It’s said we often overestimate what we can accomplish in a single day and underestimate what we can achieve over a lifetime.
But what holds many of us back from realising our true potential and limits our success is the all-too-common act of procrastination.
Procrastination is characterised by the irrational inclination to defer essential tasks and obligations, even when fully aware of the adverse consequences that such delays can have on both individuals and the entities they are associated with.
The truth is, most of us engage in procrastination at some point, often putting off tasks we know we should tackle.
While procrastination may be considered a normal part of human behaviour, what is far from normal is allowing procrastination to persist for years on end.
Unfortunately, this is the reality for approximately 20-25% of individuals, and the repercussions are extensive, impacting both individuals and society at large.
We currently live in a fascinating era where instant information is readily available at our fingertips, thanks to the rapid advancements in technology.
Yet, the downside is that this constant influx of information can leave us feeling overwhelmed and inundated.
Studies have shown that stress levels surged by up to 30% within three decades from the 1980s, and that chronic procrastination increased nearly fivefold since the 1970s (Piers Steel, The nature of procrastination: a meta-analytic and theoretical review of quintessential self-regulatory failure. Psychological Bulletin, 2007).
What’s more, a staggering 85% of employees are disengaged at work (Gallup Poll, 2017), meaning only one in six workers at any given time are genuinely committed to their tasks and not procrastinating.
Procrastination has the potential to not only disrupt individual lives but to also disrupt businesses and national finances.
Consequences of Procrastination
Reflecting on my younger years, I too was a chronic procrastinator. For over a decade, I constantly pushed back my dream of writing a book.
Despite a deep passion for reading and an abundance of stories I wanted to share, I perpetually found reasons for not starting.
Whether it was being too busy, too engrossed in studies, too preoccupied with social activities, or having too little time, my favourite excuse I ended up using for many years was, “I don’t have a computer.”
In the mid-90s, that was a valid excuse. Computers weren’t the everyday household item they are today, and they were relatively expensive.
But the problem wasn’t the lack of a home computer, or my ability to afford one, it was me. I had effectively postponed my dream of writing a book for over half my life, proving to everyone, including myself, that I was more of a ‘gunna’ than a ‘doer’. I had become the Professor of Procrastination.
The problem with procrastination is that it surreptitiously steals your precious time, leaving little room to live the life you truly desire. That’s why it’s called ‘The Thief of Time’, and why I call it ‘The Killer of Dreams’.
It was only after enduring years of procrastination that I came to grasp a fundamental life lesson:
What you think about, you become.
If you think you don’t have the know-how or the skills or the tools or the time or the money to achieve what you want to achieve, or you think you’re not clever enough to do what you want to do, then that becomes the world in which you live out your life. Just like I had.
In other words, your thoughts and beliefs shape your actions and, consequently, your reality. With your thoughts you create your world.
What you focus on, you experience.
Strategies for Procrastination
An ounce of action is worth a pound of theorising, as life coaches like to say.
While thinking and planning is vitally important, it is action that brings our dreams and plans to fruition.
It is action that propels us forward, opening the doors to opportunities.
We will now discuss four strategies to defeat procrastination so you can take action and build your effectiveness:
- Identify excuses preventing you from taking action.
- Identify a fear preventing you from taking action.
- Identify a reward for taking action.
- Identify a value ‘motivation’ for taking action.
Strategy #1: Identify Excuses
Excuse-making is a common human tendency that often goes unnoticed, yet it can have a profound impact on our personal and professional effectiveness.
By continually making excuses, we create barriers to success, hinder our growth, and limit our potential.
At its core, excuse-making is the act of providing justifications, rationalisations, or explanations for why we couldn’t, shouldn’t, or didn’t do something we initially intended to do.
Excuse-making is a self-imposed obstacle to our effectiveness. While some excuses may appear valid, they often mask underlying fears, insecurities, or a lack of commitment.
