actions more instant. This could be by combining a task you want to avoid with something you actually enjoy doing or tracking and making your progress more visible so as to fuel your motivation. It can also help to make the consequences of your inactions more immediate and visible, for example by socially committing to your goals so you’re more likely to follow through with your actions.
Another great tip is to make your tasks as easy and actionable as possible, so as to get instant rewards.
Lastly, you need to acknowledge that we’re bad at projections and that most of the time we’re delaying our actions with yet another excuse. Once you acknowledge this behaviour you can better understand why planning ahead can be of such a big help. If you plan ahead, and especially in a way that will give you instant results, you will leave less room for excuses.