If you’ve already done your holiday shopping or prepared next year’s tax returns, you can congratulate yourself for being so organised. Most of us are more likely to wait until the 11th hour to get that last bit of shopping done — and wait until the last possible moment to complete a project that’s coming due.
Why do we put off the inevitable? Is it busyness, laziness, the need for the adrenalin rush, fear of failure, or a combination of these?
We turned to question-and-answer site Quora to find out how to get over the bad habit of procrastinating. Here’s what respondents had to say about delaying tactics.
Par for the course
“We live in a society that is totally bombarded with distractions all the time,” wrote Shaz Hasan. “And now thanks to the internet, ‘we create more content in 48 hours than we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003’, according to Eric Schmidt CEO of Google. That’s A LOT of YouTube videos, blog posts, Facebook statuses, and tweets that will distract you every day.”
Nikant Vohra calls procrastination perfectly normal. “Most of the people in the world procrastinate from time to time,” he said. “Sometimes it is for small things like cleaning the house, buying groceries, washing clothes etc. But most of the time, it is for things that are very important for life like going to the gym, completing the exam preparation or paying your bills.”
Why do we do it? Vohra cites three reasons:
- Overestimating our own abilities: “A lot of us overestimate our own abilities of completing a piece of work on time. Not only this, we overestimate that how motivated we will be in the future to complete the work at hand …We all come up with a lot of excuses to avoid work. Too busy. Too tired. Too broke. Sometimes these excuses make sense. But most of the time they are like a safety blanket to protect you from doing some real work.”
- Too many distractions: “In this advanced age of technology, we have a lot of distractions in life which do not allow us to do real work. How can a person prepare for an exam when he has 30 pending requests of Candy Crush Saga on his Facebook page? How can he go to gym when he has to answer hundreds of emails? Most of us have become slaves to these distractions.”
- Self doubt and fear: “When we are unsure of how to tackle a project or insecure in our abilities, we might find ourselves putting it off in favour of working on other tasks. We tell ourselves that ‘one day’ we will be ready to make a change, or take a chance; that ‘one day’ the timing will be better, our confidence stronger, our circumstances easier. But that one day never comes.”
Recognising the problem
Why we procrastinate is often determined by the task at hand. “We use our conscious mind to decide what's important to us, and then we set up ideals that we know we should follow — write that first page, take that hour to go workout, finish reading that book, make that phone call, cook that good meal. These are our should-haves,” wrote Paul Winslow. “But then our actions expose very different priorities. In fact, our actions expose our real priorities. Our must-haves.”
“The key is absolutely in how we associate the things we do with our pain and pleasure signals in the brain,” he continued. “Pleasure comes in many forms: excitement, fun, warm, relaxing. And pain has many shades of its own: boredom, fear, frustrating, uncomfortable.”
I am a procrastinator
Admitting you are a procrastinator goes a long way to finding a solution. “I've struggled with procrastination all my life,” wrote Douglas Stewart. To combat that, Stewart breaks task into what tiny “doable”chunks. “Then I put an egg timer on my desk and set it for a reasonable amount of focused work time (usually 50 minutes). I shut off all distractions.”
Meanwhile, Pedro Teixeira faces his biggest issue: fear. “I found that my main source of procrastination was fear,” he wrote. “I simply feared failure and rejection. I was stuck on doing preliminary and preparatory work forever, causing anxiety…I had to face it and start actually working. My new motto is ‘stop trying to do it and do it.’”
Procrastination also can be a response to boredom. “Procrastination around certain tasks is indication that I don't (internally) really want to do then,” Heron Weston wrote. “Then, I either have to accept them or try to change them. Either way, I make that choice and I am responsible for the way it turns out. I find this feeling of personal power extremely motivating.
Getting out of the hole
The problem with procrastination is that it can feed onto itself. “The more time you invest in procrastinating, the easier it is to find more distractions and continue on procrastinating,” Hasan wrote. “So by procrastinating more and more, you’re simply digging yourself a deeper hole, a hole that will be ultimately impossible to get out of.”
To break the cycle, Hasan suggests removing your attention from the distraction, physically and mentally. “Switch it off, close the browser and do whatever you have to do in that moment to remove yourself from the activity that is resulting in you procrastinating,” he wrote. “Do whatever it takes to remove yourself from your environment temporarily."
Jose Ricaro Rosado Cruz suggests improving productivity by working in short bursts, listing your “to dos” and turning off your mobile phone and internet connections at work. “Begin by completing your most urgent task. Notice I say urgent, not important. Urgent means that it has less time to be completed,” he wrote.
The feel good factor
Some respondents said the hardest part of any task is getting started. Sara Wedeman, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on procrastination, wrote: “It's not just a question of avoiding doing something that is frustrating, difficult, and anxiety provoking: the mere anticipation of frustration prevents the procrastinator from even starting…Once that tipping point (pain of not doing exceeds pain of doing) is crossed, and they actually begin the task, they are often shocked to discover it was never that bad at all.”
Psychologist Bruce Neben says the feeling of relief at accomplishing the task can outweigh the anxiety that led to the procrastination in the first place. “At those rare times when you have actually done the thing which you have procrastinated about, there is a feeling of relief — a good feeling, to get that thing done so you don't have to worry about it anymore,” Neben wrote. “Make it a policy to ALWAYS do the hardest task FIRST. You will probably find that it doesn't take as long as you think it will, and it leaves lots of time to do the easy things, leaving you in a better mood.”
Quora respondents are required to use their true names under the site’s Real Names policy. To help ensure legitimacy and quality, Quora asks some individuals, such as doctors and lawyers, to confirm their expertise.