How well known is this scenario? You have a stressful work assignment that needs to be completed by EOD, but before you start, 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. People have been putting it off for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates and Plato had another word for it: Akrasia– but it still meant the same thing.
Procrastination is putting off or postponing a task that you know needs to be done. The end result is often regret, depression, and self-loathing. So why are we doing this to ourselves? And what can we do to reverse the annoying trend?
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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 isn’t a matter of time management. It’s a matter of emotional management,” says Petr Ludwig, author of The end of procrastination: stop procrastinating and live 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 a exclusive interview on the Write About Now PodcastLudwig shared his science-backed insights into why we procrastinate and the helpful tools we use to combat it.
He argues that the real reasons we procrastinate 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 amid global economic crisis and political turmoil, it can be challenging to feel inspired about the world — let alone your work.
“We’re not motivated at work because we don’t believe in what we’re doing,” explains Ludwig. “When you’re working on a project and you don’t have a goal, it’s really hard to stay motivated.”
The result is escaping the stress and strain of a particular task by doing something you know you shouldn’t be doing. As the great American writer Mark Twain once joked, “Never put off until tomorrow what can be done the day after tomorrow.”
Another reason we procrastinate is because we fear, often irrationally, that the result of our work will not be well received. “We are often so afraid of failure that we can’t start,” says Ludwig.
Lack of willpower
When faced with high demands or stressful situations, our willpower often diminishes, making it harder to resist the lure of social media, video games, and other procrastination tools.
How to stop procrastination
Revive your purpose
As we noted earlier, procrastination points to a bigger problem: you lack an overall purpose in your life, so it might be time to get it back. Ludwig encourages you to think about the activities you really enjoy doing in your life and the tasks that make you feel most fulfilled.
“At work, ask yourself what your strengths are and how you can use 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 a so-called state of flow. You enjoy the process. Time stops for you.”
This state of flow, he says, is the exact opposite of procrastination because doing something meaningful makes you more likely to experience 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 to combat procrastination, because if you enjoy the process, you love what you are doing and you don’t procrastinate.
Break big tasks into smaller tasks
Sometimes just the overwhelming nature of a task you fear can be paralyzing.
To overcome this paralysis, you often have to break the task down into smaller, more manageable steps, making it feel less overwhelming and more achievable.
This is what Ludwig describes as emotional management. “Your very intense negative emotion towards the task subsides and your willpower kicks in,” says Ludwig. “Stronger willpower also leads to more satisfaction, because when we manage to set better priorities, the reward centers in our brain are activated, dopamine is released and we experience positive emotions.”
Cut yourself some slack
The next time you find yourself procrastinating, practice a little compassion instead of beating yourself up about it. “Self-forgiveness” is a helpful strategy for fighting procrastination, says Ludwig.
He points to one study conducted at Carlton University in 2009, which asked 119 college freshmen to complete measures of procrastination and self-forgiveness just before two midterm exams. The results showed that the students who forgave themselves for procrastinating when preparing for the first exam were less likely to procrastinate when studying for the second exam.
“Sometimes it’s about forgiving ourselves and starting over,” says Ludwig.