Beating Procrastination at its Own Game

| Katherine Roethling, LCSW

I’m willing to bet that everyone has a “procrastination story.” That one time where they put off an important task until the last minute, only for it to come back and bite them in the butt. Maybe your procrastination story involves school or work assignments, or waiting too long to pack for a trip, or even delaying an important conversation until it’s too late. My procrastination story involved a graduate school assignment that I didn’t start until the day before it was due, forcing me to spend the entire night writing the paper before going to class the next day with no sleep and turning in an assignment that I knew wasn’t my best work.  Procrastination at its finest! 

To be very clear, procrastination is not the same thing as laziness. Chronic procrastinators often care very much about the tasks that they are delaying, whereas laziness tends to involve a lack of willingness to put in the effort. Interestingly enough, procrastination sometimes involves engaging in other activities, like cleaning the house or doing other less stressful tasks, which serves to alleviate the guilt we feel as a result of procrastinating. However, the physical and emotional consequences of procrastination can be damaging, with people often reporting feelings of frustration, embarrassment, and shame.

Why do we tend to do this to ourselves? While some people are more susceptible to procrastination due to mental health conditions (anxiety, ADHD, depression), physical illness, and certain personality characteristics (low self-esteem, low impulse control), at the center of many of these experiences is the knowledge that “I knew I needed to do this thing and fully intended to do it, but something inside me got in the way.” This “something” that got in the way can generally be referred to as a procrastination excuse or procrastination rule/assumption. A procrastination excuse is an excuse that we tell ourselves to decrease the guilt involved in delaying a task, such as “I’ll do this better when the time is right” or “I have plenty of time before the due date.” A procrastination rule/assumption is a belief about ourselves, the world, and our abilities that causes discomfort, leading us to procrastinate on a task to avoid that resulting discomfort. These rules/assumptions can involve the fear of failure (“I shouldn’t start this unless I know I can do it perfectly”), preferences for pleasure (“life is better doing things that are fun”), and beliefs about one’s energy and ability (“I can’t do this task while I’m feeling stressed or tired”).

If you are recognizing yourself in some of these descriptions of procrastination, the obvious next question is what to do next. First of all, give yourself some grace and compassion. Procrastination is a universal struggle for a reason – this stuff is really difficult! Second, identify what excuses, rules, and assumptions may be driving your procrastination, and recognize them for what they really are – something our brains are telling us to reduce uncomfortable feelings. Third, use whatever strategy works best for you to complete your task, whether that be having someone hold you accountable, creating a list or schedule, or learning study or time management skills.

To end this post, I will share with you my favorite anti-procrastination strategy, which is called the 5-Minute Technique. Challenge yourself to do whatever task you’ve been procrastinating on for just five minutes. If you hit the five-minute mark and still aren’t feeling motivated, permit yourself to stop. You accomplished what you initially set out to do. However, chances are that those five minutes, which is a small and therefore unthreatening amount of time, were just enough to get you involved in the task and committed to seeing it through to the end. Soon enough, procrastination may be a thing of the past!

Today's the day to make a change.