Are you putting off assignments until the last minute while constantly playing catch up? Or maybe you're ready to take the next step in your professional life but can't seem to find the time to update your resume and find a new job? As you manage your career, is procrastination getting in your way?
Is Procrastination Holding You Back?
We all experience procrastination from time to time. As a long-time journalist, I am extremely deadline-driven and yet it still happens to me. Each time I find myself avoiding a task, I promise myself that I'll research how to change my bad habits … just as soon as I find the time.
My procrastination comes in the form of constantly pushing aside my passion project: a novel I have been working on for three years. Often, after a long day at the office, the last thing I want to do is sit back down at the computer and write some more. When I feel this way, I promise to get back to it tomorrow. The problem is that I have this internal dialogue nearly every night.
Recently, I decided to uncover the source of my procrastination and some techniques to help me stop. I began my research with a conversation with Christine O'Neill, a career coach who specializes in helping professionals get unstuck and out of procrastination limbo.
She outlined six common reasons for procrastination, and offered a few techniques she uses to help her clients tackle it.
The Six Root Causes of Procrastination
According to Psychology Today, "Why do I procrastinate?" is one of the most commonly asked questions in therapy. So, what's the answer?
"It's different for everyone," O'Neill said, and this is not a definitive list of all the reasons why people put things off.
Depending on the individual or situation, there could be several motives for avoiding a task at work or home. However, according to O'Neill, there are some general explanations for why we procrastinate. Do any of these sound familiar to you?
1. The task is unpleasant
This is very a common reason for procrastinating. People often do the tasks they enjoy most first and leave the ones they dislike for later. If you enjoy doing research, for example, you may find that you spend way more time gathering information for a report than you do actually writing it.
2. Feeling overwhelmed
"Having too much to do or too many decisions to make is a common excuse for procrastinating," O'Neill said. When people have a lot on their plate, it can lead to stress and anxiety. Often, in those times, something gets pushed aside to prevent these feelings from emerging. Other times, according to O'Neill, this type of procrastination occurs when people are facing very large projects because they just don't know where to start. Stalling becomes a coping mechanism for avoiding a task that feels too monumental.
Shannon, a florist in California, contends with this type of procrastination regularly. She says that during her busier times – the summer wedding season, in particular – she finds herself overwhelmed by decision-making.
After meeting with a couple to discuss the flowers for their wedding, she comes up with a "recipe" of flowers to create the look. However, the endless possibilities she finds at the flower market can often cause a stall.
"I don't want to make a wrong decision so I make no decision at all," she said. "There are so many options that I don't want to pick the wrong thing. I think a lack of confidence is part of it."
3. Belief that pressure creates good work
Another common cause of procrastination, experts agree, is the idea that some people work better under pressure. According to O'Neill, this may actually be true, though it might not be the best strategy.
"We often convince ourselves that working under pressure is the way we get things done. And, in some cases, I would say it's true. Some people do get things done and done well at the last minute," she said. "But I also challenge my clients who speak about strategy, and ask them, 'At what cost?'"
Operating in this way can increase stress, impact sleep and also affect the work of others. Another thing O'Neill asks clients to consider is if the work turns out to be as good as it could have been if more time had been devoted to its completion.
4. Lack of accountability
O'Neill says that having a lot of "nebulous tasks" – ones without specific deadlines – is another common cause of procrastination. This one sounded very familiar to me. O'Neill explained that those who avoid tasks for this reason often do it with personal goals – like writing a novel. In my case, I don't have an agent or a book deal, so no one is waiting for me to turn in my manuscript. Plus, when it comes to writing, my priority is with work. When work gets busy, writing my book falls by the wayside.
O'Neill says that in the workforce this is a common problem for small business owners who aren't accountable to a boss or a deadline to get things done.
"There isn't that motivation to get a task done for someone else, and therefore it kind of falls away and becomes less of a priority," she said.
5. A fear of failure
Ever heard of "imposter syndrome"? It's a common fear of high achievers who worry that despite their accomplishments eventually others will uncover the truth: that they are a fraud who has no idea what they are doing.
