Do you put things off until you absolutely have to do them?
Rather than getting ahead on that business plan, do you instead fall victim to the Youtube rabbit hole?
Rather than studying for your exam, do you choose instant gratification and decide to play video games?
If so, don’t worry. That’s actually not a big deal. We all get lazy from time to time. However, if you find yourself doing this repeatedly whenever it’s clearly time to work, that’s a massive problem that has significant ramifications for the outcomes you get in life.
If putting off work is a habitual behavior, you’re officially a procrastinator. But calm down, breathe. First off, you’re not alone. Hundreds of millions of people around the globe struggle with procrastination.
Second, you’re reading this article. And this article is about to dive into everything you need to know about procrastination — what it is, the causes, and most importantly, how to overcome it.
My hope is that after you read this article, you’re equipped with a simple framework for overcoming procrastination and increasing your efficiency
Let’s dive in!
What is Procrastination? (And What It Isn’t)
Before we talk about the various causes of procrastination, let’s actually define what procrastination is.
Most people are under the impression that procrastination is a time-management problem, or a self-control problem.
We think that we procrastinate because we’re lazy and don’t have enough willpower. And while it’s easy to chalk up our lack of focus and perseverance to laziness, that’s not the underlying problem most people have.
Procrastination is a problem that’s rooted in emotion. It’s a stress-response.
Think about it: We all know that sitting down and tackling our to-do list will make us feel happier, less stressed, and more fulfilled.
But even though we know this logically, we still act irrationally and take the path of least resistance.
That’s why telling people to “just suck it up” or “grit your way through it.” doesn’t work. It’s incredibly stupid, ideological advice that assumes we can just rationally think our way through an irrational problem.
Why Do We Procrastinate So Much?
We’ve already covered the fact that procrastination is not a result of your laziness, or lack of self-control, but rather due to a disturbance in your emotional state.
But what does that disturbance look like on a physiological level?
Essentially, here’s how it goes. For the sake of this example, let’s say that you’ve got a big proposal that you need to work on.
The moment this thought enters your conscious mind, your brain starts predicting the future. It propels you forward and imagines how you’re going to feel as you sit down and work through the proposal.
Usually, the picture it paints for you is not going to be pretty.
Because interestingly enough, it’s not just judging the experience of that activity alone. It’s also comparing it to the pleasure you’ll feel doing other things besides working on the proposal.
This is an important concept to grasp, so I’ll quickly recap it again. Whenever you get the idea to start work on a task, your brain is doing two things:
First, it’s imagining what feelings/emotions you will experience while working on the proposal
Simultaneously, it’s comparing that emotional state to how you’d feel doing other things (like taking the trash out, watching Youtube, etc.)
Would you rather watch Netflix or sit on your ass and grind out focused work for three hours?
Yeah, now you see the problem with your brain being a predictive machine.
Typically, this is when your brain has the “oh sh*t” moment. After weighing all of these factors, your brain labels the idea of working on the proposal as a stressful experience.
Keep in mind that your brain has one goal, which is to keep you alive. Any situation that appears to be threatening or stress-inducing will trigger the fight-or flight response.
These are hard-wired survival instincts, established over thousands of years of evolution. You can’t just shut them off like you’re changing the channel on your TV.
At this point, your emotions are involved. Your willpower is being forced to fight against deeply rooted survival instincts and programmed responses that you have no control over.
It’s like starting a football game down 28-0 in the first quarter.
After all of this happens in about a fraction of a second, you’re faced with two options:
- Option #1: Choose the easy road, and get rid of the negative, uneasy feeling that you’re currently going through.
- Option #2: Work on the proposal and dive head-first into stress.
Not much of a choice is it?
So you choose option 1. And for a while, you feel good as your brain and body retreat to a normal state
The only problem is the proposal you need to get started on remains untouched.
How Procrastination Ruins Your Life
Putting off things that are important isn’t good for you — it doesn’t take a master’s degree in psychology to understand that.
But I don’t care who you are, no one can be perfect. We’re human. We mess up from time to time.
We’re emotional creatures, not robots. And this means that inevitably, our emotions are going to get in the way of us making progress towards what we really want.
Procrastination only becomes a problem when it becomes your identity.
Once putting off the things know you need to do in favor of immediate gratification becomes a habit, things can spiral out of control quickly:
Here are just a few of the negative effects of procrastination on your life:
#1: Low Self-Esteem
The actions you take determine the beliefs that you have about yourself.
This means that if you continue to opt for instant gratification instead of engaging in challenging work, you’ll start to subconsciously believe that you can’t handle challenging tasks.
This belief is completely irrational. But as we’ve already discussed, we don’t act rationally in most situations.
