How To Conquer Procrastination

One of the greatest challenges I encounter in working as a performance coach is procrastination. All too often, it’s a challenge I encounter myself! We draw upon the motivation to change, set goals, and then we fail to act upon those goals. We know what we should do, but we put it off and avoid—even though we’re aware we would be better off acting on our plans.

So why do we procrastinate? Why aren’t we more consistent in following through on our intentions, goals, and dreams?

A key observation is that we often move past procrastination when we feel an urgency to act. For example, I might put off preparing and paying my taxes, but I know that I need to make the deadline or I will face a significant penalty. That awareness of consequences can spur us to action. Similarly, I might avoid dealing with an issue in a relationship, but suddenly feel the need to tackle it if the relationship seems to be threatened. When an action feels like a “should” and not a “must”, we’re less likely to draw upon our motivational reserves. But those reserves are present; we simply need a way to access them!

Procrastination is an impairment of free will. Like any pattern of thought, feeling, or action, procrastination can become habitual. Once that happens, it limits our ability to pursue our ideals. Like any habit pattern, procrastination grows stronger as it is reinforced and acted upon. Efforts feel increasingly effortful and, without the kick-start of urgency, they become too burdensome. The problem with relying upon urgency as our source of motivation is that sometimes we only feel the need to change once it’s too late. For example, if we wait for a heart attack to find the motivation to exercise and eat in healthy ways, we’ve already experienced significant negative consequences.

To conquer procrastination, it’s important to turn effort itself into a habit pattern. This is not as daunting as it may sound. Even small efforts, consistently undertaken, set new habits in motion. You’ve probably had the experience of procrastinating, finally starting the work, and then finding the task much easier to complete. Most procrastination is the result of becoming stuck in low energy modes where effort seems too effortful. Once we tackle the work and make progress, we experience new energy and interest—and that helps us sustain the drive for the task’s completion.

What if, however, we are able to derive motivation, not from the threat of negative consequences, but from the awareness of missing out on positive consequences? If we deepen our awareness of the opportunity costs of losing our freedom of will, that itself can become a spur to action. Here’s a way of doing that, drawing upon 3 R’s:

  • Recognition – The idea is to become acutely aware of procrastination when it is occurring. Keeping a diary and noting the occasions when we procrastinate helps with that awareness. We want to make the transition from being the person who procrastinates to being the observer of procrastination. When we become the observer of any behavior, we become less identified with that behavior. We gain a measure of psychological distance and control.
  • Reflection – Once we recognize procrastination, we don’t want to avoid it and remove it from our awareness. On the contrary, we actually want to focus on our avoidance and emotionally connect with how we will feel if we fail to act on our goals and values. For instance, let’s say I make a deal with someone I love that, if I reach my goal each week, we will celebrate by taking a very special trip together. Now, procrastination not only threatens my goal but also could lead to disappointing someone I care about! My desire to not let that person down and my anticipation of taking that vacation is enough to stir me to action. The key is creating a sense of immediacy and urgency behind positive motivations.
  • Response – After raising our emotional awareness of the opportunity costs of procrastination, the next step is to immediately respond by tackling some part of the activity we’ve been avoiding. The idea is to tackle part of the activity, not try to do everything at once. As mentioned earlier, this sets a positive cycle in motion, where we experience ourselves as efficacious and this in turn energizes us to take next steps. We internalize what we do. If we are active and self-determining, our actions frame our experience of our selves. We want to turn initiative into its own habit pattern.

With a little practice, the 3 R’s turn the impulse to avoid effort into an opportunity to build free will and move closer to the realization of our ideals. Once procrastination becomes an opportunity, it’s something we can anticipate and actually embrace as a stimulus for growth. That gives us energy. Indeed, the daily calendar with its to-do lists can become a tool in our quest for ever-expanding freedom and self-determination: a structure that provides us with goals and opportunities to cultivate initiative every single day!

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