Procrastination, the habit of putting tasks off to the last possible minute, can be a major problem in both your career and your personal life. Side effects include missed opportunities, frenzied work hours, stress, overwhelm, resentment, and guilt. This article will explore the root causes of procrastination and give you several practical tools to overcome it.
The behavior pattern of procrastination can be triggered in many different ways, so you won’t always procrastinate for the same reason. Sometimes you’ll procrastinate because you’re overwhelmed with too much on your plate, and procrastination gives you an escape. Other times you’ll feel tired and lazy, and you just can’t get going.
Let’s now address these various causes of procrastination and consider intelligent ways to respond.
When you feel stressed, worried, or anxious, it’s hard to work productively. In certain situations procrastination works as a coping mechanism to keep your stress levels under control. A wise solution is to reduce the amount of stress in your life when possible, such that you can spend more time working because you want to, not because you have to. One of the simplest ways to reduce stress is to take more time for play.
In his book The Now Habit, Dr. Neil Fiore suggests that making time for guaranteed fun can be an effective way to overcome procrastination. Decide in advance what blocks of time you’ll allocate each week to family time, entertainment, exercise, social activities, and personal hobbies. Then schedule your work hours using whatever time is left. This can reduce the urge to procrastinate because your work will not encroach on your leisure time, so you don’t have to procrastinate on work in order to relax and enjoy life. I caution against overusing this strategy, however, as your work should normally be enjoyable enough that you’re motivated to do it. If you aren’t inspired by your daily work, admit that you made a mistake in choosing the wrong career path; then seek out a new direction that does inspire you.
Benjamin Franklin advised that the optimal strategy for high productivity is to split your days into one third work, one third play, and one third rest. Once again the suggestion is to guarantee your leisure time. Hold your work time and your play time as equally important, so one doesn’t encroach upon the other.
I’m most productive when I take abundant time for play. This helps me burn off excess stress and enjoy life more, and my work life is better when I’m happier. I also create a relaxed office environment that reduces stress levels. My office includes healthy plants, a fountain, and several scented candles. I often listen to relaxing music while I work. Despite all the tech equipment, my office has a very relaxed feel to it. Because I enjoy being there, I can work a full day without feeling overly stressed or anxious, even when I have a lot to do. For additional tips to make your work environment more peaceful and relaxing, read the article 10 Ways to Relaxify Your Workspace.
Sometimes you may have more items on your to-do list than you can reasonably complete. This can quickly lead to overwhelm, and ironically you may be more likely to procrastinate when you can least afford it. Think of it as your brain refusing to cooperate with a schedule that you know is unreasonable. In this case the message is that you need to stop, reassess your true priorities, and simplify.
Options for reducing schedule overwhelm include elimination, delegation, and negotiation. First, review your to-dos and cut as much as you can. Cut everything that isn’t truly important. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s amazing how poorly people actually implement it. People cut things like exercise while leaving plenty of time for TV, even though exercise invigorates them and TV drains them. When you cut items, be honest about removing the most worthless ones first, and retain those that provide real value. Secondly, delegate tasks to others as much as possible. Ask for extra help if necessary. And thirdly, negotiate with others to free up more time for what’s really important. If you happen to have a job that overloads you with more work than you feel is reasonable, it’s up to you to decide if it’s worthwhile to continue in that situation. Personally I wouldn’t tolerate a job that pushed me to overwork myself to the point of feeling overwhelmed; that’s counterproductive for both the employer and the employee.
Be aware that the peak performers in any field tend to take more vacation time and work shorter hours than the workaholics. Peak performers get more done in less time by keeping themselves fresh, relaxed, and creative. By treating your working time as a scarce resource rather than an uncontrollable monster that can gobble up every other area of your life, you’ll be more balanced, focused, and effective.
It’s been shown that the optimal work week for most people is 40-45 hours. Working longer hours than this actually has such an adverse effect on productivity and motivation that less real work gets done. This is especially true for creative, information age work.
Don’t just take my word for it though; test this concept for yourself. Many years ago I ran a simple experiment to determine how efficiently I was working. I measured my efficiency ratio as the number of hours I spent doing important work divided by the number of hours I spent in my office each week. The first time I did this I was shocked to find that I only got 15 hours of real work done while spending 60 hours in my office, an efficiency ratio of 25%. Can you believe that? Over the following weeks, I increased my productivity dramatically while spending far fewer hours in my office. By limiting my work hours, I actually got more done. You can read the details in the article Triple Your Personal Productivity. I now know that working long hours is huge mistake, and I challenge you to discover this truth for yourself.
Often we procrastinate because we feel too physically and/or emotionally drained to work. Once we fall into this pattern, it’s easy to get stuck due to inertia because an object at rest tends to remain at rest. When you feel lazy, even simple tasks seem like too much work because your energy is too low compared to the energy required by the task. If you blame the task for being too difficult or tedious, you’ll procrastinate to conserve energy. But the longer you do this, the more your resolve will weaken, and your procrastination habit may begin spiraling toward depression. Feeling weak and unmotivated shouldn’t be your norm, so it’s important to disrupt this pattern as soon as you become aware of it.
