The 5 biggest reasons we procrastinate — and how to overcome them

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It’s a familiar scenario. You’ve got a big assignment or work deadline coming up, and you tell yourself this time it’s going to be different. This time, you’re going to get started ASAP and give yourself plenty of buffer room. Yet, you put it off and put it off, constantly telling yourself ‘I’ll do it later.’ But when later comes, the thought of lying on the sofa binge-watching your 10th back-to-back episode of Killing Eve feels far more appealing than actually getting started. So, once again, you leave it to the last minute and find yourself scrambling madly to get it done. Or worse yet, you miss the deadline or end up never doing it at all.

Yep, we’ve all been there! When these kinds of situations arise, it’s easy to sigh and say ‘God, I wish I just had more motivation.’ Buuuuuut, here’s the thing. Procrastination generally isn’t caused by a lack of motivation — nor is it necessarily a lack of discipline or willpower. A lot of the time, there are underlying mindset issues causing this kind of self-sabotaging behavior. The good news is, by simply shifting your mindset and habits, you can kick procrastination to the curb and start taking action!

The 5 biggest reasons we procrastinate — and how to overcome them:

1. Perfectionism

Often, we put off completing tasks because we don’t have all of our ducks in a row yet (or, so we think.) Maybe you want to relaunch your Instagram account, but don’t want to do it until you’ve got a perfectly curated feed filled with 20 images. Or, if you’re writing a book, you might want every line to be perfect — but when it doesn’t instantly flow naturally, you end up writing nothing at all. But that’s just perfectionist thinking holding you back! Needing everything to be perfect before you start working on it is like only going to a gym when you’re already fit — it makes literally zero sense.

What to do about it: Give yourself permission for whatever you’re working on to suck at first. Often, the antidote to perfect-ination (yes, I just made that term up, but I’m going with it) is imperfect action. Whether it’s a business proposal, an illustration or your first podcast episode, let yourself blurt it all out into the universe without policing yourself on whether it’s ‘good.’ You can always go back and finetune it (and chances are, you probably should!) But just by doing something, you’re already one step ahead.

In a recent episode of Kara Lowenthil’s podcast Unf*ck Your Brain podcast (which I’m constantly raving about to anyone who will listen) she talks about ‘the infinite 1%.’ Essentially, this is the idea that the people who put in even just 1% of effort towards their goals are closer on the spectrum to those who put in 70% or even 100% than they are to those who do nothing. Why? Because getting started is usually the hardest part! Action (even when it’s not ‘perfect’) breeds momentum. So — Just. Get. Freaking. Started!

2. Fear

Unless your daily tasks involve going to a haunted house or watching that creepy Annabelle movie (that’s a nope and nope from me), they’re probably not scary in the spooooooky sense of the word. However, you may still be harbouring fears around them without even knowing it. One common fear that leads to procrastination is the fear of being uncomfortable. It’s kind of like how you might dread doing a challenging workout or getting up on stage to do public speaking. Once you get started, you think ‘well, this isn’t actually so bad!’ and you feel an immense relief once it’s done. Usually, it’s the anticipation that’s the worst part. Another fear is of failure, or of receiving negative feedback on the work you’ve done — which kind of links in with the perfectionist thinking from point one.

What to do about it: Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ Okay, so you might not enjoy cleaning that apartment that’s beginning to resemble an episode of Hoarders. It might not be fun. You may not like it. But so what? I’m willing to bet that you’ve done a lot more unpleasant things in your life (and if you haven’t, then you’ve lived one #blessed life, your majesty) Plus, you’ll enjoy the end result that comes from doing it. Or, if the fear of ‘failure’ or receiving negative feedback is what’s keeping you stuck, ask yourself what the worst-case scenario is. Sure, maybe there’s chance that you do put your work out there and get some criticism on it. But that’s not going to kill you either — in fact, you’ll probably learn from it and become even better at what you do. You wanna know the only way to guarantee that you definitely will fail at that task? By not attempting it at all.

3. Lack of accountability

Look, I’d love to go all inspiring on you and tell you that the commitment you make to yourself is the most important one of all. But the truth is, sometimes it’s just not enough! Sure, when it’s a goal that has a really strong ‘why’ behind it, it’s a lot easier to stay on track and follow through. But I know for myself, if I half-assedly tell myself I’m going to finish off some course I bought online or do a money-saving challenge, I won’t actually stick to it unless I tell someone. Instead, I’ll spend hours binge-watching ‘Apartment Therapy’ videos on YouTube, or will buy takeaway Thai because I can ‘always start my challenge later.’ Just like submitting a food diary to a dietitian, having an element of accountability helps make sure you actually complete those important-yet-boring-or-difficult-tasks — because you know you’re going to have to report back.

What to do about it: Enlist the help of someone to help keep you accountable! This could be your partner, friend, colleague or even a coach of some kind if you have a budget (whether it’s a personal trainer, financial advisor or a business coach) Let them know what you’re going to be working that day, week or month, set deadlines and ask them to check in with once that time has passed. You can also make it a two-way street, so you’re keeping them accountable towards their goals, too.  Personally, I have a couple of free and affordable apps I use to help enforce some accountability in my life — you can check it out in my Procrasti-not toolkit (more on that later!)

4. Overwhelm

It’s a cruel irony that it seems to be the times that we have loads to do that we procrastinate the most. Often, this happens because we become so overwhelmed about having 10 bazillion things to do that we don’t know where to start. So, we end up doing…well, nothing at all. Most of the time, overwhelm happens because we have an overflowing to-do list, but no plan or structure around how we’re going to actually tackle those tasks. Or, we have one mega task that feels so huge and unattainable that we kind of just want to pretend it doesn’t exist (End of semester thesis? Nah, sorry — don’t know her.)

What to do about it: Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize! Go through your to-do list and figure out what actually needs to be done immediately. What one thing could you get done today that would make you feel accomplished — even if you didn’t do anything else? Once you’ve established that, you can go through and number the rest of your ‘would be nice to get done but not super urgent’ tasks in order of importance. I really like Best Self’s Weekly Action Plan for this, as it allows you to braindump all your tasks and then use the side panel to prioritize. You’ll find by having just one main top priority (rather than everything being a priority) you’ll be far more likely to knuckle down and get it done. And hey, often once you’ve ticked off one thing, that creates the momentum you need to keep powering through the others.

5. Distraction

Procrastination doesn’t only happen before we start doing a task. It can also happen during! You know when you’re working on a task that is about as fun as going to the dentist, and you’ll take almost anything as a welcome distraction — like, oh hey, my desk looks kinda messy, I better take a half-hour break to tidy it up! Of course, the fact that most of us are constantly bombarded with external distractions — like the ping of your inbox or the little red number of a new Facebook notification — doesn’t exactly help us, either.

What to do about it: Do just one thing at a time, for set periods of time. I absolutely swear by monotasking — which as the name suggests, is the exact opposite to multitasking. One popular technique that goes alongside it is the Pomodoro technique, where you set a timer for 25 minutes and work interrupted on just one task during that time. Then, you have timed 5-minute breaks where you can check your notifications, browse the interwebz or chortle at memes to your heart’s content. The delayed gratification works wonders for keeping distraction— and thus, procrastination — at bay.

This article first appeared on A Girl in Progress.