Why do we procrastinate?

“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”

Micawber to Copperfield.
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens.

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How true that famous quote is, right? As well as stealing our valuable time, procrastination is the bane of productivity. If you’re like me, you’ve found yourself asking why you put things off at all.

Procrastination becomes a habit that makes you less efficient and productive. So, how do we “collar him”, as Dickens wrote? In the article, I’ll share some ideas on how you can begin to break this time-wasting habit and start working more effectively. First, it’s time to answer the question.

We procrastinate for four main reasons. Because we are afraid to fail, because a task seems too large for us to handle, because of the natural, biological tendency for humans to get distracted and as a result of not having an action plan of how to put big ideas into practice. Trying to be perfect can also massively contribute to procrastination, but it is important to focus on causes we can take positive action to improve.

Now, let’s delve into a little more detail and ask ourselves how a fear of failure can cause us to procrastinate.

How can fear of failure make you procrastinate?

Putting things off for a long time means you don’t have to face the chance of getting bad results. If, like me, you’re a bit of a perfectionist, you’ll know what it is to get bogged down in the detail of getting something exactly right. This can easily turn into a form of procrastination. The need to get things right means you end up taking longer to finish that particular task.  

This all stems from being afraid to fail and can ultimately stifle your drive to reach the next step in your professional life.

So how can you deal with this fear? Here are some things you can do to help.

  • Try to visualise a positive outcome to tasks. Say you have to give a presentation to a potential client. Imagine yourself making your case confidently and concisely in front of both your boss and that client.
  • Learn to recognise when you have done something to the best of your ability.
  • Be kind to yourself when you know you’ve done your best.

Later, we will talk about how to stop putting things off if you’re distraction prone. For now, let’s take a look at the link between having grand ideas and a tendency to procrastinate.

How can having big ideas cause you to procrastinate?

Are you very creative and full of fantastic ideas? Do you struggle to find ways to put them into action and become frustrated as a result?  I know I get irritated when I can’t think of a way to put an idea into practice.  So, what’s the deal?

They’re typically no goals set that you need to reach once you’ve had your great idea.  Embarking on a project with no bigger or over-arching aim in sight can end up making it hard to make all the necessary decisions that come further down the road. This can hold things up.

So what can you do?  You can build upon your ability to focus. Here are a couple of ideas on how you could do this.

  • Set out a to-do list for the week ahead, pinpointing the steps you want to take on each particular day.
  • You might want to keep a list of the tasks you’ve completed alongside the weekly to-do list to keep yourself motivated.

By planning ahead you may be able to stop your brain from flittering between different ideas so often. That will help you focus more easily.  We’ll discuss how the power of prioritisation can help you stop procrastinating a bit later.  Next, let’s investigate why being daunted can make you avoid tackling complex or difficult tasks.  

Why can being overwhelmed cause you to avoid difficult tasks?

We all know what it’s like to be so daunted by the size of a task we need to confront. We find it easier to avoid it until the last possible moment. The main reason for this is that people tend to enjoy staying within their comfort zone. People begin to search for more familiar or easier tasks to perform, whilst leaving harder ones for later.  The upshot is that we often end up under more pressure than we needed to be when the tasks we’ve been putting off become urgent.

So what’s the trick to tackling this one?

  • Break challenges into smaller steps and deal with each one separately.
  • Ask a colleague if they can spare a few minutes to help.
  • Reward yourself after completing each step of a task so that you can stay motivated.
  • Learn how to prioritise.     

Now let’s find out how being prone to distraction can lead to procrastination.

Why do distraction prone people procrastinate?

Studies have shown that the human brain is not wired to remain focused for long periods of time.  After a while, the mind begins seeking something else to pursue.  Ask yourself if you think you would be less distraction prone if you had a different work set-up. Is part of your tendency to get distracted down to the kind of workmates and co-workers you have? Those are questions for each individual to answer. 

Don’t be too hard on yourself though.  How likely we are to get distracted is exceedingly personal. It depends on the individual brain, differing attention spans and what we can each contribute to a given situation. That being the case, how do we tackle it?

  • Be aware of the potential distractions that exist in your workplace and adapt accordingly.
  • This could entail: putting headphones on to minimise background noise and chatter, switching off your phone and ignoring social notifications.
  • Try to work intensely for 20-30 minutes at a time before taking a break. Taking regular short breaks will work wonders for your efficiency and productivity.

Lastly, let’s discover how the power prioritisation can help to banish, or at least, limit procrastination.

The power of prioritisation

Good prioritisation can reduce time-wasting and boost productivity.  So how can you prioritise with the best of them?

  • Lists are king; keep comprehensive to-do lists.
  • Include daily, weekly and monthly lists.
  • Decide what’s really important to make truly useful lists.
  • Assess what’s truly important by asking yourself what the consequences of not getting something done are. If the answer is along the lines of “I’ll get fired” then that task probably should go to the top of your list.
  • Be realistic about the time it takes you to do things and the time you have at your disposal.
  • Tackle the hardest or least enjoyable task on your list first.
  • After the hardest, or most dreaded task is done, try to organise the other tasks according to the amount of effort it will take to finish them.
  • Build extra time into your list so that you can be flexible when needed.

Summary

We know by now that whatever you do, you will probably always procrastinate to an extent because that is part of what it is to be human. I hope that elucidating some of the reasons why we do procrastinate has helped you feel less bad about falling prey to procrastination and that I have provided some tips that could help you deal with the beast. Go forth with your to-do lists and the power of prioritisation on your side. Start becoming more productive today!  

Published by Lizzie

Lizzie here. I'm a freelance copywriter and editor based in the UK. I'm also passionate about volunteering and hold a MA in History from the University of Warwick. I've written for a multitude of fantastic websites and companies, including a legal automation software company, a dog training site and more. Check out my reviews on Fiverr and Upwork for more info!

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