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Procrastination – Friend or Foe?

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Procrastination is a formidable adversary.  It can be a psychological barrier like no other and no amount of telling ourselves to “just do it”  can help us overcome it.  No matter how much we try – in some areas of our lives – we seem to consistently fail to do what needs to get done.

Why does it happen?  There are a number of reasons, but three major ones are discussed below.  The good news is that all of these reasons can be managed with a shift in mindset, and if we can successfully tackle all of these, then we are probably on course to blast through anything.

1  We procrastinate when the task is not important enough.

Baby_Robot_11If we don’t believe deeply that the task is that important we will  do something easier or more fun instead e.g. watch tv instead of doing the housework.  

We may clean the floor eventually, but only after having lived in some filth for a while.  Maybe we will finally go food shopping but only when we grudgingly accept that we genuinely can’t eat that sprouting garlic clove.

Other tasks which fall into this category are all the things that we’re “supposed to do” over habits that we’ve already established.  For example, learning how to eat well over how we’ve always eaten.  Getting some exercise over staying at home.  Getting up earlier versus staying in bed.

Without realising it we’ve developed a value of immediate gratification vs. delayed gratification.  As a result, we now always want immediate gratification, which we’ve come to associate with the “easier” task.

We can work this in our favour, however, by consciously trading off the two options that we are putting on the table.  Instead of looking for immediate gratification from the “easier” task, we can look for immediate gratification from doing the “difficult” task.  For example, if we do the vacuuming now we can feel good about ourselves and have a clean house.  If we watch tv now, we’ll feel bad about ourselves and we will still have a dirty house.  We can then follow this with genuine delayed gratification.  After we clean the house, we can treat ourselves in any way we want.  Maybe we will watch tv now after all, or maybe we’ll go for a coffee with a friend.  Whatever we do, we can enjoy it guilt free and ask nothing more of ourselves all day long.

In this way, we can actively approach any new versus old habit, aiming to creatively put all of the odds massively in favour of the new.

2 We procrastinate when the task is important but unpleasant in some way e.g.  it will take too long, is too boring or too hard.

Baby_Robot_20In this case we tend to leave the task till the last minute.  Only the threat of consequences motivates us to complete it eventually e.g. filling in forms of any description, revising for exams, completing a project at work.

What is happening here?  The reality is, these tasks often are boring, long and hard!  However, the problem with putting off these types of tasks is firstly, we can end up living in a constant state of anxiety.  Secondly, if we leave things to the last minute we never get to show our true and full potential as we only ever get to demonstrate our rushed, half-completed selves.

The key here is to make these important, unavoidable tasks as painless as possible.  So the first step is to make them small.  With these tasks we need to break them down and write them down.  We need to keep breaking them down and writing them down – before we begin any of these tasks – until we have a big picture full of little steps that we can literally see are not that bad (maybe even enjoyable) and that are definitely leading us to an end goal.

The aim here is to learn to work independently, from start to finish, without the need for external pressure. This is probably the biggest single key to real success.  As soon as something unpleasant comes up, it simply needs to be broken down.

3 We procrastinate when we want to do something, but the task is too scary.

Baby_Robot_12Public speaking or learning a new skill such as dancing, or a language, often falls into this category.  In this case we may avoid this task all together – especially if we don’t have to do it.  We’re afraid of making a fool of ourselves, being judged negatively or failing.  However, this thought pattern is often just an unfortunate outcome of our childhood experiences.  Humiliated, rejected or ignored if we’re not immediately good at something – we’ve learned from an early age to avoid trying anything new.

The problem here is that we’re missing out on the fullness and richness of life.  Our world becomes small and closed and we become unhappy, frustrated and bored.  We actually love to challenge ourselves and learn new skills.  The good news is the adult learning environment is not the same as the childhood learning environment.   Adult learning environments tend to be almost entirely supportive, non-judgemental and entirely self-paced.  We can take as little or as much time as we need and we’ll find everyone is in the same boat.  The only real issue here is taming the self-critic within, taking the first step and not giving up too soon.

In conclusion, if we don’t run from it – we can use procrastination as an indicator of an important step we need to take in personal growth.  Conversely, we could also decide that we’re perfectly happy with the way things are, and let it go.  In either case, we need to face up to it.  If we face up to procrastination, we may find that rather than having a formidable adversary, we actually have a formidable friend.

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