This habit can manifest in various forms, one of which is procrastination. We convince ourselves that we can’t start a task or project now due to various reasons, postponing it indefinitely.
One of the problems with excuse-making is the unhelpful conclusions we draw from our excuses. These unhelpful conclusions reinforce the initial excuse, which in turn reinforces the procrastinating behaviour.
For instance, the excuse, “I don’t want to do it now,” leads to the unhelpful conclusion, “I might feel more like doing it tomorrow.” Which, of course, you probably won’t.
Below is a list of excuses and the unhelpful conclusions that we draw from them.
- I’m really tired. I am better off doing it after I have rested.
- I don’t want to do it now. I might feel more like doing it tomorrow.
- I’ll miss out on all the fun (FOMO). I can always wait until nothing is happening.
- I don’t have everything I need. I will wait until I have everything I need.
- I have plenty of time. So I don’t have to start now.
- I don’t feel inspired / I’m not in the mood. I’ll wait until I am.
- I have other things to do. I will do it once those things are finished.
Inserting the ‘BUT’
To combat excuse-making and their unhelpful conclusions, you must first be alert to when you are thinking and offering excuses.
Then, focus on replacing these excuses with constructive solutions that turn an unhelpful conclusion into a helpful conclusion.
You do this by inserting a powerful, but simple, three-letter word after a negative statement or unhelpful conclusion—BUT!
The word ‘but’ has the power to not only change negative thoughts and words into positive thoughts and words, but has the power to transform your life into abundance and joy.
I call this strategy ‘Inserting the But’, and it is one of the most powerful strategies you can use to break free from not just this limiting habit of excuse-making, but almost any self-limiting belief that is holding you back.
Here are some examples:
- I’m really tired. BUT… I can make a small start now and then rest.
- I don’t want to do it now. BUT… later won’t be any better, so I may as well start.
- I’ll miss out on all the fun (FOMO). BUT… if I get some done, I can reward myself later.
- I don’t have everything I need. BUT… I can still try to make a start on some of the task.
- I have plenty of time. BUT… better to get on top of it now than leave it.
- I don’t feel inspired / I’m not in the mood. BUT… if I get started, the inspiration will follow.
- I have other things to do. BUT… they are not more important and can wait.
Kylie T. is a client of mine who testifies to the power of ‘Inserting the But’. When Kylie first began to attend my coaching sessions, she was working in the finance industry but was considering a career change. She was nervous about taking the leap and had a lot of negative thoughts about herself.
But within days of implementing the strategy of ‘Inserting the But’, she saw an almost immediate improvement in her confidence and mental well-being.
One month later, she said to me: “Since I met you, I feel like I’m living in a world of abundance.”
This strategy really is that powerful.
Strategy #2: Identify a Fear
Fear is an ever-present and often invisible force that wields significant influence over our lives. When it comes to effectiveness and success, fear is one of the biggest obstacles we face.
Procrastination is a direct offspring of fear. It thrives on our hesitation, hesitation fueled by various fears—fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of the unknown, and sometimes even the fear of success.
These fears, while natural, can become debilitating. They can paralyse us and prevent us from taking action to achieve our goals.
As bestselling author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, Jack Canfield, said:
Fear is the main reason people procrastinate… So we play it safe and avoid taking risks or trying new things.
It’s therefore vital to understand that our potential for success and personal growth lies on the other side of our fears.
The consequences of fear are many and varied. Here are some examples.
Fear often fuels self-doubt, making us question our abilities and judgement.
This self-doubt is like a heavy weight that holds us back from taking action.
- Risk Aversion
The fear of failure or fear of rejection can lead to risk aversion.
We become unwilling to step out of our comfort zones and try something new or challenging, even if it promises growth and success.
- Analysis Paralysis
Fear can also push us into a cycle of overthinking and analysis paralysis.
We become so engrossed in the ‘what-ifs’ and potential negative outcomes that we find it difficult to make decisions, let alone take action.
