Procrastination and perfectionism are often two sides of the same coin. Author and psychologist Suzy Reading tells Elle Blakeman how to get your life moving again
The irony that I’ve been putting off a piece about procrastination does not escape me. Since sitting down to write it, I have filed emails, reorganised the cutlery drawer, made four cups of tea and watched two episodes of The Golden Girls.
In his book The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done, Dr Piers Steel defines procrastination as an irrational act of self-sabotage. ‘When we procrastinate,’ he writes, ‘we know that we’re acting against our best interests.’
We’ve all been guilty of this. Researching his book, Dr Steel found that around ninety-five per cent of people admit to procrastinating at some point or another. But, for some, it can be paralysing. Around one in five of us considers our procrastination to have reached chronic levels, up from just five per cent in the 1970s.
Consequences can be quick to stack up. A late tax payment can lead to a hefty fine. An unfiled work report can cost a promotion. There is even research to suggest that regularly putting off essential tasks affects our health, causing everything from acute headaches and digestive issues to toxic levels of stress. Yet procrastination is not about logic.
‘Procrastination is essentially irrational,’ Dr Fuschia Sirois of the University of Sheffield told the New York Times. ‘It doesn’t make sense to do something you know is going to have negative consequences.
‘People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.’
If procrastination were simply about getting organised, time-saving technology and time managements apps would have solved the issue. Just as hunger is rarely the cause of obesity, an inability to manage time is rarely the cause of procrastination. It’s a way of coping with difficult emotions and the moods associated with certain tasks. A work report might be late because there is an underlying fear that it won’t be good enough. Tax payments might trigger a flush of resentment, stress or frustration. A gym class might make us anxious that we won’t be able to keep up. These emotions can be hard to deal with, so we scroll though Facebook for an hour instead.
The highest achievers often suffer the most. For perfectionists, the fear that something might not turn out exactly right can be enough to put off starting it altogether. Case in point, it took Kate Bush almost a decade to create her lauded album Aerial.
Behaviourally speaking, procrastination works – to a point. Negative emotions are kept at bay while we reorganise our kitchen cupboards or vacuum the loft. But the main task does not go away, and we add to the mix the guilt and shame of putting it off – not to mention less time to complete it. This leads to further stress, anxiety and negative thoughts – known as ‘procrastinatory cognitions’ – that contribute to more delay: a self-perpetuating cycle.
During this era of crisis, many of us find it harder than ever to get on with what we need to do. ‘We’re all familiar with procrastination, but right now it feels particularly weighty,’ says psychologist and author Suzy Reading. ‘Over the past year we have been faced with constant change that has been completely out of our hands – alongside a very real threat to our health, wellbeing and financial security. The sheer volume of competing responsibilities is overwhelming. It is no surprise that our thinking feels sticky; it might genuinely feel impossible to know where to start.’
Presented with a task that threatens our peace of mind, our brain registers it as a threat to our wellbeing – something known as the ‘amygdala hijack’. We know full well that we are in no immediate danger from doing our taxes or answering a tricky email – quite the opposite – yet our brains are hardwired to avoid this ‘threat’ to our safety, even if that add pressure on ourselves.
There is also the issue of ‘faulty thinking’ says Reading: ‘We often overestimate what our future self will be able to produce or how much time or energy we will have.’ Researchers have suggested that a part of our brain views this future self as separate from our current one. So, by kicking the can down the road, we make it someone else’s problem, even if that ‘someone’ is us.
Reading reinforces the idea that procrastination is often nothing to do with being lazy: ‘Many women hold themselves accountable to lofty standards – standards so high that our fear of getting it wrong stops us from trying at all. We may feel paralysed by perfectionism or fear of failing.
‘The feeling that we have to work twice as hard to get half as far runs deep. We feel we have to work like we aren’t mothers and mother like we don’t work.
