Procrastination happens when: (a) you avoid taking action or making a decision on something you know you should do (avoidance); or (b) you make a decision and take action, but your progress is much slower than it could otherwise be – you choose to operate in snail mode when you could plausibly operate in Cheetah mode (snail pace progress).
But surely, given the vast quantity of self-help resource available to us today, procrastination is over? Think about those inspirational quotes: ‘If you believe in yourself, you’ll be unstoppable!’
Wait… really? So I can keep watching daytime TV (mug of tea in one hand, plate of toast in the other) and as long as I believe in myself, then I will be unstoppable. That is the kind of advice we all want to hear!
Then there’s the irritating time management gurus giving you poignant reminders of how much time you really have: ‘If you live to 80 years old, that’s only 960 months and those months will pass quickly.’
Wait … really? Listen, I was a couch potato gorging myself on a diet of daytime TV and toast, but now you’ve broken down the maths for me, I’m gonna be a butt-kicking superstar. Where do I sign for your 25K coaching programme?
There’s also those stories of ‘zero to hero’: The man who overcame so much adversity, and went on row his canoe across the Atlantic ocean and if you could get off your miserable butt and out of your miserable life, you too could head out into the Atlantic in a canoe.
Wait … really? I can simply do exactly what he did and I’ll complete the crossing? Did I tell you about my heart condition and tennis elbow?
We feel such a rush of hope when we hear these things and tell ourselves:
- Yes, this time I’m gonna do it. My life starts today! Then we battle our way home through the traffic to houses littered from top to bottom with children’s paraphernalia, or homes which are horribly empty and our hopes fade, as do the stories and quotes. We start to feel cynical about the self-help industry and get angry with ourselves.
- It obviously works for other people, why not me? While the self-help industry has boomed into a 10 billion dollar a year industry in the US and continues to grow, the very problem it should be solving (procrastination) has boomed at the same time. In research carried out in the 1970s, 5% of Americans identified as procrastinators but today, that number has risen to 25% and in recent research carried out by the Nationwide Building Society in the UK, two-thirds of people identify as procrastinators.
The self-help industry is a hugely successful marketing machine, but is less successful in solving the key issue it should have solved: Why do people avoid taking the life-changing action that they could reasonably take?
We need a new approach in defeating procrastination because while we can laugh about the $41 billion left in unclaimed credit on American gift cards since 2005 or the million disorganised UK tax payers who filed their returns late. Indeed there is a darker side to the habit of procrastination with research linking it to depression, anxiety, mental health issues, and heart disease.
If you want to beat procrastination, understand that it’s complicated and simple. It’s complicated because there are many common causes. It’s simple, because each common cause isn’t that complicated. You just have to know what they are and how they play out in your life. Let me explain with two examples from my former procrastinating lifestyle.
Example one: I have a clear Thursday morning and workshops to prepare. I’m going to get in ‘the zone’ and ‘create stuff’. Phone off, kids dumped at school, coffee in hand, and I will not be answering the door to Amazon couriers or Jehovah’s witnesses. Oh no sir, not today.
My brain is sparking and buzzing and suddenly, a thought gatecrashes my mind. Wasn’t there a midweek game last night: Arsenal v Chelsea? I wonder what the score was? Damn it. I’m never going to get back into ‘the zone’ until I find out the score. I know, if I head to the BBC website and find out the score, then I’ll be able to get back in ‘the zone’ (a 20-second diversion, it’s a sensible investment). I check out the BBC website: Arsenal won 2-0 (Yes, get in there). But wait a minute, the second sentence of the match report – it says the second goal was a belter.
How am I going to get back into ‘the zone’ without seeing the goal? I know, I’ll head to YouTube, check out the goal, then I’ll be able to get back to my ‘zone’. A 20-second diversion, it’s a sensible investment. I head to YouTube; I find the goal. I watch it; it was a belter and 20 minutes later, I’m still on YouTube, watching Messi’s best goals from 2012.
Example 2: Later that evening, we head out as a family to our favourite Indian restaurant, but all the food is so amazing and there’s so much choice. What is a hungry man supposed to do?
Madras? balti? pilau or nan, or both? I need more time. I drive the waiter round the bend. I call him back twice to change my order, then suffer the humiliation of paying for the meal on my card and my surname is Pain, my initial is A – I knew what he was thinking!
The root causes in each example are different as is the remedy. With YouTube, I’m just curious, lacking in self-discipline and unrealistic about the power of social media platforms to keep us hooked – they’re built to make us stay!
And in the restaurant, I’m spoilt for choice and when people are spoilt for choice, they can become uncharacteristically greedy, and the pain of letting go of attractive options delays the decision making.
Sometimes, we procrastinate because we’re scared, sometimes we’re bored, or we’re stunned by the complexity of the task. Sometimes we’re simply sleep deprived and not thinking clearly. Sometimes we’ve reached the end of a season – in a project, relationship or job, and our usual high standards are slipping.
So if you want to kick procrastination in the pants once and for all, work through every aspect of your life: your work, your family, friends, finance, hobbies, self-development, your community:
- Where are you avoiding decisions/taking action?
- Where are you going extra slow in snail mode?
- What’s going on?
- What are you going to do about it?
Don’t wait to beat procrastination – start today and develop your own unique remedy for each unique incident of procrastination in your life.
Image credit: Freepik
Andrew Pain is a high-performance coach, TEDx speaker, productivity expert, domestic abuse campaigner and survivor of a long-term abusive marriage.