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The Reason Why You Procrastinate (It’s Not What You Think)

why you procrastinate

Procrastination has very real—and very negative–consequences.

Procrastinating is delaying the start or completion of tasks that are important for your well-being. Here are some examples:

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  • You know that being 45 pounds overweight is having a negative impact on your health and your quality of life, yet you keep putting off learning to cook a few healthy meals and joining a gym.
  • If you don’t hand in the budget report on time it will reflect negatively on your job performance and you’ll lose your chance to get a promotion at work, but you decide to watch “just one more” cat video on YouTube instead of getting to work.
  • Your unpaid bills are piling up and you know you should create a second source of income so you can pay them off, but you decide to spring clean your house, go to the shelter to adopt a dog, or finish the novel lying on your bedside table instead of getting to work.

If you’ve found yourself in any of the situations above, you may be asking yourself why you procrastinate. Is it poor time management? Were you cursed at birth by a wicked fairy godmother? Do you secretly hate yourself? Did you inherit some sort of procrastination gene? Are you lazy?

Allow me to end the suspense: the reason you procrastinate is because of poor mood management. Aha!

Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, explains that procrastination happens for two reasons:

  • You feel like you’re not in the mood to carry out a particular task at the moment.
  • You think that you’ll be in a mood that’s more conducive to taking on said task at a later moment in time.

That is, we say things like the following to ourselves:

  • “I will definitely get a membership at the gym that’s two blocks away from my house, but I’ll do it tomorrow because right now I need a nap.”
  • “Finishing the budget report is my number one priority, and if I run down to Starbucks and get myself a latte and a scone, this will give me the willpower boost I need to get to it.”
  • “I know just the product to create and start selling online, but I’ve been feeling kind of gloomy, and I’m sure that re-watching Game of Thrones—starting from the very first episode of the series—will make me feel much better. Then I’ll be able to get started with my product creation.”

Now that you know why you procrastinate, what can you do to fix your procrastination problem? I’m going to give you some techniques you can use in this post.

Below you’ll find seven ways to control your mood so that you can stop procrastinating and get started with those important projects and tasks that you keep putting off.

Reframe the Task

If the mere thought of getting started on a task makes you wince—because it’s boring, difficult, or something you’ve never done before—it’s highly unlikely you’ll be in the mood to get started with it. Once you’ve framed something as “snooze-inducing”, the “task from hell”, or the “requires-genius-level-IQ” project, you can be sure you’ll be in full-on procrastination mode.

When you can’t get yourself to work on a task because of the way in which you’ve framed it, the solution is to reframe it. Be curious about the task. Ask yourself questions like the following:

  • What’s interesting about this?
  • How can I add an element of play to this?
  • How does completing this task help me to achieve an important goal?
  • Who can I ask for help?
  • How will I feel when this is done?
  • What part of the task can I get started on right away?
  • How have I completed a similar project?
  • How will working on this project help me grow?

Look for ways to see the task or project that you need to work on from a different perspective. You’ve heard politicians spin stories in a way that suits their narrative. Now you look for ways to spin the task that you need to get to work on so that it’s more appealing and, therefore, easier to get started on.

You Can Act Regardless of Your Mood

A mature person knows that if something needs to be done, they’ll get to it, even if they don’t feel like it. I’m a runner, and a weightlifter. Both activities involve putting up with some discomfort, and there are days when I simply don’t feel like doing them. But I do them, regardless of whether I feel like it.

My thoughts and emotions don’t make the final decision about what gets done. I do. And on those days when I feel down in the dumps, or a little voice in my head tells me to skip the gym, I override those thoughts and emotions, and I make myself exercise.

I do it because I’m an adult, and I’m in charge.

Deceive Yourself

Dr. Tim Pychyl, professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, recommends that–to get started on a task that you’re procrastinating on–you do the following:

  • Look at the next action.
  • By focusing only on the next action, you’ll calm your nerves.
  • Then, you can deceive yourself.

Deceive yourself?! Yes. When it’s time to get started on a task, consider the next action, but just as if it were a possibility. You can tell yourself things like the following:

  • If I were to come up with a tentative title for a blog post, it would be something like. . .
  • I’m not going to get started on this right now, but if I were going to get started, I would. . .
  • I’m just going to open a Word document and maybe write the date at the top.
  • I’ll just take out a pad of paper and a pen and place it here in front of me.

Dr. Pychyl states that motivation follows action. Once you’ve deceived yourself into taking some action that’s related to the task that you need to work on, however small that action may be, it’s much easier to just keep going.

