• Stephen Scott Johnson

Understanding procrastination (how to get important sh#t done)

By popular demand, this week’s newsletter brings attention to a topic many of us are familiar with – procrastination. There are countless reasons why we avoid the urgent and important tasks that we need to get done, and not necessarily for lack of time management. One year ago, I published an in-depth exposé on self-sabotage suggesting that procrastination is not a productivity problem – it’s an emotional one.

When we procrastinate, we fail to manage our emotions, not our time.

There’s a constant war being waged in our heads between the limbic system – the emotional ‘engine room’ of the brain – and our pre-frontal cortex that is responsible for complex behaviours like focusing one’s attention, planning for the future, and predicting the consequences of one’s actions. Timothy A. Pychyl Ph.d explains in Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Change that our pre-frontal cortex is less developed and weaker. In other words, we have to consciously kick it into gear to get tasks done, otherwise the limbic system takes over and we give-in to what feels good. In essence, procrastination is the result of the brain in overwhelm with conflicting emotions, which is why the pleasantness of any distraction feels good, helping regulate overwhelm.

Psychologists frequently label procrastination as escapism – a coping strategy that occurs when we experience anxiety about an important task ahead. To get rid of the negative feeling we procrastinate [endlessly trawl social media, hook-up, binge watch TV, fastidiously clean, and so on]. Whilst these activities help us feel better temporarily, reality always comes back to bite. If you’re not familiar with this vicious cycle, I’m referring to the self-defeating ripple effect of shame, guilt, and catastrophising that often follow failure to complete important tasks.

Overcoming procrastination is like bringing two identical poles of a magnet together – the resistance is overwhelming.

There are four key patterns to be aware of, and simple actions to disrupt them.

1. Fear of failure – When we fail, we worry about being punished and feel ashamed. So, we attempt to avoid failure at all costs. What many people (especially bosses) don’t understand, is that failure is essential to growth and progress. So, the first step to beating procrastination is to overcome fear of failure.

- Next time you fail, try to find the upside. All negative experiences have some benefit (even if hard to see at the time). Realising these benefits can help make failure easier to experience in the future.

2. Denial – Denial may be conscious, but it is often unconscious. And whilst it can be difficult to identify that which is unseen, it is nonetheless serious. Denial is a refusal to acknowledge truth or reality, and if ignored it can cause serious problems. Next time you have a knee-jerk reaction to opposing views – take a breath. You don’t have to agree, or be right, but rather, learn to disagree with grace. How you see the world – your perspective – is only one lens of possibility. Learn to listen to alternative opinions and interpretations of facts with humility. Look at all the facts.

3. Impulsiveness – Many of us don’t understand why we act and react the way we do. From overeating when we’re not hungry to having another glass of wine on a weeknight to texting someone we know that we shouldn’t be texting – controlling impulsive behaviour can be overwhelming. There’s almost always something deeper at play.

If you struggle with impulsive behaviour, understanding what is motivating you is essential. Identify the root of your impulsiveness and find ways to reduce the desire to act upon it. Practice quiet, grounding activities, such as meditation, journaling, and yoga, which create the space to process impulsive thoughts and any actions you may wish to take.

4. Resistance – We each have an inner ‘rebel’, a part of the personality that resists the status quo. Sometimes our resistance is driven by values – a need to remain ‘true to self’ – whereas oftentimes it is more serious and creates painful and disadvantageous outcomes. The next time your ‘inner rebel’ surfaces, consider whether your need to resist is psychologically driven by unresolved wounds or deficits from early childhood [that lead to a false sense of superiority, a sense of powerlessness, or need to control].

If you value independent thinking, resist often and can be persuaded by logic, I invite you to reflect on the fact that independence and a sense of freedom are not necessarily cancelled out by cooperation and acceptance – neither is cooperation inferior to independence.

Awareness is key to understanding why we procrastinate. As with all self-sabotage, being aware of what we are feeling helps develop a more reflective approach to changing self-limiting patterns. Instead of ignoring or amplifying negative emotions – try and understand them. And if what I’ve shared seems way too intense, there’s always Tim Urban’s Monkey of Instant Gratification.

Until next time...

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