Before writing the first draft of this article, Nat cooked lunch, cleaned the kitchen, shopped for groceries, dropped her parents off and wrote a LinkedIn post. It’s truly amazing what chores (and scrolling habits) become urgent when you’re avoiding things that actually need to be done.
Procrastination is defined as a self-defeating behaviour pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs. For us laypeople, that means putting off important stuff, even though we know it’ll come back to bite us. We all do it, we’re all aware we do it, and we all seem unable to kick the habit despite knowing how irrational it is.
Turns out, we’re not lazy
Put your productivity app down; you can’t time manage your way out of procrastination. We know because we spent a good part of a day researching the causes, and they’re actually quite fascinating. Humans are complex, illogical beasts who often act against our best interests. This self-sabotage isn’t our fault; it’s just our poor, confused brains trying to protect us against (imaginary) threats.
A psychology 101 lesson: we’re hardwired to prioritise our immediate needs. For most of history, our survival has depended on it. This instinct is called the present bias or temporal discounting. It’s why very few kids can wait before eating the marshmallow; it’s also why we default to avoiding immediate pain (e.g. completing a tedious or challenging task), even if it makes life harder for ‘future us’.
Talking of ‘future us’, here’s another brain quirk that leads to procrastination. We tend to see our future selves as strangers. This emotional disconnect is one of the reasons we find it hard to act on important things like climate change and retirement savings. And why, at Powrsuit, we always book 6am flights – even though we both know that ‘future us’ will hate us. This brain oddity also has a very odd side effect: we unconsciously think that by putting off things we don’t want to do, we make them someone else’s problem. Sadly, we’re wrong.
Our old friend, the amygdala, also plays a role in procrastination. This almond-shaped nugget is our brain’s threat detector. It’s handy when threats come from wild animals and invading forces but not so great when it interprets fear of failure as a risk to personal safety. During an amygdala hijack, our coping mechanism is to avoid challenging and negative emotions – be it a boring or unpleasant task or the potential pain of critical feedback and embarrassing judgement of others.
Compounding the problem
We’re all guilty of procrastinating occasionally; life is busy, and it’s easy to put the dishes/lawn/cleaning off. However, sometimes procrastination arises from deeper fears around inadequacy and failure. We can be incredibly hard on ourselves and can slap self-limiting labels on a little too freely. When procrastination becomes a habit, it becomes self-sabotage, adding unnecessary stress and impacting the quality of your work and reputation.
We face enough career challenges without adding our own into the mix. So if you find yourself panic delivering right on deadlines or living with underlying anxiety while avoiding your to-do list, here’s how to do today what you usually delay:
1. Get curious: When do you procrastinate?
Even if you procrastinate all the time, it’s important to remember that you’re still not A Procrastinator. Applying that label can be very damaging, and it’s not true – this behaviour isn’t who you are; it’s just a habit you can (and will) address.
All of us happily complete a lot of tasks, and we put others off. So, the first step is to pay attention to your procrastination triggers. Do you find yourself filling in time to avoid going for a run? Deliberately avoiding your overdrawn bank account? Putting off a complex piece of work? Understanding the things you avoid will help you get to the bottom of why you avoid them. Which brings us to step two:
2. Why do you procrastinate?
There are a range of reasons why we procrastinate. Think back to one of the times you’ve deliberately avoided doing something, and see if any of these reasons resonate:
Unpleasant activities (or the perception of them)
Very few of us enjoy cleaning. Even fewer get joy from arranging the junk drawer or clearing years of boxes out of storage. We don’t enjoy taxes, organising insurance, managing finances, or hard conversations, so we put them off. If you’re anything like us, you’ve been guilty of putting off a frustrating/monotonous task for weeks. Eventually, ticking it off… in just a few short minutes.
Sensation seekers crave new and complex experiences and stimulation. At the extreme end of the continuum are your mountain climbers and base jumpers. Further down, you’ll find early adopters and deadline enthusiasts. Sometimes, when we think we need a little motivation, we can go out of our way to add extra challenges to our lives. If that’s you, it may be time to consider healthier ways to get a kick!
