How familiar is this scenario? You have a stressful work assignment that needs to be completed by EOD, but before you engage, you check your email for the fifth time in 15 minutes, scroll through Instagram, and maybe even listen to your favorite podcast.
Welcome to the not-so-wonderful world of procrastination. We’ve all been there, and it’s nothing new. Humans have been procrastinating for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato had a different word for it — Akrasia— but it still meant the same thing.
Procrastinating is delaying or postponing a task you know needs to be done. The end result is often regret, depression, and self-loathing. So why do we do this to ourselves? And what can we do to reverse the bothersome trend?
Why we procrastinate
First, to understand the real reasons we procrastinate, let’s debunk the #1 myth about why we do it in the first place: Because we’re disorganized.
Not true. “Procrastination is not a time management issue. It’s an emotional management issue,” says Petr Ludwig, author of The End of Procrastination: How to Stop Postponing and Lead a Fulfilled Life. In other words, we procrastinate because of how we feel about the task, not because we’re bad at making to-do lists.
In an exclusive interview on the Write About Now Podcast, Ludwig shared his science-backed insights on why we procrastinate and the helpful tools we use to combat it.
He argues that the real reasons we put things off are a lack of intrinsic motivation, willpower, and fear of failure.
Lack of motivation
Many of us feel a lack of purpose at work. In a post-pandemic world amidst a global economic crisis and political turmoil, feeling inspired about the world can be challenging — much less your job.
“We are not motivated at work because we don’t believe in what we are doing,” explains Ludwig. “If you are working on a project and you lack purpose, it’s truly difficult to stay motivated.”
The result is escaping from the stress and effort of a particular task by doing something you know you shouldn’t do. As the great American writer Mark Twain once joked, “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.”
Fear of failure
Another reason we procrastinate is because we’re anxious, often irrationally, that the result of our work might not be well received. “We are often so scared of failure that we are unable to start,” says Ludwig.
Lack of willpower
When faced with big demands or stressful situations, our willpower often diminishes, making it more challenging to resist the lure of social media, video games, and other procrastination tools.
How to stop procrastination
Rekindle your purpose
As we noted earlier, procrastination points to a larger problem that you lack overall purpose in your life, so it may be time to get it back. Ludwig encourages you to think about the activities that you truly enjoy doing in your life and the tasks that make you feel the most fulfilled.
“At work, ask yourself what your strengths are and how you can deploy those strengths on a daily basis,” he advises. “Those are small steps that can improve your daily life because the more intrinsic motivation you have, the more often you are in what is called a state of flow. You enjoy the process. Time stops for you.”
This state of flow, he says, is the exact opposite of procrastination because when you’re doing something meaningful, you’re more likely to have positive emotions.
Enjoy the path, not the destination
Ludwig encourages people to focus more on the journey than the end goal.
“The process is the best solution for fighting procrastination because when you enjoy the process, you love what you are doing and won’t postpone it.
Break big tasks into smaller tasks
Sometimes just the overwhelming nature of a task you dread doing can be paralyzing.
Overcoming this paralysis often involves breaking down the task into smaller, more manageable steps, making it feel less overwhelming and more attainable.
This is what Ludwig describes as emotional management. “Your very intense negative emotion towards the task goes down, and your willpower kicks in,” says Ludwig. “Stronger willpower also leads to greater satisfaction because when we manage to prioritize better, the centers of rewards in our brains are activated, dopamine is released, and we experience positive emotions.”
Cut yourself some slack
Next time you catch yourself procrastinating, practice a little compassion instead of beating yourself up about it. “Self-forgiveness” is a helpful strategy in fighting procrastination, says Ludwig.
He points to a study done at Carlton University in 2009, in which 119 first-year students were asked to complete measures of procrastination and self-forgiveness immediately before two midterm exams. Results revealed that the students who forgave themselves for procrastinating in prepping for the first exam were less likely to procrastinate in studying for the second exam.
“Sometimes it’s just about forgiving ourselves and starting again,” Ludwig says.