It’s often easy to write off procrastination as laziness or complacency, but what’s really going on under the surface?
To do the things you should do can be the hardest thing in the world – or the easiest. Isn’t it funny how sometimes we can just get on and do the things that matter, and other times we procrastinate or self-sabotage?
Writing that novel, doing charitable work, finishing a project, decorating the living room. There are so many worthwhile activities, yet, we find ourselves doom-scrolling, browsing Instagram, window-shopping, reading celebrity gossip, or just chatting to friends. There are so many things we should be doing, so why don’t we?
‘Should’ – according to whom?
Sometimes, the reason we don’t do something is that we don’t really own it in the first place. If there is a ‘should’ or an ‘ought to’ running through your mind, you may be allowing outside pressures to control your outcomes. If you are doing it because your sister says so, or the government, or your religion, or the book you are reading, you can unconsciously resist doing it.
A good start is to try changing the thought to ‘I want to…’ Try, ‘I want to go to the gym’, or ‘I want to finish my craft project’. How does that feel to you? Does it feel genuine and sincere? If it does, you may find it easier to move forward just by changing that one word, ‘should’. If it doesn’t really connect with you, then you may need to dig a little deeper into your motivations – or just let it go.
Find the value behind it
Start with the task at hand and ask yourself, ‘What is important about this?’ When a thing needs doing, it can be easy to accept that you must do it, without a clear idea of the reason you are choosing to do so. Much of what we do is driven by our values. A value is a high-level principle in life that drives us.
Values are the important, big picture things – freedom, family, trust, efficiency, and integrity.
When you are leading a life that is compatible with your values, you tend to feel fulfilled. When your life conflicts with your values, you may feel uncomfortable, lacking in confidence, and worthless. There are values behind most of your unthinking actions and you tend to be unaware of them.
So, with any project or activity that you want to complete, find the value that is behind that project. What is it that is ultimately important about completing this activity? Going to the gym might fulfil the value of health, friendship, or being consistent. Writing a novel might fulfil the value of success, self-expression, creativity, or communication.
Sometimes values are negative too, so you may be motivated by the value of avoiding something such as criticism, loneliness, or ill-health.
Connect with the value
Once you know the value that drives you, really connect with that value as you visualise the completion of your task or project. See yourself in your mind’s eye and imagine how you will look when you satisfy that value of recognition, or fulfilment, adventure, or self-mastery.
When you visualise the completion of the goal and the fulfilment of the value, make sure that the image you get in your mind uses all the senses. What will you see, hear, and feel? Are there even things you can taste or smell? What will you be saying to yourself when you have finished, and what will others say to you? Have a rich picture in your mind and make sure you can see yourself in that picture.
Deal with distractions
Sometimes we find that, although we want to do the right thing or that important project, we end up passing the time less productively or focusing on something irrelevant. Social media is the classic modern example, but it can also be more subtle things, like reading an ‘important’ report first, doing ‘research’, or going for a walk to clear your head.
If you are aware of such distractions and timewasters, ask yourself what value this distraction fulfils for you. What is important about this? What value does it fulfil for me?
Social media? Important? What possible value does that give me? Well, maybe it’s connection, communication, attention, or self-expression, or maybe it is to avoid self-doubt, failure, or discomfort.
Don’t underestimate the values that distractions fulfil. The fact that you choose them over more important stuff could mean that the values they fulfil are even more important to you.
Find the higher value
Now that you have an idea of what doing that project will achieve for you, compare that value to the one you fulfil through the distraction. Which is most important to you?
Sometimes it can help to ask yourself: ‘If I could fulfil X value, but not Y value, would that be OK?’ If the answer is yes, then the X value is higher, if not then it’s Y.
If you discover that the value of the task is less important than the value of the distraction, try one of these tactics:
1. Find ways of fulfilling the value that the distraction provides, through the project or task you want to do
Let’s say the value is a connection with others. Can you get others involved in your project or task? Can you do it in a cafe or a bar where there are other people? Can you put on a talk radio station or a podcast to listen to? Can you blog about it, or email friends with updates? Can you post the finished project on social media?
2. Set a time limit that will allow you to fulfil the value before you move on to the next task
This is a simple one. Browse Facebook for 10 minutes, skim-read seven pages of the report, walk to the shops or somewhere specific, and not too far. Set an alarm or create an interruption that will prevent you from overrunning.
3. Make fulfilling the value a reward for achieving the outcome
Delay the gratification you feel in the distraction – promise yourself 20 minutes of uninterrupted internet surfing when you have completed a defined part of the task. Go for a nice walk after you finish the project.
Above all, when you find yourself procrastinating or avoiding something, don’t beat yourself up or spiral into self-blame. Everybody does things for a reason and, sadly, it can sometimes be quite hard sometimes to work out what that reason is. Criticising yourself will only make it harder to keep on track. The key to understanding ourselves is always to be curious, rather than critical, and to explore, rather than judge.