- Avoidance Behaviour
Fear is a big trigger of avoidance behaviour.
We procrastinate because we actively avoid confronting our fears, and in doing so, we inadvertently stifle our effectiveness.
- Opportunity Cost
Every moment we spend procrastinating due to fear represents an opportunity cost.
We waste time that could be invested in personal and professional growth, creativity, and achievement.
So, what can we do to break free from the shackles of fear and conquer procrastination?
By understanding, accepting, and actively acknowledging our fears. As Mahatma Gandhi said:
To do what we fear is the first step to success.
Confronting Your Fears
Confronting your fears may appear daunting at first.
But in my own experience, I was only able to break free from the cycle of procrastination when I realised it was my own fear of rejection that had prevented me from writing the books I had always dreamed of writing.
It was only after I fully understood my fear of rejection and my need to be accepted by everyone, when I accepted that this fear was preventing me from typing the first words of my book, The Golden Chalice, and when I acknowledged that this fear was also pervasive in many other aspects of my life, that I was able to face down this fear and take the leap of faith I had avoided taking for half my life.
If I hadn’t confronted my fear, I would not be able to help others with their fears.
Simple Strategies to Tackle Your Fears
Here are some simple strategies that will help you tackle your fears and break free from procrastination:
The first step is to recognise your fears and understand how they manifest as procrastination.
Self-awareness is vital to overcoming this obstacle.
Accept that fear is a natural part of the human experience.
It’s okay to feel fear, but it’s not okay to let it control your actions.
- Setting Clear Goals
Establish clear, achievable goals and break them down into manageable steps.
Smaller, more achievable tasks are less intimidating, making it easier to overcome fear and take action (see Chapter 14: Effective Goal-Setting in my book, The Flea Circus, for more details).
- Effective Self-Talk
Cultivate a habit of positive self-talk. Here you can use the strategy of ‘Inserting the But’ that we discussed previously.
Use the ‘But’ to mitigate self-doubt and replace negative thoughts with positive statements that reinforce your capabilities (see Chapter 11: Effective Self-Talk in my book, The Flea Circus, for more details).
- Seek Support
Don’t be afraid to seek the support from friends, mentors, or coaches. Having someone to help you face your fears and encourage you to take action can be a powerful way to break through procrastinating habits.
The path to success is through fear, but it is a path worth traversing for it is on the other side of your fear that your greatest achievements and personal growth await.
As Richard Bach, bestselling author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, said:
Overcome fear, behold wonder.
#3: Identify a Reward
In our discussion on the 5 BLOCKs of Awareness, we mentioned two types of distraction: arousal and avoidance.
Arousal distraction occurs when you intentionally divert your attention away from your current or pending tasks by engaging in more enjoyable or effortless activities.
This typically involves succumbing to the temptation of seeking immediate gratification.
For example, instead of attending to household chores like washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor, you might opt to indulge in watching TV or playing computer games.
At work, instead of tackling essential tasks like drafting a business proposal or submitting your monthly report, you find yourself drawn to activities like social media or gossiping with others.
Avoidance distraction is the intentional act of engaging in alternative tasks, deliberately diverting your attention from a pressing obligation that you don’t want to face.
Avoidance distraction is driven by the desire to evade the discomfort associated with tasks that demand emotional, intellectual, or physical exertion.
Both types of distraction involve the pleasure and pain area of your brain, the paleomammalian midbrain. Pleasure triggers arousal distraction, and pain triggers avoidance distraction.
Unfortunately, procrastination often finds its roots in the interplay between pleasure and pain.
Which is why it’s essential to understand how these powerful motivators affect your behaviour, as they can either propel you toward success or keep you mired in failure.
Pleasure & Pain Examples
Here are some examples of how the forces of pleasure and pain interact to cause procrastination:
1. The Pleasure of Distraction
One of the most common forms of pleasure that triggers procrastination is the allure of distraction.
