It has surely happened to you that you have to study for a very important exam, or you have to develop a project over the course of a few months. You see the deadline and, at the beginning, it feels very far away. You don’t invest time in it. Days go by, the deadline is getting closer, and with it, the anguish for not having started earlier. Despite this, you still do not do your part. Three days before the day of delivery, the pressure beats you and you finish what you have to do. However, the results are not as expected, if at all satisfactory. You were a victim of the essentials, which turns the saying “Do not leave for tomorrow what you can do today” into “If you can leave it for tomorrow, do not worry today.” Postponing what to do is a common problem. Therefore, in this post we will comment on the causes of procrastination and what to do to combat it.
To understand the causes of procrastination, we must understand what this concept means and implies. Procrastination comes from the Latin procrastinare, which translates as “postpone until tomorrow, until the future.” This word, in turn, comes from the root akrasia: “do something against our better judgment, lack of control.” Therefore, we can define the concept as postponing or delaying the start or performance of an activity for which we are responsible for carrying out other irrelevant activities, or that do not contribute to the work we must do, despite being aware that it is what worst we can do. So, “when we procrastinate, we are not only aware that we are avoiding the task at hand, but also that doing so is probably a bad idea ”(Lieberman, 2019).
If it’s a bad idea, why do we do it? Many times you find that the answer is a lack of time management, or too little discipline to do our part. However, scientific evidence shows that it is a biological response, “a way to deal with challenging emotions and moods generated by certain tasks” (Lieberman, 2019). By nature, as human beings, we try to avoid pain and seek pleasure, to feel good. When we are presented with a task that generates negative emotions, we seek to avoid it by doing other activities. Hence, it is common, for example, that you prefer to check your social networks to start writing a long text, which could bore or frustrate you. Or that, instead of preparing for a very important exam (like the GMAT, essential to be accepted to an MBA), you look for flights to the United States.
This makes procrastination a vicious cycle. From a very young age we are used to repeating what is rewarding. When we procrastinate, we forget negative feelings, so the reward is immediate. The moment we return to the task at hand, we feel more stress and frustration, so the body repeats the process of putting off what is truly important. This is a bubble that grows until it explodes, two days before the presentation of the project that you had to work on for two months.
In addition, procrastination is fueled by the bias of the present : we tend to focus better on what is urgent, and we prioritize the short term over what, in the long term, is convenient.
Even “there are parts of our brain that really think that the tasks we are suspending are someone else’s problem” (Lieberman, 2019). Recognizing this is vital: what we leave for the future will have to be resolved by US. The basis of procrastination as an emotional response is to consider the self of the future as someone else.
Hence, procrastination is more a matter of emotional intelligence than a lack of time management or productivity. As the causes are deep and involve implicit feelings, the first step to combat this reaction is the rationalization of our emotions. It sounds cliché, but it is useful to emphasize that we do not own the emotional reactions we have, but what we do with them. It is essential that, before knowing how to avoid postponing our responsibilities, you understand firstly why you are doing it, and secondly, the consequences that this situation has on your life.
Although it is hard to admit it “when we choose to postpone for tomorrow what can be done today, we inadvertently sell our happiness – today, and that of many tomorrows that make up our future” (Warrell, 2013). When we procrastinate, we avoid the stress of certain hours dedicated to a specific job, out of increasing frustration, as deadlines approach. Furthermore, when we procrastinate situations that have no deadlines (trying to reach an important position, going to graduate school, ending a relationship that does not work), we compromise our happiness and long-term well-being.
If this is the case, look for the root of the problem: what situation is causing you to procrastinate? To do this, ask yourself the following questions, taken from the OutWitTrade blog (Holmes, 2020):
- What are the reasons why you haven’t started working yet? Maybe you get distracted easily, you lack a lot of time, you feel lazy.
- What are you not admitting? The previous question has to be deeper. Remember that procrastination is an emotional reaction to what our brain detects as a threat. What scares you? What is the negative emotion that you are avoiding? Many times it is fear: to fail, to be wrong, that your idea does not work, uncertainty.
- What do I gain by postponing my responsibilities? You must make a balance between this and the next point. Ask yourself if what you are doing is worth it. Sometimes when we procrastinate, we do it “productively. ” We choose small tasks that seem important, but that, at the moment, are irrelevant and do not contribute to the achievement of the goal. If this is the case, consider what are the advantages of making the irrelevant versus the important.