Time Travel

Suppose you’re about to get started on a complicated task, and you feel some anxiety as a result. You know it’s going to take a lot of focused effort. To lessen this anxiety, you feel yourself clicking over to Twitter to see what your online friends are up to. That’s when you should stop yourself and time travel.

Think of yourself an hour from now. There are two possible scenarios you’ll find yourself in:

  • In Scenario One you got started on the task right away. You felt some anxiety and discomfort at first, but you kept going. Then you realized that the task wasn’t that bad after all and you worked on it for an hour.
  • In Scenario Two you clicked over to Twitter. You found a funny meme that was going around, and you got a good laugh out of it. Then you retweeted a few inspirational quotes, clicked over to read a couple of articles that looked interesting, and participated in a poll. Sixty minutes later, you realize that you’ve spent an hour on Twitter and haven’t even gotten started on the task.

How do you feel when you think of Scenario One? You probably feel pretty good about yourself.

How do you feel when you think of Scenario Two? Probably awful. In fact, the feeling of knowing that you just wasted an hour is probably worse than the anxiety that you feel when you think of getting started on the task at hand. A quick cost-benefit analysis will reveal that you’ll be much better off mood-wise if you get started on the task.

Use the Science of Habits

The best way to beat procrastination is by turning whatever it is that you’re procrastinating on into a habit. Do you want to start exercising? Turn it into a habit. Do you want to “eat the frog” first thing in the morning? Turn it into a habit. Do you want to start meditating? Turn it into a habit.

We now know that habits are repeated behaviors that consist of three parts:

  • A trigger — the event that kicks off the urge to complete a habit.
  • The routine, or the habit itself.
  • A reward – something that tells your brain: “That was great! Make sure to do this again!”

Here’s an example of how to stop procrastinating when it comes to meditating by turning it into a habit:

  • Trigger: Putting your toothbrush away after brushing your teeth in the morning.
  • Action – Walk to the living room, place a sofa cushion on the floor and sit on it, and meditate for five minutes.
  • Reward – Have some flavored coffee.

Since habits are something you do pretty much on automatic, whether you’re “in the mood” is a question you don’t even ask yourself. The trigger sets off the action, you perform the action, and then you reward yourself.

Show Yourself Self-Compassion

One of the reasons that people procrastinate is because they fall into a negative loop, which looks like the following:

  • There’s something important that they need to do, but they’re not in the mood to do it.
  • They distract themselves from the task they don’t want to do by doing other things: going on social media; reading articles online that aren’t conducive to the achievement of their goals; engaging in busy work; and so on.
  • They feel bad about themselves because they just wasted a bunch of time instead of getting to work on the important task. This makes their mood even worse, so they’re even less likely to get to work on the task.

Get yourself out of this loop by showing yourself self-compassion. Once you realize that you’ve wasted 45 minutes, instead of berating yourself, forgive yourself. Accept that you messed up, acknowledge that you failed to self-regulate—which happens–, and resolve to do better moving forward.

Then, give yourself a re-do. You didn’t get to work on the task 45 minutes ago like you should have, but you’re going to get started now.

Enjoy Small Victories

There’s nothing worse than trying to get yourself to work on a task when the reward for that task is far off in the future. The solution is to look for ways to reward yourself as soon as possible by breaking the task down into small parts and rewarding yourself after each of the parts is achieved.

Let’s take a look at the task of writing a blog post as an illustration. My posts tend to be on the long side—this one is about 2000 words long—and I do a lot of research for them. This means that they take a long time to write.

Often, when I’m about to start writing an article, I think to myself something like the following: “Oh, no. This is going to take forever.” That immediately makes me want to go do something else.

What I do at this point is take out my blogging checklist which details every single step that I need to take in order to write a blog post. Then, I simply start going down the list. Every time I complete one of the items on the checklist, I think to myself: “Check!”. Then I do one of the following:

  • Mentally congratulate myself.
  • Give myself a sudoku break (I love sudokus).
  • Go to the kitchen and get myself a quick snack.
  • Put on a song I love and sing along.
  • Stop to acknowledge how much of the blog post I’ve completed.
  • Put on a Shakira song and dance along (if you don’t listen to Shakira, you’re missing out).
  • Encourage myself to keep going and knock off the few remaining tasks.

Rewarding yourself is a great way to regulate your mood.

Conclusion

I hope this post helps you to knock out an important task that you’ve been procrastinating on. If you need more help overcoming procrastination, get my eBook, “Make It Happen! A Workbook for Overcoming Procrastination and Getting the Right Things Done”.

Live your best life by taking charge of your mood so you can overcome procrastination.

 

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