So even if the beliefs that you start to develop are misguided fabrications, you’re still going to believe them.
Because your brain judges who you are based on what you do, not what you say you’re going to do.
In reality, you can handle the work. You can do what needs to be done. But your actions haven’t given your brain enough evidence to support that belief.
Therefore, your self-esteem plummets. Not because you’re not capable, but because you’re not willing.
#2: You’ll Die With Regret
Yep, let that sink in.
If you continue to avoid difficult tasks that give your life meaning, you’re going to get to the end of your life with a tremendous sense of emptiness.
No one that’s on their deathbed ruminates over the things they tried that didn’t work out. They always beat themselves up for the things they didn’t do. Either because they were too scared or too weak.
The job they didn’t take.
The city they never moved to.
The girl they didn’t ask out in high school.
That’s the sh*t that will eat you when you go to your grave.
I used to work in sales, and one of the most common objections I would hear from prospects was:
“Why don’t you circle back with me in three months and we can get something started then. I’m not in a place to move forward right now.”
As any good salesperson would do, I tried to explain to them the opportunity cost of inaction. Yet, most of these tire-kickers would end up getting off the call without any form of commitment.
Inevitably, I’d circle back with them in three months, and almost every single person had made no progress towards their goals they outlined to me in our first conversation.
They had become addicted to inaction. Not changing. Not growing. Not expanding.
It’s true, you have a lot of time to do what you want in life. But you don’t have as much time as you think. And the more you tell yourself, “I’ll do it someday,” the less likely you’ll ever take action.
#3:You Become “That Person”
We all know that person.
The one whose mouth is way ahead of their actions. The one who can’t stop talking to you about everything they are going to do.
Whether it’s within your own friend group, or in your own office, you don’t want to become the type of person that nobody can rely on.
You don’t want to become the type of person who talks a big game but never takes any action.
This doesn’t just negatively reflect on your own self-image. It leads to people in your social circle not trusting you, because your word doesn’t mean anything.
It hurts your career as well. If no one can take you at your word to get important things done, why would it make sense for you to be given important responsibilities?
Successful people don’t get where they are by accident.
They cultivate a reputation of dependability. They become the type of person people that other people can count on, whether it’s their employees or their immediate family.
Excluding trust-fund babies, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who is rich that is also a chronic procrastinator.
The Main Causes of Procrastination (And What To Do About Each One)
I know that last section was a little somber, but this part of article is a bit more joyful:)
Now we’re actually going to talk about the various root causes of procrastination and how to overcome them.
First, I’m going to give you the cause so that the problem has context behind it. Then, we’ll talk about how to overcome it.
Cause #1 – Perfectionism
Perfectionism may seem like a desirable characteristic, but it happens to be one of the main causes of procrastination.
One of the main reasons why people don’t start things is because they feel like they have to cultivate a masterpiece on their first go-around.
If I showed you the first draft of this blog post that you’re reading right now, you’d only have one question for me:
“What combination of drugs were you on when you wrote this?”
That’s how disorganized, jumbled, and incoherent my first drafts look.
The point is this: every blog post that I write has a crappy first draft behind it.
This does nothing to impede my writing, because I expect it. Each time I publish a blog post, I go through the post a second time and make severe adjustments:
- I edit and replace words that seem lackluster
- I cut out whole paragraphs that don’t add any value
- I adjust the overall sentence structure to make sure everything reads smoothly.
Once that is done, I go through the post a third time and adjust any instance where the formatting doesn’t line up.
Lastly, I go through the post a 4th time to adjust any grammar errors. And once I’ve torn apart my blog post four different times, that’s when it goes up on the internet.
I don’t consider myself to be a great writer. Overall, I’m pretty average at best.
However, I do consider myself to be a meticulous editor, which tends to overshadow the lack of versatility in my writing.
Making mistakes is a far better strategy than avoiding something altogether. You might not get it right, but that period trial and error is where you learn and grow.
The Solution: Embrace Low Quality Work
All that’s needed here is a simple mindset shift.
If you’re a perfectionist, simply embrace the fact that your work could possible suck. This is a simple way to address one of the root causes of procrastination — thinking of life as a zero-sum game.
Perfectionists tend to see life this way:
- My performance is either great or it sucks
- I am either smart or stupid
- I’m either a great writer or a terrible one
This mindset leaves you with no gray area or middle ground. Even worse, it leaves you with no room to improve when you do something wrong.
If you’re a salesperson and you mess up your first cold call, you’re not a bad cold caller. You’re just inexperienced.
If you try to approach a cute girl and totally embarrass yourself, you’re not bad with women. You’re just inexperienced.