‘It’s not just our own expectations; we are held to high standards across the board. Our appearance, relationship status, profession, and ability to run a tight ship at home or to throw social-media-perfect dinner parties all feel open for judgement.
‘And so we try to be the perfect wife, mother, daughter: tending to everyone’s needs while sacrificing our own. It’s no wonder we feel stuck.’
According to Reading, when we are ‘energetically low’ – the inevitable result of a year of burnout, fatigue and poor sleep – it is hard to think with clarity, to plan effectively or to be motivated. But rather than an aggressive ‘kick-start’, Reading believes the answer lies in being kind to ourselves:
We need compassion rather than criticism to propel us into effective action. We need time to heal our nervous system.’
For perpetual procrastinators, it’s worth thinking about why we feel stuck, to find the best way to deal with it. A lack of autonomy or a task that draws on our weaknesses rather than our strengths can be especially demotivating. But a goal we set for ourselves, anchored in our values and interests, will galvanise us. For some people, acute time pressure garners better performance. ‘If it works for you – and doesn’t ravage your adrenals – that’s fine,’ says Reading.
Procrastination can also be a sign that you feel overwhelmed. ‘We might have beautiful clarity on what is important to us and how it needs to be tackled,’ says Reading. ‘But we know we can’t possibly do it all, so we feel like a deer in the headlights.’
And that is especially likely right now. ‘With so many things being on hold over the past year,’ she explains, ‘you might feel swamped by incompletions or a desire to resume multiple facets of your life. You might find yourself flitting between things and not making much headway on anything, or wasting time stuck in the quagmire of deciding what to do first.’
The thought of doing something can be more exhausting than actually doing it. As philosopher William James once said, ‘Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.’ To that end, I have stuck a note on my desktop that declares, ‘Done is better than perfect’. It’s a reminder that momentum comes through action, so even a small act can propel you forwards. In the words of Dale Carnegie, ‘If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.’
PROPEL YOURSELF INTO ACTION There are many reasons why we put things off. There are also many strategies to get going. Choose what works for you, says psychologist and author Suzy Reading
COMPASSION IS KEY Gentle inner dialogue helps decision-making far more than harsh judgement. Speak to yourself as you would a friend. Addressing yourself by your name rather than ‘I’ helps you talk more kindly.
MAKE PEACE WITH IMPERFECTION ‘Done with concessions’ is better than ‘Semi-complete and perfect’. Embrace the notion of ‘good enough’. Feel it lessen the pressure and you might be surprised by the end result.
BREAK IT DOWN AND PRIORITISE Beat that overwhelmed feeling by identifying easily achievable milestones. Start knocking them down. If your task involves sitting at a desk, take a movement break every thirty minutes to shake off fatigue. Feel how these small accomplishments boost your sense of agency.Write or repeat the mantra: ‘I can do hard things.’
BRAINSTORM A PATH OF ACTION Saying it out loud can help. And having an accountability buddy can be like rocket fuel.
REWARD YOURSELF Plan a life-affirming reward for getting started and another for seeing it through to completion.
START AT THE POINT OF LEAST RESISTANCE Just do something! Take action where you feel most inspired and feel how this gets the juices flowing.
DON’T WAIT TO FEEL IN THE MOOD… … create the mood! Use nature, movement, scent, touch, breath work or a tall upright posture to
cultivate a feeling of readiness and staying power.
MINIMISE DISTRACTIONS Make your environment conducive to the task at hand. Turn off your phone. Turn off notifications. Put in earphones with uplifting music and go for it.
TOP UP YOUR ENERGY BANK Sometimes, if you’re stuck in mind fog, the most productive path is sleep. Eating well and getting adequate rest improves your clarity.
REMEMBER YOUR STRENGTHS Think of a time you overcame the feeling of procrastination, to deliver something you were proud of. Recall the strengths you used and call upon them again to get moving.
PICTURE THE FINISH LINE Imagine how good you’ll feel when you see a task through to completion! Close your eyes, feel it with all your senses and channel that energy.