Rethinking Procrastination

Procrastination isn’t necessarily laziness or a failure to commit. It’s deeply connected to your feelings, says Isabelle Fielding

I’ve experienced procrastination for much of my life. I’ve even procrastinated about writing this article on procrastination. It helps, however, to know that I’m not alone: most of us procrastinate frequently. And it can be really frustrating.

Many people experience a feeling of dread when they have an important task to complete but just can’t seem to get started. Procrastinators know that not completing it could have a negative outcome, but keep putting it off anyway.

Many fall into the trap of thinking they are lazy, but this is seldom the case. Procrastinators could be good at getting busy – just not on things they set out to do. We can be really productive when we’re in a state of procrastination: organising our desk, cleaning our house or working on an unrelated task suddenly feels much more attractive.

But if procrastination isn’t down to laziness, what is it about? Psychologists believe many of us procrastinate not because we’re trying to avoid work, but because we’re trying to avoid the difficult » thoughts and emotions that accompany the task. If we avoid the task, we don’t have to experience the feelings that accompany it. Procrastination can be a form of emotional regulation.

Try that theory for yourself: think of something you’re procrastinating about. What emotions and thoughts come up? Are you worried about getting it wrong (hello, perfectionism), scared of being judged (good old comparison-itis) or doubting you have the skills to attempt it (our familiar friend ‘imposter syndrome’)?

Simply acknowledging our feelings can help. But, all too often, challenging thoughts and emotions keep us stuck. We see our thoughts as a reflection of reality and interpret them as a signal that something bad is about to happen: our brains are very good at generating scenarios that might happen. But engaging with thoughts too much can be counterproductive: it prevents us taking action, and propels us into procrastination.

The good news is there are techniques to help us to move forward when we’re overwhelmed. Psychological flexibility is the ability to open up, be aware of our thoughts and feelings, and take mindful steps towards what’s important.

Rather than trying to outthink our emotions, we accept they are a normal part of the human experience, learn to make room for them, and take committed action for the life we want, and the person we want to be.

Here’s how to practise psychological flexibility and overcome procrastination:

  • Check in with yourself: what thoughts and emotions show up when you think about the task?
  • Be in the moment: take deep breaths, or place your feet firmly on the floor. Be in the moment, rather than letting your thoughts take you into the past or future.
  • Treat yourself with compassion: remind yourself that the way you feel is all part of the human experience. It’s okay to fear judgement, or worry about your abilities. Don’t fight those feelings, but don’t let them consume you either. Acknowledge they are there and sit with them for a moment.
  • Connect to why the task is important for you: why is it worth attempting? What will completing it mean for you? What will it say about the kind of person you are? What will you learn in the process?
  • Take purposeful action, however small: what one small thing can you do that will take you closer to completing the task? Even just sitting at your desk or making a few notes is a small gain. Over time that will turn into larger gains. Being ready to tackle a task isn’t a feeling: it’s an action. Just start!
  • Let go of perfectionism: we often judge work we will produce before we even begin. Be kind to yourself and allow a first attempt to be less than perfect. Then you’ll have something you can build on.
  • Remember that the things that feel uncomfortable are often the ones that mean the most to us. Overcoming challenging thoughts and feelings can create a real sense of accomplishment, growth and satisfaction.
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