We all procrastinate. Whether it’s hitting the snooze button again, not wanting to go to the dentist, or putting off an unpleasant task awaiting you (you know, that one …), we all have things we love to do and things we hate to do. We do them — eventually; the question is, what will it take to get us to do them? That sage of the early 20th century, Robert Benchley, may have put it best (as he usually did) in 1930 when he wrote, “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
When assigned an article on procrastination, I (of course) put it off for various reasons (some of them were even legitimate): not enough time, laziness, or just a chance to tell people we were supposed to be writing an article about procrastinating but kept putting it off.
Faced with the choice of actually working and the ignominy of not turning in an assignment, once I started, I found that the topic of procrastination is quite interesting and gives us an insight into human psychology.
While there are probably as many reasons for putting things off as there are people who procrastinate, they all seem to share common roots. Five of them stood out:
- Difficulty getting started
- Lack of motivation
Let’s take a little closer look at each of them and see if we can find any workarounds.
This is a large category, with many sub-categories: Fear of Failure, Fear of Success, Fear of Incompetence, and Fear of the Outcome.
The first of these — fear of failure — may be the most common. We’ve probably all been faced with something that seems beyond our capabilities: preparing an event, writing a research paper, passing a test — so much so that the task itself takes on greater importance and increases the need for alibis: “I don’t know enough about that!”,“Why did I agree to do this?!”,“I’m going to screw this up!”
The upshot is that when we don’t have enough confidence in our abilities, we build up scenarios about what could happen if we were to inevitably fail — getting fired, getting kicked out of school, losing status.
Hand in hand with that fear (ironically) is the fear of success. If we complete a task successfully, we may be expected to reach that same level of success — and even greater ones in the future—setting ourselves up for a Peter Principle downfall, the idea that being so good at something that we’re promoted to the point of our own incompetence, which is our third fear.
We’ve all had that feeling of being in a position for which we don’t feel qualified. (Personally, when I appeared on Jeopardy, even though I knew I was prepared to play the game, I had decades of expectations packed into 22 minutes of playing the TV show game on camera. I had to put up or shut up. Fortunately, I won, but that didn’t ease the feelings of insecurity, wondering if I was actually up to par.)
The last type of fear is the fear of the outcome; the fear that the results won’t live up to our expectations. We worry about how correct our analysis is and whether the recommended follow-up is the right one. Will that mole need treatment? Will signing up at that gym yield the results we want?
While some of these fears seem foolish, it can be hard to see past them and get perspective. The best way to handle them may be to externalize them. Talk with colleagues, friends, and loved ones. Ask for help. Put something down in writing and get feedback. Getting confirmation that we’re on the right track or seeing where we may have erred — while the process is ongoing — is invaluable. Even if the final product is flawed, it can ultimately be corrected. Even the Supreme Court corrects its mistakes.
The most important thing is this: if you’ve been given a task, it’s generally because you’re the most qualified person to do it. You’ve demonstrated enough knowledge, skill, or expertise on a subject to make you the go-to expert on it. If it’s a personal goal (a diet, a new field of study, a new job, or moving to a new city), embrace the fact that change isn’t easy, but you’ll end up growing as a result of it. You’ve decided to pursue it because you have an interest in making a change and are intentionally altering the course of your life.
The most important thing to remember is, if you’ve been given a task, it’s generally because you’re the most qualified person to do it.
Anyone who’s ever created anything, whether it’s building a bookshelf or baking a pie, has in their heads a Platonic ideal (an absolutely flawless version) of it. That image often bears little resemblance to the final product, though. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes it’s worse, but it rarely ends up becoming what we envisioned.
That disconnect can stop us from starting a task. It’s a fear that the final product, no matter how much effort we put into it, won’t end up as perfect as we want. We might believe that we don’t have the skills or tenacity to pull it off. Instead, we can just keep planning or thinking or researching or putting it off.