- What is the price I am paying, or will pay, for not starting / ending? Take a step back and take a look at the long-term picture. Remember that it is a short-term answer, so looking at what you are losing in the future, or what you will face if you do not fulfill your responsibilities, is a fundamental step to rationalize the problem.
- What would I like to feel? When the deadline comes, how would I like to be? Analyze if you want to be satisfied, frustrated, disappointed, or happy with the work you did. From there you should ask yourself…
- What actions should I do to feel this way? And this is the step that we will talk about later. Each task has its specific situations, so determining from the beginning what you must achieve to feel good about yourself is essential to reach your goal.
- Finally, despite being your responsibility, how committed are you to fulfill it? Quantify it perhaps from 1 to 10, and clearly reflect your level of commitment. Sometimes you feel that it is not worth it, but ponder pros and cons and thus evaluate why or why you should not start working on achieving the goal, or accomplishing what you must do.
Now yes, once we find the root of our procrastination problem, there are certain paths that you can follow in order to start working and finish what you have to do.
1.- Manage emotions, manage fear, know yourself
If procrastination is the product of fear of a negative emotion, the first thing to do is carefully reflect on the future. Of those negative emotions that, in case of not doing the task on time, you will suffer. Also, if you think that the task will not go well, or that it will not meet your expectations, this will happen in the same way if you do not try. Remember that failure is the basis of success, and you learn from mistakes. If you are not wrong, you are not growing. You don’t know what you can achieve. This applies to both an important task and a more long-term goal: studying a postgraduate degree, creating a company, starting a project…
Also, it is important that you know yourself. Sometimes what you like is the pressure of doing everything at the last minute, the adrenaline. If this is the case, think about starting earlier: a week is adequate for certain projects, a couple of weeks for others. The important thing is that you can even organize procrastination, so that without realizing it it no longer counts as such. You will become more productive this way, because you will have a guide of what to do.
2.- Manage the size of the task
Sometimes, the lack of desire to start is due to the size of the project you will do. Imagine you want to build a hotel. How to start? Is the hotel built in one day? Of course not! Everything that is built is done in parts. First the foundations and foundations, then the hard work (the “black” work), then add the finishes and finishing touches. All your projects look the same! If you think that you have to do something, but not how to start or you are not sure what to do first, most likely you are going to get frustrated and you will never start the task.
A first step to avoid this uncertainty is to divide the task into parts, determining what steps you must take to finish it. The more specific the better. Try not to put in tasks such as “write the first page” or ” sign up for a GMAT course.” Be more specific: “write the introduction that will contain points X & Y”, “research the best courses to prepare.”
Avoid being overwhelmed by the size of a task!
3.- Manage time
Here we can talk about two topics: time in general, and the daily achievement of your goals.
Following the line of dividing tasks into small parts, you have to put deadlines first, even if they don’t exist for certain activities. Something important, and a tip that we share with you, is to put everything in a matter of small units of time. If they are days or hours better. Studies show that the brain has a greater sense of urgency when it expresses itself at this time. An example. You are 27 years old. Is it time to start saving for when you retire, in 30 years? Now imagine that you want to be a millionaire, and you only have 10,950 days to do it. Which of the two activities did you feel more urgent? If you do the math, both activities involve the same time, but surely being a millionaire seemed more rushed.After all, the days are numbered, and they pass quickly.
To meet deadlines, don’t rely on your self-discipline. If you are a procrastinator, this will surely be one of your biggest problems. The solution is to commit to someone to comply. You can defeat yourself, or find thousands of excuses for not meeting a certain deadline. However, it is more difficult for you to look bad to a friend, or to find credible and non-repetitive excuses for not having to do something. Insist him, too, that only if you meet your deadlines can he leave you alone.
Now, in the case of what you have to do on a daily basis to achieve your goals, you must set daily goals. For this, once you have divided your goal into more specific actions, the night before (or the week before, depending on how advanced you are with your management of procrastination ) set 3 very narrow objectives and write them down. Don’t just think about them. We emphasize: write them! and keep them in mind during the day or the week. The reward for this comes from two sources: you will feel productive when you do all 3 activities, even if you have to do more (avoiding frustration), and you will be able to be certain of what you should be doing. At the end of the day, visualize what you did and did not accomplish.