The solution is straightforward: get off your butt and physically move your body. Exercise helps to raise your energy levels. When your energy is high, tasks will seem to get easier, and you’ll be less resistant to taking action. A fit person can handle more activity than an unfit person, even though the difficulty of the tasks remains the same.
Through trial and error, I discovered that diet and exercise are critical in keeping my energy consistently high. I went vegetarian in 1993 and vegan in 1997, and these dietary improvements gave me a significant ongoing energy boost. When I exercise regularly, my metabolism stays high throughout the day. I rarely procrastinate due to laziness because I have the energy and mental clarity to tackle whatever comes my way. Tasks seem easier to complete than they did when my diet and exercise habits were poor. The tasks are the same, but I’ve grown stronger. A wonderful side benefit of the diet/exercise habit is that I was able to get by with less sleep. I used to need at least 8-9 hours of sleep per night to feel rested, but now I function well on about 6.5 hours.
The most energizing foods are raw fruits and vegetables. Make your diet abundant in these foods, and you’ll likely see a marked improvement in your energy levels. The first week or two, however, you may temporarily feel worse as your body takes the opportunity to detox. Erin and I each lost seven pounds the first week we went vegan. Once the dairy clog finally got cleaned out, our intestines were better able to metabolize everything we ate from then on. We later learned that this is actually quite common. There’s a good reason baby cows need four stomachs to digest their mother’s milk. Human beings can’t metabolize dairy products properly, so the partially digested cow proteins float through the bloodstream and must be eliminated as toxins (i.e. poisons). This requires even more energy, which can leave you feeling more tired than you otherwise would.
You’ll have to decide for yourself how far you want to take this. I suggest you try different dietary changes for only 30 days at first to see how it affects you. That’s how I went vegetarian and later vegan. In each case I went into the challenge fully expecting to revert back at the end of the 30 days, but I liked the results so much that I couldn’t fathom going back. Don’t take my word for this. Experiment for yourself, and discover what health habits work best for you. For more tips see the article How to Find the Best Diet for You.
4. Lack of Motivation
We all experience temporary laziness at times, but if you suffer from chronically low motivation and just can’t seem to get anything going, then it’s time for you to let go of immature thought patterns, to embrace life as a mature adult, and to discover your true purpose in life. Until you identify an inspiring purpose, you’ll never come close to achieving your potential, and your motivation will always remain weak.
For more than a decade I ran a computer game publishing company. That was a dream of mine in my early 20s, and it was wonderful to be able to fulfill that dream. However, as I entered my 30s, I began feeling much less passionate about it. I was competent at what I did, the business was doing well financially, and I enjoyed plenty of free time. But I just didn’t care that much about entertainment software anymore. As my passion faded, I started asking, “What’s the point of continuing with this line of work?” Consequently, I procrastinated on some projects that could have moved the business forward. I tried to boost my motivation using a variety of techniques but to no avail. Finally I recognized what I really needed was a total career change. I needed to find a more inspiring career path.
After much soul searching, I retired from the gaming industry and launched StevePavlina.com. What an amazing change that was! I found renewed passion in helping people grow, so I didn’t have to use motivation-boosting techniques to get going. I was naturally inspired to work. I still feel totally inspired. Best of all I procrastinated less on non-work tasks too — my passion spread across all areas of my life.
Center your work around an inspiring purpose, and you’ll greatly reduce your tendency to procrastinate. If you haven’t already done so, listen to Podcast #15 – What Is Your Purpose?. Finding your purpose is a powerful way to defeat procrastination problems because you won’t procrastinate on what you love to do. Chronic procrastination is actually a big warning sign that tells us, “You’re going the wrong way. Take a different path!”
Once you’ve centered your life around an inspiring purpose, then you can take advantage of certain motivational techniques to boost your motivation even higher. For some specific motivational tips, read Cultivating Burning Desire.
5. Lack of Discipline
Even when motivation is high, you may still encounter tasks you don’t want to do. In these situations self-discipline works like a motivational backup system. When you feel motivated, you don’t need much discipline, but it sure comes in handy when you need to get something done but really don’t want to do the work. If your self-discipline is weak, however, procrastinating will be too tempting to resist.
I’ve written a six-part series on how to develop your self-discipline, so I’ll simply refer you there: Self-Discipline Series. If you really want to overcome procrastination, you must release any attachment to the fantasy of a quick fix, and commit to making real progress. Hopefully you have the maturity to recognize that reading a single article won’t cure your procrastination problems overnight, just as a single visit to the gym won’t make you an athlete.
6. Poor Time Management Habits
Do you ever find yourself falling behind because you overslept, because you were too disorganized, or because certain tasks just fell through the cracks? Bad habits like these often lead to procrastination, often unintentionally.
The solution in this case is to diagnose the bad habit that’s hurting you and devise a new habit to replace it. For example, if you have a problem oversleeping, take up the challenge of becoming an early riser. To de-condition the old habit and install the new one, I recommend the 30-day trial method. Many readers have found this method extremely effective because it makes permanent change much easier.