Pleasure, in the context of procrastination, represents immediate gratification. It lures us away from our tasks and tempts us with the allure of comfort and instant satisfaction.
This provides a temporary respite from unwanted tasks but ultimately undermines our effectiveness.
2. The Pain of the Task
Procrastination also arises from the fear of pain or discomfort associated with the task at hand. It’s the emotional and mental resistance we feel when confronted with challenging or undesirable work.
If a task requires substantial mental, emotional or physical effort, we may find ourselves procrastinating to escape the discomfort of starting or completing it.
What’s more, if a project seems daunting, monotonous, or unenjoyable, we naturally gravitate toward tasks that promise more immediate pleasure, even if they aren’t conducive to our ultimate objectives.
3. Instant vs Delayed Gratification
The tug-of-war between short-term and long-term gratification is a central theme in procrastination.
Pleasure can be derived from postponing tasks, as we opt for instant satisfaction over the delayed reward of finishing our tasks and completing our goals.
This decision, however, often leads to missed opportunities, increased stress, and reduced effectiveness in the long run.
So, how can you navigate the complex terrain of pleasure and pain to overcome procrastination and build your effectiveness?
Ultimately, it is the conscious choices you make that will determine whether you succumb to whims of pleasure and pain or power forward with effective action.
So, this is what you can do.
-> First, recognise when the arousal/avoidance dynamic is at play when procrastination strikes. Self-awareness is the first step in nullifying the effects of this dynamic.
-> Then employ some or all of these strategies listed below to minimise the impact of arousal and avoidant distraction.
These strategies are designed to counteract the negative influence of your paleomammalian midbrain by offering rewards that are longer lasting than the fleeting sugar hit of procrastinating habits.
Simple Reward Strategies
1. Goal Setting
Establish clear, achievable goals with specific deadlines.
This creates a sense of purpose and a vision for the future, diluting the allure of short-term pleasures.
Multiply the benefits of this strategy by setting short- and long-term goals in each of your 7 Life Segments (see Chapter 14: Effective Goal-Setting in my book, The Flea Circus, for more details).
2. Break Tasks Down
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
By dividing larger, daunting tasks into smaller, more manageable components and tackling them in bite-sized portions, you can negate any feelings of overwhelm and minimise the perceived pain associated with the task.
3. Find Intrinsic Motivation
Seek intrinsic motivation in your tasks by focusing on the personal satisfaction and long-term rewards that accomplishing them will bring.
Shift your perspective from the pain of the process to the pleasure of the outcome.
4. Embrace Discomfort
Bodybuilders and butterflies know that discomfort is a natural part of growth.
Without the effort and strain of working out in the gym, muscles won’t grow.
Without the dissolving and reassembly of the caterpillar’s body in the chrysalis, the new wings of the butterfly will not develop.
By embracing discomfort, you can prevent its paralysing effect with the knowledge that your future reward is dependent on what you are doing in this moment.
5. Delay Gratification
Dogs are masters at delaying gratification, which is the art of postponing immediate rewards or pleasures in pursuit of long-term goals and greater success.
Dogs bury their bones and wait for them to ripen under the soil for a more enjoyable meal at a later date.
Although it requires self-discipline, patience, and the ability to resist the temptation of instant pleasure for the sake of more significant, future achievements, delaying gratification is a guaranteed way of beating procrastination and maximising your sense of enjoyment in life.
4: Identify a Value
Values serve as the moral compass of our lives, influencing the choices we make and the direction we take.
They are a collection of guiding principles that determine what we deem as correct and desirable.
When you consistently honour your values through living them, you experience fulfilment and a heightened quality of life. You experience less stress and greater peace of mind. You experience greater harmony between who you are being and what you are doing. You experience greater effectiveness.
Values can be divided into three categories: Personal, Core, and Community.
For instance, honesty, integrity, and humility are personal values. Goodness, Truth and Beauty are core values, and liberty, diversity, and freedom of speech are community values.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of values, so this table only represents a handful that you can choose from.