Once you take action, being a perfectionist is actually an incredible asset. Because if you fail, you’ll hate that feeling so much that you’ll meticulously analyze the failure and ensure you don’t make the same mistake twice.
You just have to get over the first hurdle and then you’ll figure the rest out later.
#2 – Low Self-Esteem
Another one of the main causes of procrastination is low self-esteem.
We often put off challenging, rewarding work because we simply don’t believe we can handle it.
For most people, their past actions have corrupted their belief system. Years of inaction and procrastination have led them to develop limiting beliefs about their capabilities –– it’s these beliefs stop them from reaching their full potential.
Low self-esteem is a result of doing these two things over a long period of time — running from fear and avoiding challenges.
And I know first-hand what can happen when these two errors in judgement compound over time.
I know what it feels like to want to assert yourself and take action in spite of fear, only to stay in your comfort zone whenever the opportunity arises. Getting more depressed. Growing more anxious. Becoming more unhappy.
But luckily, I also know how it feels to find some answers, and the only place you find them is in discomfort that you’re avoiding on a daily basis.
The Solution: Comfort Zone Challenges
If low self-esteem is causing you to procrastinate, then the solution has nothing to do with productivity hacks and everything to do with reframing your limiting beliefs.
All of the meaningful things you do in life is usually preceded by fear; asking out a girl you like, asking that same girl to marry you, taking the job of your dreams, etc.
None of that is easy. It’s stressful, nerve-wracking, and anxiety-inducing.
If you want to become the person you want to be, that’s where you need to get comfortable. Right smack in the middle of fear and discomfort.
It’s in that discomfort where you’ll find out what you’re really made of. It’s in that place of fear and uncertainty that you figure out just how far you can push yourself.
Speaking from personal experience, the best way to overcome limiting beliefs is through comfort zone challenges.
Comfort zone challenges are tasks that require to face your fears and embrace uncomfortable situations. When you prove to yourself that you can get through these situations, your self-esteem and overall confidence explodes.
For ideas on how to get out of your comfort zone, check out this article: Comfort Zone Challenges That Will Change Your Life
#3 – You’re Overestimating the Difficulty of the Task
Out of all of the causes of procrastination, this is probably the most common.
You know that friend you have that overexaggerates everything?
Yeah, your brain is that friend on steroids. When it comes to procrastination, exaggeration plays a key role.
Let’s go back to the proposal example from earlier.
When your brain projects you into the future and imagines you working on the proposal, it paints a picture of dread. It tells you that putting in the work is going to feel awful and soul-crushing.
The truth? It’s really not that bad.
As a matter of fact, once you start making progress it won’t feel anything like the way your brain is picturing it.
Take a moment to think about the last time you just sucked it up and started working on something you’ve been putting off.
How bad was it actually? Was it absolutely terrible?
Once you started making progress, I’m guessing it was actually pretty motivating
This is how it goes with 99% of the stuff that you know you need to do. The problem is not doing the work, the problem is starting the work.
It’s like being in line for a rollercoaster. You’re sitting there along with your thoughts, and your mind is tormenting you with thoughts about how scary the ride is going to be.
However, once you’re on the ride, your mind empties gets out of the way. And you’re just sitting there having the time of your life. Taking in the experience without the constant mental chatter.
All you have to do is get on the ride. All you have to do is start.
The question is how do you force yourself to start?
The Solution: The Two Minute Rule
Whenever you find yourself putting something off, commit to working on it for just two minutes. Give yourself permission to stop after two minutes.
I guarantee that 80% of the time you’ll keep going. The reason this rule is so effective is two-fold.
First off, you’re manipulating the psychology of your own brain.
Your brain hates unfinished tasks. Unfinished tasks take up space in your working memory and deplete your mental energy. This means that you’ll be motivated to finish whatever you started working on as quickly as possible so your brain can focus on new things.
Second, you’re actively exposing yourself to the task, which always turns out to be less terrible than you thought it was going to be.
Once you start working, your focus shifts. Instead of dreading the task, your brain goes to work to come up with solutions for how to get it done.
Your brain becomes an ally, as opposed to an enemy.
There you have it.
We’ve just covered everything you need to know about the causes of procrastination and what to do about them.
If you let it, procrastination will ruin your life. You weren’t put here on this earth to avoid meaningful, challenging work. You were put on this earth to take action and discover your full potential.
And no matter what B.S. story your brain comes up with, you must do it.
Your future happiness and success depend on your ability to delay gratification.
We’ve talked about what happens if you don’t figure this out. You’ll end up old, depressed, and filled with regret.
Why not see what happens when you do figure it out?