Many of us label ourselves as a procrastinator.  ‘Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow’ is our catch-cry.  For some it’s a joke but for many it’s an uncomfortably prickly reality. Being a procrastinator affects academic success, work lives and personal relationships.  If you do a quick google search there is a lot of advice out there for procrastinators on how to overcome this ‘habit’.

Discipline is urged. The belief exists that ‘I don’t feel like it’ triumphs over the desire to achieve goals. This is the case even in well-respected publications.  The procrastinator on hearing this feels guilt and shame, they’re being lazy or self-serving. This article explores some alternative explanations for procrastination and makes some suggestions on overcoming procrastination.

The procrastinator / perfectionist conflation.

Many people believe the two character traits are strongly linked together.  On the face it, it does make sense.  People are likely to never start something if they fear they won’t achieve the high standard that they set themselves.  But what they fail to do is to look underneath to what is driving the perfectionism.  Perfectionists measure their own self-worth by how able they are to achieve the perfection that they seek. Our worth is measured by how much we can accomplish. If we don’t achieve our goal, then our internal dialogue can be extremely harsh and negative.

This negative self-talk is often caused by depression or anxiety.  In fact, the anxiety can be so bad that the trait of perfectionism is strongly linked to suicide.

Executive malfunction

Recent research has highlighted that there is a wide variance in people’s ability to plan or map out large and complex tasks.  This ability to mentally organise tasks into discrete operations is known as ‘executive function’.  Roughly executive function can be divided into three different areas:

Working memory

Working memory means being able to keep information in mind and then use it. An example of this would be reading a statistic in a report and then being able to use this information in your work in a meaningful way.

Flexibility in thinking

Also known as cognitive flexibility this skill relates to being able to think about things in more than one way.  This means you can understand relationships between ideas and concepts or solve problems using lateral thinking.

Inhibitory control

Inhibitory control includes self-control. This allows us to keep focused in the face of distractions or competing demands on our time.  It also affects the regulation of our emotions and impulses.

In a nutshell executive functions are what help us focus and keep working on tasks we need to do. Even when the tasks may not be especially interesting our executive function keeps us from becoming a procrastinator. It help us set priorities, get organised and get started on our work. Executive functions are required to help us remember what we have learned, what we have read and what we need to do.

When someone has difficulties in their executive functioning they may become a procrastinator because they can’t retain enough information to gain a clear picture of the project.  They may struggle to understand how the various components relate to others or they may be diverted by outside influences. This has nothing to do with being lazy. In fact, it takes more effort to stay on task when you have neuroatypical processing which constantly drives you off track. Imagine the difficulty of looking at a task with no clear idea of how to begin.

The protective influence of self-esteem

A person with a robust self-esteem would have no issue admitting that they aren’t sure where to start, or that they need help to structure their environment to achieve their goals.  The people who fall into difficulties and end up procrastinating tend to be those with the lowest self-esteem.

Again this also links to anxiety, when you worry about what others might think of you, you are less likely to reach out for help.  There are many tools that people can avail themselves of that will help them map projects out. Calendars, datebooks or teams of people who work together to solve specific tasks in a linear fashion can all be helpful.  Procrastinators become stuck because they feel (for whatever reason) that they cannot avail themselves of those tools or feel that those tools are not working for them.  Instead of feeling able to discuss this with their managers, lecturers or partners it’s common for a procrastinator to feel overwhelmed because not only are they failing to do the task, they are also having to have a conversation which exposes their weaknesses.

Overcoming procrastination

So is it as simple as building self-esteem and reducing anxiety?  The answer, as always, is more complex.  However, this is a great starting point. People function best when they are relaxed and feel good about themselves. That’s not really an observation that will shock anyone.

When you can approach tasks from a calm and focused position, they are going to feel easier and more achievable.  By letting go of the stories that you’ve built up in your head about being a ‘bad and lazy’ person you may find you actually become more productive.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you could overcome procrastination, to leave that label of ‘procrastinator’ behind once and for all?

Start by being kind to yourself.

I regularly write about the importance of self-compassion. Just be kind to yourself.  Sometimes you just aren’t in the right frame of mind to tackle a task or you can’t quite see a way to start it yet.  It’s okay.  If feelings of guilt or shame threaten to take over, remind yourself that it’s ok.  Schedule in a time when you will start working on the problem and then go and enjoy your time guilt and anxiety free.

Acknowledge that you are your own harshest critic.

Most people are so busy caught up in criticising themselves to spend a great deal of time thinking negatively about the tasks that someone else has done.

Enlist external help. 

Make use of resources that exist to keep you on track.  Learn how to use a Gant chart and use that to track when you need to start and complete all the various components of your project.  Get a friend or colleague who is particularly good at seeing the bigger picture to help you break the job up into more manageable sections.  When you set yourself achievable goals you give yourself the opportunity to succeed over and over again.

Challenge your irrational thinking.

Will your relationship irreparably break down if you choose the wrong colour paint for the walls?  What’s possible and what’s probable? Possibly they will be a bit cross and probably you might have to live with walls that are a colour you don’t particularly like for a while.  Mistakes are not life sentences. Consider what the absolute worst outcome might be and then think about how probable that outcome actually is.

There is no such thing as failure, only feedback.

This NLP presupposition revolutionised my life.  Instead of seeing something I’d done badly as a catastrophic failure I began to see it as an opportunity for growth.  By creating something and getting a critique on it I gave myself the opportunity to learn and improve.

Neuropsychological research suggests that you can learn skills that actually improve your executive functioning.  This then leads to greater feelings of well-being, which means higher self-esteem and lower anxiety.

Would you like to break the cycle of negativity?  Contact me today (not tomorrow or later this week!) to discuss how Integrative Therapy can help you be more productive, delay tasks less, feel better about yourself and be less anxious.