Procrastination. Writer’s block. Laziness.
Whatever you call it, and whatever BuzzFeed wants you to think about it, it’s not a personality trait or an uncontrollable phenomenon. It’s a mental response to a problem—and a perfectly legitimate one at that.
Procrastination and its many variations is not something to squash down. You can’t willpower your way through procrastination—not for long, at least. Instead, it’s an experience to listen to and learn from. Only then can you overcome it. Grasshopper.
The First Cause of Procrastination
The number one cause of procrastination is fear. And let’s be real. There are plenty of reasons why you might be scared of something that you know you have to do. Here are a few:
- Fear of the work
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
Let’s say you have the first version of a website design due to a client by 9am tomorrow. You finished the first half yesterday, but today you can’t even think about finishing the second half without impulsively opening yet another Facebook tab.
You might know that you’ll be successful if you just complete the design, but the sheer amount of work left in the project is paralyzing. This would be fear of the work.
Fear of failure, on the other hand, occurs when you’re scared to wrap up the project because, oh gosh, what if your client hates it? This is, at its base, perfectionism. You feel you can never get the project to the standard you believe it must be.
Finally, fear of success is not the opposite of fear of failure. It’s actually very similar, as they’re both concerned with issues of self confidence. This kind of fear comes with questions like: Once this project is done, what will it mean for me? What if when I finish it, the client starts sending me more projects? Am I actually ready for this?
My point here is that “fear’ doesn’t always feel like terror. More often, it comes in the form of quiet thoughts that eat at you. When you try to push those thoughts away instead of dealing with them directly, procrastination starts creeping in.
Soothing your fears
Fear is a visceral response to things we don’t understand, ideas we haven’t fully thought through. Common wisdom tells us to squash the fears and move forward. But honestly, how well does that work? To calm the fears (and the attached procrastination), you actually need to face them head-on. Work through them and find out if they’re actually as scary as you’re imagining them to be.
Here are two practical exercises:
1) Break it into manageable pieces
Something I learned early on is that if I try to sit down and write a whole article, I lose focus quickly because there are too many places to start. Instead, the first time I sit down, I tell myself I only have to research the topic and write an outline. That’s it. I can worry about the first draft later.
And guess what? By allowing myself to start small, I often find myself writing up a first draft anyway because the ideas aren’t stifled by my arbitrary expectations.
Identify the smallest first step. Are you a designer? Maybe you tell yourself you just have to spend half an hour looking up inspiration and examples, or brainstorming designs. Developer? Commit to just researching potential solutions to the problem you’re trying to solve.
Procrastination comes in when we hold crazy-high expectations of what we should be accomplishing right now. It’s far better to stay focused on just the next step.
2) Write out every fear and its consequence
Sometimes you can’t focus on the next step because you’re too distracted by the larger implications of the project, such as fear of failure and fear of success.
To combat this kind of fear, the most impactful practice is to walk through each potential scenario, and then respond to it with the opposing idea. I find it’s best to do this out loud or in writing.
For example, you might realize that you’re hesitant to finish a project because you realized halfway through that it’s probably not going to meet the client’s expectations. You know you should just finish it up as best you can and move on from there, but you’re feeling overwhelmed by the huge expectations placed on your shoulders.
So, you start writing. State each fear, and then talk back to yourself as if you were talking to a flustered friend. You might feel a little crazy. Who cares? It works.
“The client will hate it.”
This was a good idea to start with, based on good research; it can’t actually be that far off. But worst case? Offer a revision. Show them that you care.
“They won’t pay for it if it’s not perfect, and then I won’t hit my income goal for this month, and then I’ll get kicked out of my house and die.”
They signed a fee agreement; they’ll pay for it because the project still meets the key requirements we laid out. And worst case? You won’t work for them again. You have enough to tide yourself over to the next project – chalk it up to a learning experience and move on.
“Finishing this project will eat up way too much of my time. I won’t be able to take on new clients.”
You can cut down the remaining time by staying focused on the minimum viable product, instead of letting yourself get caught up in the details. And if it does take up too much time, so what? You already committed to it. Just see it through.