Anxiety, fear and perfectionism
Fear of judgement and failure can be real motivation killers. Often, we put things off because we’re worried about not being good enough or concerned about other people’s reactions. We’re worried about being embarrassed, judged, or coming up short. Doing things at the last minute is a defence mechanism: if your work is substandard, you have a ready excuse!
We’ve all been there: your to-do list gets too long, and life gets too hard. Complicated activities, unclear goals and too many choices can all lead to a sense of overwhelm and a tendency to get stuck in inertia.
Sometimes, we’re asked to do things we simply don’t want to do. Whether your task doesn’t align with your values or you’re doing it because you feel like you should, that feeling in your gut may be correct. Recently, we wrote about making your SMART goals smartr, and that article holds the key. Extrinsic motivations (e.g. other people’s expectations) are not as powerful as intrinsic motivations (i.e. finding your why).
Beat procrastination with small actions
Procrastination is a habit and likely one that’s not serving you. Honestly, we don’t care about your messy house or the trash pile in your car, but we do care about your stress and mental wellbeing. We don’t know why you procrastinate – as you can see, there are a lot of root causes – but we do know small actions can change ingrained habits. So, next time you find yourself doing anything but the thing you should, here are some tiny actions that might help break the cycle:
Count to 10
Before indulging your need to procrastinate. That’s right before you start scrolling or wiping down the windowsills, simply count to 10. This will force you to be mindful of your delaying tactics and might be just enough of a circuit breaker to stop you before you start.
Timebox your to-do
Set your timer for 10 minutes and commit to spending that entire time on the task you don’t want to do. Really hate it? After 10 minutes, you have full permission to delay – but chances are, you’ll be on a roll (or done!) by then.
Remove barriers to starting
We’re more likely to procrastinate when we think the task is more demanding, so actively make these tasks easier. If you wake up early to exercise, you have our permission to sleep in your exercise gear – then you just need to roll out of bed. Have your bags packed, your desk clear, distractions out of the way, and you’ll have fewer blockers in your path.
Get specific with your goals
How exactly do you ‘get fit’? How do you really go about updating your LinkedIn profile? Do you really want to clean the entire house? Take these lofty goals and make them specific: ‘Go for one 10-minute walk’, ‘update my most recent experience on Linkedin’, ‘Clear out one cupboard’. A lack of clarity breeds a lack of motivation. The more specific you are, the easier it is to get the thing done.
Stack your habits
Habit stacking is another way to work with your brain’s quirks instead of against them. Build on existing practices to create new ones. We all have ingrained habits like making tea or coffee, putting on shoes, and getting in and out of bed. Tie tasks you procrastinate on to these habits: When I sit down to work, I’ll set my timer for 10 minutes and work on X’.
Focus on the fundamentals
Women are socialised to be perfect. All that fear of failure, judgement and adverse outcomes can leave you paralysed. But mistakes are how we learn – one thing we can guarantee is that you won’t improve until you start.
You may have come into this article thinking you needed to tackle some time management challenges. We hope you’ve left a little more forgiving of yourself. This stuff isn’t simple, and change can involve really digging into some mindsets that don’t serve you. We’re big fans of the power of positivity and small actions and hope you join us in challenging ourselves to break out of bad habits to give ourselves the mental space and peace we deserve.
30 second action:
Next time you find yourself procrastinating, spend 30 seconds reflecting on why you’re really putting off the thing you should be doing.
- 5 gender equity practices for 2023 Studies show that diverse skills and ideas that come from having more women on the c-suite and boards of directors can boost the profits and value of an organisation. There are proven best practices that can help deliver more profitable and fair workplaces.…
- How to ask for feedback Are you one of 63% of employees hungry to hear how they’re performing? here’s 3 things you can do to get more feedback. The biggest impact you can have on the amount you're given is by focusing on how you receive it,…
- The generational divide doesn’t need to mean an… As Baby Boomers leave the workforce, Millennials are moving into leadership positions, and Gen Z are making their mark.
- Part 1: Get job-hunting fit - Before you start looking Most of us think job hunting starts when we’re actively looking… But it’s long before then.