Of course, the fear is usually irrational, but being asked to learn a new skill at work or perform a task you've never done before can trigger this feeling. It can also be paralyzing. After all, the best way not to be "found out", according to O'Neill, is to avoid the task that is making you uneasy. "This feeling is often connected to perfectionism," she said.
6. A fear of success
Do you ever wonder if you are worthy of success? "Believe it or not, some of us are afraid of getting what we want," O'Neill said. Some people have a deep fear of success that can lead to procrastination. In these instances, according to O'Neill, the person procrastinating subconsciously worries that achieving their goals could change their lives or relationships, and that trepidation holds them back.
Jennifer, a New Jersey attorney, can relate. When she plays armchair expert and looks at the reasons she procrastinates, she believes it is a form of self-harm.
"When I'm really busy and everything is going great in my personal and professional life, I will procrastinate as a way to make myself feel bad, as crazy as that sounds," she said. "It's as if when things are 'too good,' I act out some level of self-sabotage, which is what procrastination is for me during these times."
5 Tips for Overcoming Procrastination
According to O'Neill, tackling procrastination isn't a one-size-fits-all prescription. Your approach will vary depending on the reason you are procrastinating in the first place. Here are some methods that she employs with her clients.
1. Build time into your day
O'Neill starts by asking her clients to consider whether the tasks they find themselves postponing are actually important to them. In my case, she suggested that I ask myself whether finishing my book was essential.
"From a coaching perspective, I want to understand how important this is to you. If this novel is a real priority, why aren't you making it one in your life?," she asked.
Once she determines with her clients what their real priorities are, O'Neill then advises them to tackle those first.
"Create a structure in your day to make sure that you are committing to getting this done for yourself. Usually, I recommend doing it in the first part of the day," she said.
By performing these tasks first, not only are you working with a fresh brain, but you are creating a no-fail environment. "Leave the tasks until the end of the day," she said, "and life has a chance to get in the way."
2. Visualize success
O'Neill recommends that her clients visualize success as a way of staying motivated. To do this, imagine what it would be like to have the task completed. How would you feel knowing that you tackled a project you've been avoiding?
"Doing this will help you find the motivation," she said. "Visualizing success reminds you of the reason you wanted to do the task in the first place, versus being dragged down by the thought of 'having' to do it, which feels overwhelming."
3. Break up the task
To make a large task more digestible, break it up into small pieces and work on those incrementally, O'Neill suggests. She recommends using the Pomodoro Technique, a work method named for those kitschy tomato-shaped kitchen timers.
Here's how the Pomodoro Technique works:
- Choose a task that you want to complete. It can be large or small.
- Set a timer for 25 minutes.
- Work on that task until the timer goes off and then stop.
- Make a check mark on a piece of paper. This indicates that you have accomplished one 25-minute block of work.
- Take a short break and do something not work-related.
- Repeat until the task is completed.
For very large projects, this technique might be performed several times a day for several days or weeks. It works, in part, because of the built-in reward system, according to O'Neill. Knowing that a break is coming up helps people keep their focus. Plus, the act of making a check mark on the paper creates a visible cue that you have made progress towards your goal.
4. Create accountability
Most workers have deadlines in some form but not always. If you work from home, own a small business or are just looking for ways to work more efficiently or ahead of deadline, creating an accountability network can help.
This can be accomplished in a variety of ways. You could announce your goal on social media or team up with a friend or coworker who is also working towards a goal. However you do it, the idea is that someone other than yourself knows about your goal and can help you commit to it.
"If someone else knows about [your goal], then you're likely to think, 'Well, now I have to get it done because I'm not just accountable to myself,'" O'Neill said. "When you do actually vocalize that, it externalizes it and makes it more real."
5. Celebrate your successes
"Incentives work," O'Neill said. She tells her clients not to wait until a big, looming project is finished to give themselves a reward, but rather to chart out milestones along the way that deserve praise. In my case, she suggested a reward for every chapter I write.
"Acknowledging that you've accomplished something is really important," she said. "Ask yourself, 'What's something that I can give myself to congratulate myself?' Maybe it's something really small, like deciding that when you achieve a step in the process you are going to go for a walk and get a mocha latte. The idea is to take those moments to celebrate the successes that we have along the way."