Nearly everyone wants to procrastinate less. We all do it to some degree, but it’s a behavior that’s extremely hard to curb in part because we spend little time thinking about it until after it’s too late. But there is a key to stopping procrastination, and it’s somewhat personal.
When we talk about procrastination, we’re usually talking about work or schoolwork. We put off starting a project. We delay an important task. We don’t take the next step to complete some work that’s in a state of suspended motion.
Why don’t we do it?
We Distract Ourselves and Put Off Tasks to Avoid Pain
It’s physically hard. It’s emotionally taxing. It’s going to take a lot of prep work before we even get to the task, and we feel overwhelmed by all of it.
Really, we’re avoiding pain or discomfort. Or sometimes, we’re choosing to soothe ourselves with something more pleasant than what we should be doing.
In any event, it’s not a lack of motivation causing procrastination. More commonly, our emotions cause procrastination.
The ‘I Need the Money Now’ Argument
Although we usually think of procrastinating in relation to work, not all procrastination has to do with our jobs. We might procrastinate our financial planning or steps to take care of our health and wellness. And there’s a lot we can learn from it.
Think about how we rationalize our bad behavior around money and health. “I can’t invest in a retirement plan because I need the money now,” or “I know I should make a healthy choice for lunch and eat a salad, but a burger and fries would make me feel happier.” It’s the same emotional choice to avoid pain or discomfort, or pick a more soothing option in the moment.
Caving into our immediate happiness or pain avoidance trumps whatever our future self will have to endure. As two researchers (Peetz and Wilson, 2008) put it, “the present self fails to connect to the future self”:
…people who procrastinate rarely project themselves to the future because they fail to understand that their future self is a direct extension of their present self and as such, are more likely to perceive their future self like a stranger as opposed to a close friend.
What Can You Do?
How can we stop procrastinating and do what we should be doing?
I think a better question is how can we avoid procrastination in the first place. Once we’re in it, it’s too late. We’ve already made a choice. If we can prevent ourselves from getting to a place of procrastination, that would be much better for our future self.
Have you found ways to avoid financial or health procrastination? For example, maybe you created a savings goal in an app that shows your progress graphically, and seeing the progress helps to motivate you to save. Do you exercise at the same time every day as a habit that, over time, became hard to break?
You likely have the personal tools to avoid procrastination at work. It’s just a matter of thinking about what you do already to scoot around procrastination in other avenues, and then applying them to your job.
An app for managing projects can give you the same kind of visual progress that you get when saving money. Creating routines at work so that doing tasks starts to feel like second nature is similar to forcing yourself to run every day until it becomes a habit.
Identify where you have been successful elsewhere in life and use it to change the way you approach tasks at work. Then you can stop the emotional cycle of avoiding discomfort or optimizing pleasure now and damning your future self.
Peetz, J., & Wilson, A. E. (2008). The temporally extended self: The relation of past and future selves to current identity, motivation, and goal pursuit. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(6), 2090‐2106.