Personal values are those values you believe best suit yourself. They are the ideals, the beliefs, the principles to which you hold as a standard to live up to. They determine how you see yourself as a person, as an individual, as a human being.
Community values are those values you believe best suit the local and national community in which you live. They are the rules, the philosophies, the rights to which you agree to live by in accordance with the laws of the land. They determine how you see yourself as a community, as a nation, as a culture.
Core Values unite your community and personal values. If community values and personal values are two ends of a bow tie, then Core Values are the knot in the middle. Core Values are the thread from which all other values are woven.
Although there are thousands of community and personal values, there are only three Core Values: Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.
Goodness, Truth & Beauty are Principle, that which is absolute and non-dual, without opposite. They are unbreakable Laws of the Universe, the founding principles from which all life is governed.
Procrastination, however, often embeds in the misalignment between our actions and our values.
To break free from the shackles of procrastination, it’s imperative to recognise, rekindle, and embrace the values that you wish to embody and express.
For instance, one such personal value that frequently goes neglected is ‘discipline’.
Discipline is the ability to control your behaviour in a way that leads to increased productivity and/or better habits
When discipline is a central tenet of your value system, you inherently understand the importance of structure and self-control in achieving personal and professional goals.
But misalignment can occur when you are tempted to veer off course from your disciplined path, for example, by arousal distraction.
By reinforcing your connection to the value of discipline, however, you can transform your discipline into a potent source of motivation.
Instead of succumbing to procrastination, you can remind yourself of your unwavering commitment to disciplined action, thus staying the course and continuing to take the necessary action to achieve your goals.
Another value is the ‘love of learning’, or self-improvement. This value reflects your desire for personal growth, lifelong learning, and continual evolution.
If, however, the need for instant gratification hinders your path to self-improvement, you will likely feel an incongruency between your aspirations and your emotions, causing you to procrastinate.
Acknowledging the value of self-improvement and its future benefits can reinvigorate your efforts to do the work of personal growth.
The pursuit of knowledge, personal development, peace and happiness, and the realisation of your potential can negate the false promises of procrastination.
‘Integrity’ is also a value that lies at the heart of many of our belief systems.
Unfortunately, if you are tempted to procrastinate, you actually compromise your integrity because you fail to honour your commitments.
Reconnecting with your values of honesty and integrity can reinforce your sense of duty and responsibility, which you can then instill into your actions.
By doing what you say you will, you not only regain your integrity but also disengage the machinery of procrastination.
‘Gratitude’ too is a powerful tool to counter procrastination.
It is a reminder to appreciate the present moment and the opportunities it holds.
When procrastination threatens to steal your precious time, reflecting on the value of gratitude can trigger positive action through the recognition of the preciousness of each moment.
Ultimately, the key to overcoming procrastination lies in the alignment of your actions with your values.
Values are not merely guiding principles; they are the driving force that can transform procrastination into productivity, bringing you closer to the fulfillment of your dreams and the realisation of your full potential.
- Procrastination, the ‘Thief of Time’, is characterised by the irrational inclination to defer essential tasks and obligations.
- What you think about, you become.
- One of the problems with excuse-making is the unhelpful conclusions we draw from our excuses.
- ‘Inserting the But’ is one of the most powerful strategies you can use to break free from excuse-making and almost any self-limiting belief.
- Fear is the main reason people procrastinate.
- To do what we fear is the first step to success.
- Procrastination often finds its roots in the interplay between pleasure and pain.
- The conscious choices you make determine whether you succumb to whims of pleasure and pain or power forward with effective action.
- When you consistently honour your values through living them, you experience fulfilment and a heightened quality of life.
- Values can be divided into three categories: Personal, Core, and Community.
- Procrastination often embeds in the misalignment between our actions and our values.
- The key to overcoming procrastination lies in the alignment of your actions with your values.
- Values are not merely guiding principles; they are the driving force that can transform procrastination into productivity.