4.- Manage distractions and loss of concentration
Tim Urban (2016) makes an analogy of what happens in the mind of the procrastinator. When you choose to carry out certain activities instead of what is truly relevant, you are in a “dark playground”, in which you are enjoying without having won, against good judgment. These are the distractions, productive or non-productive, that keep you from accomplishing. Sometimes these are caused by mental exhaustion that comes from excessive concentration on the completion of a task. To avoid the above, there are different methods and strategies to not lose your focus. All are based on this principle: Distractions, when controlled and planned, contribute to productivity.
Doesn’t it happen to you that when you take a break, you later feel guilty? This is because you do it sporadically, and there is a conception that they are wrong. Eliminating this prejudice, and taking advantage of the benefits of distractions is essential. These include relaxing, allowing yourself to take a step back from what you are doing, and you can even find creative ways to solve a problem you have identified: “when you concentrate, you block access to ‘fuzzy’ mode. And the diffuse mode turns out to be what you need to solve a new, more difficult problem ”(Mooney, 2014). Furthermore, “the simplest of distractions can dramatically improve the ability to concentrate for longer periods of time.” (Atusnori & lleras, 2011).
In this way, we share three techniques that can help you focus better:
- Pomodoro Technique:It is based on a timer in the shape of a tomato. The idea behind is to do your core activity for 25 minutes. During this time, just focus on it, eliminate all distractions around you. Once the timer goes off, give yourself a 5 minute break. Repeat the process. When 3 workspaces have passed, take a longer break (15-20 minutes would be ideal). At first it will seem difficult to concentrate these 25 minutes, but do everything possible and, the more you get used to it, it will seem a very short time.
- Pomodoro II Technique:When you have mastered the 25 minutes, or at the beginning you think it is a very short time, make an adjustment where the concentration sessions are exactly 52 minutes, with breaks of 17 minutes. It’s like a 10-kilometer sprint, after which you take a break before continuing. It sounds random, but it works.
- Include breaks in your routine:Allow yourself to plan periods where you are not working, where you perform actions that really distract you. Program, for example, google hotels for your next vacation. Or search online for those shoes that caught your eye. The important thing is that they are at well-defined schedules and that, if you did not finish a goal, you will not be able to do it and you will lose that time.
When you have your breaks, it is important that you perform certain activities that will help you relax, and that increase productivity once you return to work. Here you have ideas of what kind of actions you can do in your free spaces.
Rest assured that the long-term rewards won’t catch your eye at first. Remember that we are conditioned to perform certain activities to receive a reward. Find your IMMEDIATE motivation to be able to meet, in the first instance, your daily objectives, so that later you work with longer deadlines. These can be as simple as only allowing you to eat dessert for dinner if you did what you were supposed to do, to more elaborate like going out with your friends every Saturday IF AND ONLY IF you achieved your purpose for the week. Here it is truly essential that you stick to rewarding yourself when you do your part. If not, your brain would get used to motivating you to do nothing, and that’s why you keep doing it. Remember the vicious cycle.
How to start
The first problem we get when faced with procrastination is how to start. Once you start an activity, it is relatively easy to continue doing it. However, if you have not started, you will continue to postpone what you should do, giving way to procrastination. Two important tips: focus on starting a few minutes. Sometimes even the pomodoro technique doesn’t work because 25 minutes seems like a lot. But give yourself 2 minutes. Consider that you are only going to work for 2 minutes, and then you can check your social networks or continue procrastinating. You will realize that those 2 minutes will fly by and you will want to continue. NOTE: This will only happen if you are already motivated, or you already have the reward in mind. Otherwise, after 2 minutes you will return to procrastination.
Also, before you start, say “3, 2, 1: Let’s go!” Verbalize it. Whenever you get to the one, you expect something to happen. Let that something be initiating.
Finally, remember the following phrase, from Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and… snap – the job’s a game ”. And yes, even as an adult you can find fun in the things you do. At that time, that tedious activity or that seemed endless, will become a piece of cake. In everything you do, look for what you enjoy, that interests you, that fulfills you. See it as a game, a challenge that you have to meet, a puzzle that you have to put together. The key is to start, continue, and you will reach your goal.