Mark Twain captured the essence of procrastination in his famous quote: “Never put off until tomorrow… what you can do the day after tomorrow.” Many of us live by this maxim almost religiously… and when we find that the results are less than wonderful we usually decide to stop putting things off… starting tomorrow. There are 14 million Google listings about procrastination and statistics show that 20% of people consider themselves chronic procrastinators.
Putting things off consistently means things don’t get done, goals remain in the far off future (eternally), and happiness is constantly postponed. Putting off what needs to get done feels good in the moment, but you pay for it later. And those who have mastered the skill of procrastination struggle endlessly to change their ways…. to no avail.
Yet it will come as a surprise that procrastination is a useful skill when applied in the right context. If you are good at procrastinating you can put off anger, disappointment, frustration and anxiety. You can postpone giving up, being self-critical or even overeating. All those things can simply be left until later if you are good enough at procrastinating! When I work with clients who tell me about their tendency to procrastinate I always ask, “Do you ever put that procrastinating off until later?”
It’s a common mistake to think that procrastinators are just lazy. Actually, maintaining the pattern of procrastination requires a great deal of hard work!
There is a strategy to procrastination. Those who tend to procrastinate function based on a pattern of avoidance. They tend to focus on what they don’t want and are motivated to move away from or avoid things. When the consequences of not doing are not important or not immediate, they put things off until later. As deadlines come closer, inner images of potential consequences get larger and more real. They see vivid pictures of getting fired, flunking school, or a call from collectors. The internal voice of warning gets louder and more insistent. “You have to do it or you’ll get fired!” “Do it now or else!” The more unpleasant it is, the more motivated they are. Their internal dialogue is full of shoulds and have to’s…most of which simply don’t get done.
This strategy can cause one to get a lot done provided the consequences of not doing are important enough… even though it can be a very stressful and unpleasant way to motivate oneself.
Procrastinators begin procrastinating as soon as they wake up in the morning. They love to sleep in and the way they get themselves out of bed is a great example of their strategy for motivating themselves. Upon waking, the internal voice fires off, saying “I should get up.” Then they focus on the warmth of the covers and that feeling of tiredness and say, “Just another five minutes.” After five minutes the inner voice pipes up again, but a bit louder and more insistent. They then begin to see images of the consequences of not getting up; missed busses and trains, angry bosses and disapproving teachers,… and they think, “Just a bit longer.” This continues as that voice gets louder and louder and the images get bigger and brighter until a feeling of urgency forces them out of bed. It works, but it’s not how I like to wake up!
The other problem for those who use this strategy is that the worse things get in any area of life, the more motivated they are. When their relationships, finances or career are bad enough, they become extremely motivated to make changes. As they move away from these things, meaning as things get better, they have less to move away from and motivation drops, until they end up back where they started and highly motivated once again. With this type of strategy, motivation in inconsistent. This is not the strategy of a high achiever.
Those who are able to maintain their motivation and seem to find it easy to get things done are motivated by what they want. They have a clear vision of their goals, aims and objectives and constantly work to move toward it. They focus on what they want and they think of how good it will feel to attain it. When it comes to unpleasant tasks, such as cleaning or doing their taxes, achievers focus on the end result – instead of focusing on the gruelling process they concentrate on how good it will feel to have it done. For large projects that can seem overwhelming they mentally break the project down into small steps and feel good about completing each step. When talking to themselves they replace should and have to’s with “I am going to…” “It’s time to…” or “I get to…” All in all they feel good about getting things done.
So how can we overcome procrastination? To turn it around, and fast, a procrastinator needs to use his own avoidance strategy to avoid procrastination itself. When you think of all the negative consequences of putting off a certain task, you will be motivated to just get it done! Then, you can compound this with all of the positive consequences of getting things done so you have something concrete to move toward, and so you can begin to learn a new, more pleasant and more effective strategy for motivation.
One day as I was considering something I needed to get done and I caught myself say, “I don’t feel like it” (with a very unencouraging tonality!). I realized that not feeling like meant self-sabotage. If I were to give in to this on a regular basis, it would prevent me from achieving my goals. I decided to make a change. Now, when I hear myself say “I don’t feel like it” I finish the sentence with, “and so I’m going to do it now!” Not feeling like it has become a trigger for motivation.
If you want to be the type of person who simply gets things done, whenever you think of something that you need to do, take immediate action towards it. It can be one small step, a moment of planning or putting something in your calendar. If you practice this consistently, it will become so automatic that putting something off until later won’t seem right.
So what have you been putting off that you can do right now?
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