For tasks you’ve been putting off for a while, I recommend using the timeboxing method to get started. Here’s how it works: First, select a small piece of the task you can work on for just 30 minutes. Then choose a reward you will give yourself immediately afterwards. The reward is guaranteed if you simply put in the time; it doesn’t depend on any meaningful accomplishment. Examples include watching your favorite TV show, seeing a movie, enjoying a meal or snack, going out with friends, going for a walk, or doing anything you find pleasurable. Because the amount of time you’ll be working on the task is so short, your focus will shift to the impending pleasure of the reward instead of the difficulty of the task. No matter how unpleasant the task, there’s virtually nothing you can’t endure for just 30 minutes if you have a big enough reward waiting for you.
When you timebox your tasks, you may discover that something very interesting happens. You will probably find that you continue working much longer than 30 minutes. You will often get so involved in a task, even a difficult one, that you actually want to keep working on it. Before you know it, you’ve put in an hour or even several hours. The certainty of your reward is still there, so you know you can enjoy it whenever you’re ready to stop. Once you begin taking action, your focus shifts away from worrying about the difficulty of the task and toward finishing the current piece of the task which now has your full attention.
When you do decide to stop working, claim and enjoy your reward. Then schedule another 30-minute period to work on the task with another reward. This will help you associate more and more pleasure to the task, knowing that you will always be immediately rewarded for your efforts. Working toward distant and uncertain long-term rewards is not nearly as motivating as immediate short-term rewards. By rewarding yourself for simply putting in the time, instead of for any specific achievements, you’ll be eager to return to work on your task again and again, and you’ll ultimately finish it. You may also want to read my article on Timeboxing.
If you find that clutter and disorganization are hurting you, I suggest you read the article Getting Organized. For a compelling overview of effective time management principles, read Time Management. And for a giant list of specific time management tips you can apply right away, read Do It Now.
7. Lack of Skill
If you lack sufficient skill to complete a task at a reasonable level of quality, you may procrastinate to avoid a failure experience. You then have three viable options to overcome this type of pattern: educate, delegate, or eliminate.
First, you can acquire the skill level you need by training up. Just because you can’t do something today doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. Someday you may even master that skill. For example, when I wanted to create my first website in 1995, I didn’t know how to do it because I’d never done it before. But I knew I could learn to do it. I took the time to learn HTML, and I experimented. It didn’t take long before I launched a functional web site. In the years since then, I continued to apply and upgrade that skill. If you can’t do something, don’t whine about it. Educate yourself to gain skill until you become proficient.
A second option is to delegate tasks you lack the skill to do. There are far too many interesting skills for you to master, so you must rely on others for help. You may not realize it, but you’re already a master at delegation. Do you grow all your own food? Did you sew your own clothes? Did you build your own house? Chances are that you depend on others for your very survival. If you want a certain result but don’t want to acquire the skills to get that result, you can recruit others to help you. For example, I don’t want to spend my days trying to understand the details of the U.S. tax code, so I delegate that task to my accountant. This frees me to spend more time working from my strengths.
Thirdly, you may conclude that a result isn’t needed badly enough to justify the effort of either education or delegation. In that case the smart choice is to eliminate the task. Sometimes procrastination is a sign that a task needn’t be done at all.
When I was in college, I felt that certain assignments were pointless busywork, and I couldn’t justify the effort required to do them. If the impact on my grade wasn’t too great, I’d decline to do those assignments. Nobody cares that I received an A- instead of an A in a class because I declined to write an essay on gestural languages. If an employer or graduate school screener ever did care, I’d have turned the experience to my advantage by using it to demonstrate that I could set priorities.
A common form of erroneous thinking that leads to procrastination is perfectionism. Believing that you must do something perfectly is a recipe for stress, and you’ll associate that stress with the task and thus condition yourself to avoid it. So you put the task off to the last possible minute until you finally have a way out of this trap. Now there isn’t enough time to do the job perfectly, so you’re off the hook because you can tell yourself that you could have been perfect if you only had more time. But if you have no specific deadline for a task, perfectionism can cause you to delay indefinitely.
The solution to perfectionism is to give yourself permission to be human. Have you ever used a piece of software that you consider to be perfect in every way? I doubt it. Realize that an imperfect job completed today is always superior to the perfect job delayed indefinitely.
Perfectionism also arises when you think of a project as one gigantic whole. Replace that one big “must be perfect” project in your mind with one small imperfect first step. Your first draft can be very, very rough. You’re always free to revise it later. For example, if you want to write a 5000-word article, allow your first draft be only 100 words if it helps you get started.
Some of these cures are challenging to implement, but they’re effective. If you really want to tame the procrastination beast, you’ll need something stronger than quick-fix motivational rah-rah. This problem isn’t going away on its own. You must take the initiative. The upside is that tackling this problem yields tremendous personal growth. You’ll become stronger, braver, more disciplined, more driven, and more focused. These benefits will become hugely significant over your lifetime, so recognize that the challenge of overcoming procrastination is truly a blessing in disguise. The whole point is to grow stronger.