How To Break The Procrastination Cycle & Get Things Done

It’s 9 in the morning. You are fresh and focused and all set to work on that challenging project which needs to be completed urgently. You sit at your desk and fire up the laptop and while waiting for it to boot, you reach for your phone and then, as if on auto pilot, you find yourself opening Instagram (or Facebook or YouTube or news or whatever that is that you are obsessed with!) and start scrolling, and bam, the next thing you realise is it’s already 11, you are exhausted and you haven’t even logged in. Sounds familiar ? What exactly do you think happened here? Where did all that morning energy go ? Did the time just fly ? Well, this trap that most of us fall into is nothing but procrastination. 

What is Procrastination ?

Procrastination usually involves doing something easy or enjoyable instead of the unpleasant but important things that you are supposed to be doing. It is the irrational avoidance of a task or an activity. Most of the time we confuse it with laziness. Though outwardly both of them may seem similar and produce almost the same outcomes, they are fundamentally different.

Procrastination vs Laziness

Laziness is when a person is unwilling to put in the effort or energy needed to carry out a task. It is about avoiding responsibilities completely.Procrastination, on the other hand, is when a person has an intense desire to do the task and is even willing to put in the effort needed, but is stopped by an inner resistance or barrier that has been put up between his mind and the task at hand. Say for example, on a Sunday if you decide that you are not going to do anything but curl up on the couch and binge watch your favourite show, then you are deliberately making a choice not to do anything else at all on that day. On the other hand when you have an important assignment to submit and the deadline is fast approaching but you decide to put it off and  watch Netflix instead, then that’s a classic example of procrastination.

Effects of Long Term Procrastination

Long term procrastination can have serious adverse effects on our mental and physical health.The longer you procrastinate, the more overwhelming the task becomes, which in turn may cause anxiety, guilt and stress. Overall productivity of the individual decreases over time with procrastination and this might even lead to depression. As our mental health and physical health are deeply intertwined, a decline in one can have a serious negative impact on the other. Over time, chronic procrastination not only has productivity costs but also impacts our physical and mental wellbeing adversely.

Causes of Procrastination

Procrastination may stem from the need of the emotional part of our brain for instant rewards. When you have to deal with a task that is overwhelming or boring or unpleasant, the brain tries to find out ways to avoid doing it by replacing it with something easy or comfortable or instantly gratifying. And the momentary relief that the brain feels while putting off the task is the reward it gets for procrastination. And it’s our natural tendency to repeat things that we are rewarded for and thus this becomes a cycle rather than a one-off behaviour.

Procrastination may also be due to underlying mental health issues. People with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) find it hard to stay organized and have difficulties with time management which can make a task seem overwhelming. 

Those suffering from depression tend to have low self esteem which makes them doubt their ability to successfully complete a task. Anxiety also plays similar tricks on the brain and instills a fear of failure and lack of confidence in the person. 

Surprisingly, perfectionists are often procrastinators.The fear of doing a task imperfectly can lead them to putting off the task indefinitely. 

Certain other traits like poor decision making skills, lack of structure, ambiguity, absence of personal meaning and lack of instant gratification may also lead to procrastination.

How to Overcome Procrastination ?

  • If you are procrastinating because you find it boring or unpleasant, then try to focus on the long term benefits of completing the task. Identifying the long term benefits would help in aligning your present self with the future self. Also, it is equally important to focus on the consequences of putting off the task.  Think about all the ways in which not doing this task would affect you. Listing down the impact of avoidance of the task in the major areas of your life would give a realistic view about the situation and give the brain that necessary push to get you started on the task.
  • The brain finds it easier to deal with tasks which are unambiguous and properly structured. When you have a pile of half finished or pending  tasks, your brain goes into a state of panic, which makes focusing even on a single task difficult. Setting a roadmap with well defined milestones and breaking down the task into tiny manageable units can help in tackling those tasks which might otherwise seem overwhelming. Knowing what, how and when to do a task brings about a structure and clarity to the task.
  • More often than not, procrastination may also be a result of underlying mental health issues. Emotional regulation and stress management under the guidance of a therapist may be the best course of action in such cases.
  • In most cases, the biggest challenge one may face is in getting started on a task. For those struggling with the starting trouble, taking the tiniest possible first step would help in overcoming the inertia. Keep a timer for 5 minutes and tell yourself that you would stop after 5 minutes and get started on the task. Once you are successful in getting the brain to stay focused for those 5 minutes, then you are most likely to get into the flow of the task and continue doing the task. Just push yourself to take that initial step and the rest will follow.
  • Fear in any form – The fear of failure, fear of judgement or fear of rejection- holds you back from getting out of your comfort zone and is yet another reason why most people procrastinate. List down all possible fears and  worst case scenarios that you have conjured up in your mind. Once you have it all listed out right in front of you, analyse each of the scenarios. If you feel that your fear is logical and rational, then try and find ways to combat it. Cross out the irrational ones. Think about your whys and about what really matters to you. Ask yourself – Would you rather do it and face the consequences or give in to your fears and regret not doing it, years later ? 
  • The brain often looks for instant rewards. Putting off a boring or difficult task provides a relief which gives the brain the much needed instant gratification. Unless you give the brain a better offer, it continues to find ways to satisfy its craving for quick rewards. So rewarding yourself with a treat after the completion of a milestone would be a good idea to trick the brain into doing similar difficult tasks. Also focusing on and internalising the ‘feel good vibes’ that you get once you complete a difficult task would make the brain crave for such similar experiences which would eventually help in breaking the procrastination loop.
  • Thanks to scroll-culture, the attention span of most of us today has reached almost to the level of a goldfish’s. It just takes a beep from the phone or a mail pop up or even the sound of our own internal voices for us to get distracted. Not surprisingly, people who have difficulty in staying focussed on the task at hand tend to be master procrastinators. So stay away from the phone, close all those unnecessary tabs and if possible disconnect from the internet before you start an important task. When it comes to the constant chatter of your mind, try and find ways to calm it down through meditation or other calming techniques. You can also try writing down the random thoughts that come to your mind during a task so that they can be dealt with later. Assuring the brain that you have set aside a certain amount of time to deal with those thoughts will help in calming it down and bringing the focus back to the work that you are doing.
  • Last but not the least, rephrase your inner dialogue. When you tell yourself that you have to or you need to do a task, it creates an internal pressure on you to do it. The phrases ‘Have to’ or ‘Need to’ creates an impression that you have no choice but to do the task. Most of us do not like it when somebody forces us to work, even if we like the task. The rebel in you starts to resist and finds ways to avoid doing it. The conflict here is between you and your internal voice. So, be it any task,  rephrasing the internal dialogue to ‘I want to’ or ‘I choose to’ , puts you in a position of power. Here, you are not doing it because you have to, rather you are doing it because you want to. It makes you feel more in control and you start owning the work. Once this change in perception happens, it’s much easier to do the task, because hey, you are the boss and you are doing only those things that you really want.

To sum up, procrastination can be best described as the constant conflict between your present self and the future self. While the future self  has big dreams and goals for you and constantly comes up with ideas and plans for your bigger and better future, the present self pulls you towards the most instantly gratifying and comfortable option available. To break out of this habit loop, it is important that you learn how to manage your emotions and moods. I hope and wish that the tips mentioned above would help you kick-start your journey towards curbing procrastination. Good Luck !