With this method, you’ll often find that the potentially bad outcomes are actually pretty negotiable, and there are tangible steps you can take to work through them if the worst should actually happen.
And honestly? Most of the time, all of those doomsday scenarios are in your head. As a fellow fretter, I can tell you that our fears about our work is so often unfounded. Even when there IS a problem, it tends to work itself out.
So procrastination and fear are intimately linked. But what do you do when you work through all of the fear, and you find that you’re just… unmotivated?
The Second Cause of Procrastination
This form of procrastination tends to sneak up when you’re not paying attention. You have no idea why you’re procrastinating—you just know you don’t want to do the work.
What you’re experiencing is a lack of meaning. It’s that gut feeling that neither the act of doing the work, nor the outcome, will benefit you or the world in any way. It almost feels like something in you won’t LET you do the work, because there’s that little voice that keeps asking Why? Why? Why??
There are people in this world who will tell you to buck up, put your head down, and just get it done. And there are many people in this world who are able to do that, and who thrive off of that work style. However, if you’re experiencing a lack of motivation because you’re just uninvested in the work, you need to listen to it. Accept that it’s valid, and then find what you need to do to change it.
The solution to procrastination caused by a lack of meaning is to gain more context.
Ask yourself: By completing this task, are there any benefits to you or to society? Then, are these benefits something you value? Sometimes, just asking that question is enough to remember the bigger picture and rekindle those feelings of meaning and fulfillment. Every industry can map back to a purpose if you’re approaching it the right way. Even a used car dealer is ultimately helping people find the right transportation to take them to work every day so they can support their family.
Then, take it from the flip side. Even if it’s not a noble cause, what are the consequences of not completing the task? Are the consequences impactful enough to spur you to do the work?
The negative is a good tactic for getting you to finish a job in the short-term. But if you keep finding yourself dejected, and your work still feels like it’s eating you alive, then the problem isn’t just procrastination. It’s the kind of work you’re doing. It’s far better to get to the root of the problem and find work that doesn’t leave you so demoralized.
How to find work that has meaning to you
1) Start with small changes
Every job has elements that will make you drag your feet. How can you modify your work so that you’re doing less of those things, and more of the work you enjoy? For example, if you find yourself procrastinating sending out invoices because you hate the administrative side of things, can you invest in accounting software that makes it easier, or even a personal assistant?
As the old (creepy) saying goes, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Most of the time, small changes can go a hell of a long way in rekindling your love for what you do.
2) Learn about yourself
I’ve always been a huge fan of the Myers-Briggs personality theory, and there are tons of resources online to test your personality and learn about yourself (I tend to favor 16 Personalities). It’s not about putting you in a box, and you shouldn’t use it as the definitive answer on who you are and what you like—but it IS a valuable tool for seeing yourself in a new way and for exploring careers that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
Exploring your personality opens doors to understanding yourself in new ways, which can help you identify not only new industries you might enjoy, but also help you find your best way to work. For example, maybe you’re an extravert in a desk job who really needs a lot more interaction with people to be happy. Or maybe you actually have a talent for focusing on the details, but you keep finding yourself in big-picture ideation roles, which is exhausting.
3) Start journaling. Like, yesterday
Buy a journal that you like. Then, let it be the space where you think out loud. It might be awkward at first if you’ve never done it before, but get over it. This is the #1 tool for anyone who feels like their life is out of sync with their values and they’re trying to figure out where to go next. Why? Because you are not only working out your thoughts in real time, but you can go back and remember your thoughts from the other day. Don’t censor yourself. Think of it as your sandbox for testing out ideas.
4) Use your free time to try new things—or old things you used to love
When I was feeling lost, I tried launching a sewing business. I tried rekindling my love for drawing. I even took a four-week pole dancing class.
You don’t find your future work by sitting and thinking about what you want to do. You find it by trying it. Don’t overthink it. Once you dive in, you’ll find out quickly whether or not it’s something you’ll enjoy long-term.
Procrastination isn’t a personality trait. It’s a message.
Your impulses are there for a reason. Only when you understand what’s causing them can you begin to change.