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It seems procrastination is a challenge that we’ve all faced at one point or another.
As humans, we struggle to make decisions. We can delay, ignore, or avoid actions. We can fail to take initiative or complete tasks in the amount of time we should. We can struggle with time management.
Ultimately, procrastination can lead to failures. It can lead to the inability to mitigate risks, be creative, or be productive. Procrastination can lead to feelings of loss, insecurity, or inadequacy. We blame ourselves for laziness, perfectionism, or fear of failure.
It is frustrating and at times, disengaging. It can lead to feelings of depression. In some extreme cases, it can culminate in job loss or burnout. Procrastination impacts our mental health, our self-talk, and causes negative feelings.
Procrastination almost never leaves us in a better position.
But it’s important to remember that if you procrastinate, you’re not alone.
We’ve all been there.
As a coach, I’ve worked with plenty of clients on overcoming procrastination. Today, we’ll talk through what defines procrastination. We’ll also walk through ways to overcome procrastination — and how to empower your own success.
What is procrastination?
To understand how to overcome procrastination, we must understand what it means. Procrastination is the act of delaying or postponing something. Procrastinating can happen in a variety of environments.
For example, you might find yourself delaying a project at work. You might write it down every week to accomplish, yet somehow you keep pushing to the next week.
Or you might have committed to some new healthy habits in the new year. But you keep procrastinating on physical health and wellness. Perhaps you’ve adopted new habits except for that 30 minutes of exercise.
No matter what the reason, procrastination happens to all of us. But before we get into how to overcome procrastination, let’s understand why it happens.
Why do we procrastinate?
I often wonder why some people procrastinate by delaying, postponing, or avoiding solving problems. Why do people withdraw from making smart decisions, taking calculated risks, or taking action?
Some people become paralyzed. They may feel unable to take necessary actions to solve key problems to deliver on key goals, waiting for more information or more experience. Others might resist making the most necessary of changes to support the desired outcome.
There’s a range of negative consequences for procrastinating. It can involve a crippling, overwhelming, and paralyzing reactive response. Typically, it negatively impacts people’s self-efficacy and self-belief.
So, why do people procrastinate? The need for security and self-protection is the key root cause of procrastination.
Procrastination is most often a self-protection strategy. It’s a way of defending ourselves that is rooted in fear. As a form of protection, it’s highly ineffective — oftentimes, it results in anxiety, feeling unsafe and vulnerable, judgment, or even punishment. And in times of uncertainty, unpredictability, it leaves us feeling overwhelmed.
In most coaching contexts, procrastinating people are likely to be risk-averse. Here are some common behaviors:
- Apprehensiveness and withdrawal. Being apprehensive and even withdrawing energetically from people. As a coach, I often see a lack of commitment to coaching paired with a lack of commitment to the agreed goal. People who procrastinate often show a lack of conviction — and are worried about the future.
- Avoidance and wasting time. People who are procrastinating often spend a lot of time and energy zigzagging around what they feel is consuming them. They may wait to tackle that priority task until the very last minute. Most of the time, this makes them feel threatened or uncomfortable.
- Placing blame. People who procrastinate often blame external people or factors for not “allowing” them to succeed. This can be everything from time and workload to culture and environment.
- Denial. Procrastinators deny that achieving the goal really matters. They often bring up excuses or reasons why the goal doesn’t matter to them. This also can manifest in non-committal behaviors, like being less willing to take risks.
- Fear. If people who procrastinate are seeking security and self-protection, it’s because fear is at the root. People who procrastinate are often fearful of the future. They may dread what might be the range of possible negative and overwhelming events and situations.
This might manifest in pessimistic attitudes, including a lack of confidence in their own ability to do the task or a feeling that the outcome won’t matter or make a positive impact in any case.
5 ways to overcome procrastination
You might be in a position where you’re ready to tackle procrastination. If you’ve noticed that you’re putting off projects and it’s impacting your life, you’re not alone. It’s also important to recognize that it is possible to overcome procrastination.
5 ways to overcome procrastination
- Recognize procrastination when it happens
- Start small
- List out what will happen if you do procrastinate
- Work with a coach
Recognize procrastination when it happens
The first step to making a change is recognizing change is needed. To do this, you need to tackle denial and fear head-on. The next time you feel yourself putting off a task, stop and take a moment.
Are you pushing this off because you’re afraid of something? If so, what are you afraid of? Would you feel better if you were able to accomplish this task? How will procrastinating on this task make you feel?
By identifying your tendency to procrastinate, you’re making incredible progress. It can be hard to be aware of your own actions. Understanding when you’re procrastinating can be so beneficial to overcoming procrastination.
If you’ve procrastinated on a task, it can feel like you’re confronting a mountain. But luckily, you don’t have to start big. In fact, research shows that starting small can be helpful to make our way over the hump.
Try breaking down your procrastinated project into small bits. What small action can you take to help get the ball rolling? Try focusing on just that small action. You might find that once you start small, you’ll continue to make progress on the rest of the work.
Starting small can snowball into something big. Celebrate the small wins and acknowledge that the work you’re doing — no matter what size — matters.
You can also work in a reward system for tackling small tasks. For example, let’s say you’ve been putting off cleaning your kitchen. Once you unload and load the dishwasher, consider rewarding yourself. You might take a walk outside, go grab a coffee, or allow yourself to listen to a podcast.