Procrastination can be comforting — while the idea is in your head, it will remain perfect and immune from criticism. Everyone wants to do something great, and no one wants to show off something miserable. If you never actually have a final product, how can people criticize it?
In cases like this, we owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that while we may fall short, we shouldn’t give into the temptation of thinking that we don’t have to give it our best. How many times have we either seen something that was obviously slap-dash and thought “Well, they didn’t put much work into that”? How much better to put just a little more effort into something and get a result that far exceeds what we envisioned?
It’s important to realize — and acknowledge — that we can only do our best and give it our best effort. Nothing in this world — not the Eiffel Tower, not the Mona Lisa, not the Taj Mahal — is perfect, and if we give ourselves some leeway, we can accept that our creations have merit and are of interest.
“Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” – Robert Benchley
Difficulty Getting Started
How easy is it to make excuses? “I haven’t done enough research,” “I just need to do one more thing before I start”, or “I’ve got plenty of time.”
Those excuses — especially the last one — are fatal. There may be external factors preventing us from starting projects — having to wait for a response, inability to get information, lack of physical proximity, or an official starting date. More often than not, those restrictions are self-imposed rationalizations. You’re only fooling yourself. The deadline, goal, or final product is still looming over you no matter how long you try to deny it.
Even if you’re waiting for something that is truly out of your control, are there parts of the project you can still pursue? Sections you can write? Research that isn’t dependent on external factors? There’s always some part of a project that you can get out of the way. It’s possible that working on something other than what you need to be working on may point you toward something new you hadn’t considered before. If nothing else, getting started means you might finish early and could avoid having the whole thing hanging over your head in the first place.
Lack of Motivation
This one is sort of a combination of the others. Unless it’s a topic or project that you’re extremely interested in, there’s probably going to be a cooling-off point before you’ve completed it. (If it’s something that really interests you, you’re much likelier to pursue it rather than procrastinate.)
Whether that pause comes from the fears listed above or you’re just plain putting it off out of lack of interest, or outside factors, you need to overcome them.
A study by Carnegie Mellon University’s Eberly Center showed that students lacked motivation when they had trouble understanding the personal relevance of their classes or the work they were doing in them. To find motivation, figure out why you’re doing a task and what meaning it has to you, and to your life. Things as simple as paying the bills or preparing dinner can be onerous, but when you realize that it’s less desirable to get calls from collection agencies or starve, the motivation will appear — as if by magic.
On a practical level, writing a report or tackling that job no one else wants will make you the go-to person on that topic and more valuable on the job. Cleaning up your apartment will make it a more pleasant place to live. Preparing an assignment for a class may let you learn something new.
The trick is to find your personal way into the subject or task. If you have to find something out to let someone else know about it, that information will be much more interesting because it has your unique spin on it. If your task is personal, realize how it’s going to improve your life. If nothing else, getting started on it — and finishing it — gets it done, out of the way, and either out of your life or a much richer part of it. And that in itself should be motivation enough.
Distraction is both the most common symptom — and the easiest — to get around.
It’s hard to get away from distractions. It’s easy when reading or writing something to have a television or music on in the background, your phone next to you, and the internet calling. There might be loud conversations near you, noise outside, or coffee shop employees calling out orders — anything that keeps you from concentrating fully on the task at hand.
Obviously, if we’re doing something we’re not totally invested in, we’ll be looking for something — anything — to keep up our interest while working, but those distractions aren’t good for you or your task. Content, for example, could be compromised by spelling errors, lack of fact checking, or shallow research. A physical job, like painting a room or fixing a car, might be missing details or important steps. Despite all of our protesting, studies have shown over and over again that people cannot multi-task.
The best — though potentially most painful — advice is to focus solely on the thing you need to do or should be doing. Shut off your phone (whether physically or by using one of the many apps that will limit your time to use it), go to a quiet space — or at least one with minimal distractions. The price may seem high at first, but the payoff of a really successful result will be more than worth it.