Why we procrastinate and Do’s and Don’ts to stop

A man is sitting in an office chair with a hole in it.

We all procrastinate sometimes on a project we don’t like: a piece of work that is too hard, too boring or too stressful or a matter we don’t know how to deal with. This blog looks at why we procrastinate and how we can stop procrastinating by figuring out what our main blockers are.

Why do we procrastinate?

We can group the reasons why we procrastinate into two main categories. Clustering our reasons is helpful because if we nail the cause of our procrastination, we are more likely to succeed in developing a strategy to manage it.

One of the biggest reasons we don’t deal with something that we know needs our attention is because we don’t like the emotions associated with that task. The emotions a task can evoke are broad but typically include anxiety (which may come from dealing with something unknown), stress (worrying about the consequences or what is at stake) or a sense of inadequacy (am I good enough at this?). Negative emotion–led procrastination will turn our attention to the matters we know well and keep us away from experiencing the negative emotions we feel uncomfortable with. Even when we see our deadlines approaching, we just sabotage our own attempts to get started. We get worse at this when we are under pressure or already feel overwhelmed.

The other big reason we procrastinate is that we haven’t built a system or an effective habit for deciding (a) if we need to deal with it and (b) when we are going to deal with it. Even though our emotional drivers are under control, we haven’t yet put a system in place that allows us to decide what we do and when we do it. In casual terms, we say we are disorganised. What that means is that our priority management system is not effective. We are not relying on a good gatekeeper system and the works-for-us habits that work together to help us discern what we need to keep and what we want to drop.

How to manage each scenario: we don’t like the emotions that some work evokes

The first scenario may take place when we have to deal with a matter we don’t know much about. We park it. The learning curve is steep and requires dedication and effort. We may also put a matter on hold because it comes with lots of expectations, and that pressure is stressful; we don’t want to experience stress.

In all of these scenarios, what we usually achieve is that we enter into a catch-22: To avoid anxiety, we let a task run out of time, and by doing so, we become even more anxious. If conscious or unconscious emotions are driving the Groundhog Day and our piece of work is still in the same place we left it weeks ago, a change will not take place unless we are willing to reflect on what is bubbling underneath.

Only by arming ourselves with a bit of self-compassion and by ‘hearing our own pain’ will we give ourselves a real chance to stop parking the task, blaming the lack of time and ultimately staying in procrastinating mode. Our aversion to bad emotions is human; if pressure is high and work demands pressing, that aversion tends to become magnified. To start clearing the way and seeing what’s really going, try asking yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the prevailing emotion this work evokes? Is it boredom or fear of doing a bad job? Write down what comes to your mind without many filters. We recognise and feel relief when we finally hear the voice of our deepest selves.
  2. Once that feeling has come out of the hide, ask yourself: What can I do to reduce it? Say, for example, you are working on a presentation and feel a lot of pressure. Who can help you review it?
  3. Are you triggered by a past experience? If your last experience was high criticism, we will be triggered when asked to do something similar. But is this situation really the same? Do we know more?
  4. Are we inflating the consequences or what is at stake? If so, why? A good sounding-board conversation may help us bring things into perspective.

We don’t have an effective system in place to decide what, why and by when

Unless we own a sound system that separates ‘do it’ from ‘drop it’, our tasks get lost in the limbo of ‘should I really do it?’ The only way to shake up the status quo and move into action is running a conversation beginning to end: do I really, truly need to do this? Often, we procrastinate what we think we should do because we don’t really want to do it. It’s helpful to recognise that we need to make a decision first, even if it sounds like a step back and not tackling our task.

Once we have resolved the conflict, we are in a different space. We now are in the land of reinvigorated motivation, allocating priority levels, setting realistic deadlines and introducing new mini-habits to fuel progress.

Do

  • Know why: Decide if what you are procrastinating needs altogether revisiting.
  • Focus on the motivation to get it done.
  • Incentivise yourself and invent your own rewards. You deserve support from your best self.

Don’t

  • Over-criticise yourself. No one is immune to procrastination, and playing with your self-esteem will not help.
  • Expect to climb the mountain overnight: You need to have a realistic plan and break down the steps.
  • Think solo or act solo. There is help available for you: Reach out to your supporters, share some of the burden and ask for help.

Finally, ensure that the rewards are there; if there are none at first sight, just create them for yourself. When the underlying emotion is strong and the task is substantial, it takes effort to process it and determination to get to the end. If the best you can do today is to work on your project for 15 minutes, appreciate that it is already a step. Reach out to a supportive colleague and recognise that this is progress.

Experiencing any of these issues? Find out how coaching can support your specific challenges.

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