By setting small goals attached to small rewards, you can overcome your tendency to procrastinate.
List out what will happen if you procrastinate
Our instincts may tell us that procrastinating will protect us. But we know that we often feel worse about ourselves after we’ve put off a task for some time.
The next time you want to put off a project, grab a pen and paper. Write out a list of what will happen if you do procrastinate. Then, write out a list of what will happen if you don’t procrastinate. Think about the feelings associated with each decision and write them down.
Compare your lists. By evaluating the cost of procrastination, you’re forcing your logical brain to weigh the pros and cons. Sometimes, you can unconsciously sabotage your own chance of success. In your lists, you might see cognitive biases or irrational beliefs.
These beliefs act as filters that distort reality. You might also feel a sense of threat or danger, which is normal. Your body might want to freeze, fight, or take flight.
Be aware of your reactions to your lists and identify any feelings of vulnerability. But in the end, you might recognize which list makes the most sense (and does the most good).
Some people procrastinate because the task seems too large to focus on. Concentration and focus are so important to reaching our goals.
If you’re prone to distraction, try to disconnect yourself as much as possible. For example, if you know that Slack or email can be distracting to getting your work done, can you close out of them? Or if you regularly check social media instead of accomplishing a task at home, can you disconnect from your phone?
Force yourself to make a block of time dedicated to a particular task. Set specific deadlines or create a workflow to meet in that block of time. Find small ways to separate yourself from your distractions. By disconnecting, you’re enabling yourself to better focus on the task at hand. You’re also setting yourself up for success.
Work with a coach
It’s important to foster a safe and compassionate coaching relationship. Working one-on-one with a coach can help immensely when overcoming procrastinating.
When working with your coach, be vulnerable and honest about any underlying self-beliefs around procrastination. For example, if you’re afraid of having a tough conversation with a co-worker, ask your coach to help you work through “the why.” You might feel like you’re exposing yourself to risk. You might feel like you’re putting your working relationship to the test.
Lean on your coach in these moments to help guide you through your thoughts. Your coach can provide gentle guidance and patience. They’ll offer ways to build your confidence but encourage commitment.
You and your coach can work together to build trust, rapport, and assurance. Together, you’ll work towards co-creating a safe environment. You and your coach will work together to set goals that will meet the desired outcome.
The 5 stages of overcoming procrastination
Like any change, overcoming procrastination can come in stages. I’ve outlined five stages of overcoming procrastination — and what you can do about them.
- Attune. In this stage, you are deeply present to tune into what’s really going on. Pay deep attention to the root causes and signals you may be receiving. Withhold judgment and try to create a safe, collective space to hold your thoughts.
- Awareness. In this stage, you’re developing awareness of procrastination. This is a reflective stage. In the awareness stage, it’s important to deeply listen and inquire about your default patterns. By identifying your patterns, you’re better prepared to overcome them.
- Acknowledge. In this stage, you are putting your attunement and awareness to the test. This requires evaluating benefits and drawbacks. For example, let’s say you wrote out the list of what would and wouldn’t happen if you procrastinated.
Acknowledge the consequences of your action (or inaction). By doing so, you're one step closer to overcoming procrastination. Examine this stage closely and with self-compassion. With the right support, you can make an informed decision about your procrastination habits.
- Accept. In this stage, you’re accepting the truth of your habits. You may feel stressed during this acceptance stage. Or you may feel some tinglings of denial. But to truly reach the acceptance stage, you need to take ownership of your default patterns. It’s empowering to make that fundamental choice to shift and reframe your behaviors.
- Act. Last but certainly not least, this stage is about taking action. Hopefully, by now, you’ve made a decision. You’re willing to engage in action. You’ve likely made a commitment and by doing so, you’re increasing your own confidence.
You’re also taking responsibility for completing your actions within an agreed-upon deadline. Consider working with your coach or manager on an accountability plan that also provides support.
Breaking the procrastination habit
Overcoming procrastination is possible. Here are five key takeaways to ensure that you can continue to break your self-defeating procrastination habit.
- Look at your excuses and the stories you tell yourself rationally. Can you become an “ace disputer” by challenging your perception of them?
- Make a daily or weekly to-do list, and keep a score of your progress. Tick off those short-term tasks once completed — and reward yourself when done. Be honest about what hasn’t been done.
- Step up and seek support. If you’re having trouble following through on an endeavor, make your project public. Seek the support of a coach, friend, or manager to help hold you accountable. By gaining the support of others, you can hold yourself accountable when you feel stymied.
- Just do it. Choose an activity that you really dislike doing (like setting up interviews). Commit to doing it for just 10 minutes a day. Notice that once you’ve started, you can get into your flow state more easily.
- Cope with stress, worry, and anxiety. You can use different techniques to help manage your stress and anxiety. For example, practice deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
You might keep a consistent physical exercise schedule. Or you might listen to music, relaxation tapes, or find humor in your day-to-day.
Start small. By making small changes, you’ll create openings to be able to learn and grow to become the best version of yourself. You can achieve anything — and that change is possible within you.
Overcoming procrastination is no easy feat. But with the right tools, mindset, and support system, I’m confident you can make the change you wish to see.