A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to start an email newsletter for potential clients. I learned all about how to create the perfect email funnel, along with devising a free gift that would entice subscribers. I signed up for an email service and even made sure to put a sign up button on my blog.
I did everything BUT actually write the first email. Something was blocking me so much that I didn’t write that first email newsletter until 4 years after I had everything set up. I was clearly procrastinating. Does any of this sound familiar?
What is procrastination anyway?
Procrastination is defined as delaying either the start or completion of a desired task to the point of discomfort. The key word here is desired. The procrastinator actually wants to complete the task, unlike the lazy person, who doesn’t care to finish the task at all. This is also not the same as waiting or postponing, where the person is planning to do the task at a different time.
So what’s the big deal, you might be asking? Who cares if I let the dishes pile up in the sink or delay balancing my checkbook for several months? YOU do, that’s who! You don’t want to be THAT person who never gets things done, do you? (And if you do, read on anyway.)
Procrastination is not innocuous and is actually considered a failure of self-regulation, which is the ability to control one’s thoughts, emotions and behavior. Yikes! We’re not two-year-olds here, so it’s time to get your big girl pants on and learn the hard facts.
Not surprisingly, chronic procrastinators have been found to have lower self-control and a lack of discipline. They are highly impulsive and tend to focus more on the present than the future. Now, I’m all about living in the moment. However, there are times when we need to realize that our present actions will affect our future and live accordingly.
Chronic procrastinators are thought to make up around 20% of the population, according to Dr Joseph Ferrari. These people are not just occasionally putting off things. Rather, they are living a maladaptive lifestyle of avoiding any task that brings on uncomfortable feelings.
Now, if you occasionally put off responding to emails, that’s not a big deal. We all delay things from time to time (see the aforementioned email newsletter story). However, if you have 10,000 emails in your inbox, you might want to pay attention.
The chronic procrastinator will avoid making difficult decisions. For example, here is Ms. Notme and Mr. Nottheone. They’ve been dating for the last two years, but Ms. Notme has been unhappy in the relationship for the last six months.
Since she doesn’t want to be blamed for the failure of the relationship, she has been avoiding breaking up. Instead, she has been evading his calls and making up excuses not to see him.
This is clearly not a healthy way of dealing with the situation, but very characteristic of the true procrastinator. If Ms. Notme continues down this road, she will end up with poor self esteem, high stress and trash talk all over social media by her soon-to-be ex.
As another example, here is Mr. Headin Sand. He’s had a nasty looking mole that needs to be checked for the last year. However he has been putting off a trip to the doctor due to the fear that the mole might be cancerous.
Because of this fear, he hasn’t been sleeping well, which has led to poor food choices and minimal exercise. His avoidance is obviously causing more harm than if he just got the mole checked in the first place.
As you can see, chronic procrastination can be damaging to your physical, mental and emotional health. Now the question becomes- how do we overcome these procrastination pitfalls and actually get things done?
How to overcome procrastination.
Although few studies exist, the best method of controlling procrastination is cognitive behavioral therapy, aka CBT. CBT helps to alter negative thoughts and behaviors toward the positive. By doing this, the procrastinator no longer needs to avoid the desired task.
The following are some practical tips for implementing CBT with procrastination.
- Figure out why you want to complete a task in the first place. What will you gain by doing it? Maybe it’s a cleaner house or an organized work space. Just make sure your why is strong and clear. Understanding your priorities can help with this, as discussed here.
- Break up large tasks into smaller steps. Doing this makes the task more manageable. Instead of being completely overwhelmed by organizing your entire house, dividing it into rooms and small tasks like, clothes, books, etc. will make the job much easier.
- Learn your core strengths and apply those when faced with a difficult task. Maybe you’re a highly creative person. Great! You can use that to figure out how to achieve inbox zero with your emails.
- Expect and acknowledge that you will have an aversive emotion with the task and realize that you’re strong enough to overcome it anyway. Remember those core strengths from number three? That’s what will get you through that difficult conversation with your boss about needing to cut back on your hours (I may or may not have some experience with this, ahem).
- Use smartphone reminders for personal deadlines. Seriously! It’s that simple. Set a deadline for a task and put it in your phone. Done.
- Find something positive about the task, even if it’s that you’ll be happy when it’s done. I know it sounds rather Pollyannish, but it also works. Remember that the next time you need to balance your checkbook.
- Use an app to overcome procrastination, such as- Arise, Study Break and Procraster. Why not take advantage of the technology that’s available on your phone?
Let’s go back my story from the beginning. I now realize that I was putting off writing that first email newsletter in order to avoid the criticism I might receive. I was expecting a negative response, when in reality the opposite was true.
Hopefully, all of this has given you a better understanding of procrastination and its pitfalls. Remember this the next time you find yourself putting off going to the gym for the second month in a row.
“You don’t have to see the whole staircase. Just take the first step.” -Martin Luther King, Jr