We all have to deal with procrastination at some point in life. You probably know the feeling when you should get to work but somehow you just can’t and so you fool around all the way up to the last minute, when stress and pressure help you get the job done; or, in an even worse case scenario, the job never gets done.
If you aren’t smarter than procrastination, it’s a complete lose-lose situation. The job doesn’t get done or is performed poorly. While you procrastinate, you always have a reminder somewhere behind in your mind that you should be working, and so you can’t be really relaxed.
Not to mention that procrastination can make you feel like a loser and slowly turns your self-image into someone who just can’t get work done. Consequently, your productivity suffers a lot, together with your earning and creative potential. Nobody gets anything out of it.
There are two types of procrastination, a chronic and an acute one. Chronic procrastination has a deep, strong and permanent psychological cause that may not be so easily eliminated. It can be done, but it takes patience and hard work.
On the other hand, acute procrastination can be caused even by small mood or energy swings throughout the day or other small psychological reasons that aren’t a steady natural part of your psyche (you have a bad day, for example).
Thus chronic and acute procrastination have to be dealt with in different ways. There are many tricks and tactics for dealing with both types of procrastination and in this blog post I will show you how to overcome procrastination once and for all, no matter the type. In this article, you will learn:
- How to distinguish between chronic and acute procrastination
- How to deal with chronic procrastination
- How to manipulate acute procrastination like a pro
- Other useful tips for becoming a super productive human
Let’s start with acute procrastination, since it’s the easier one to deal with.
It’s actually quite easy to recognize acute procrastination and distinguish it from the chronical one. When acute procrastination attacks you, you behave differently than usual.
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You may even ask yourself something like “why am I acting so stupid”. In a normal state, you’d just get the job done, but this time something is holding you back.
Even if you’re a super productive person, acute procrastination will strike you from time to time. There can be many reasons why it comes to acute procrastination:
- Low levels of energy
- Being in an irritated emotional state
- Not taking a break after completing a long demanding task
- You think someone else should do the task (if it was delegated to you)
- People you don’t like are involved in work
- It’s a type of task you don’t like (boring, in other words)
- Other similar reasons
The first thing you have to do is to identify why you’re procrastinating. Just ask yourself why you’re procrastinating and observe your inner dialogue.
This is an important step, because you can’t tackle all the reasons for acute procrastination in the same way. First you need to make the right diagnosis.
Based on the cause of acute procrastination, there are several things you can do. Here they are:
Just start working
One thing you may do is to just force yourself to start, to make the first step. The first step is always the hardest.
If you ever had to push your broken-down car, you know how it is. Once you get the car moving, it gets much easier.
So what you can try is to mobilize every single unit of discipline you possess and push yourself hard into making the first step. Sometimes it works surprisingly well. After the first step, you just forget about the procrastination and get the job done.
Manage your energy, not your time
An important concept in time management is that you don’t manage only your time, but also consider your energy levels. No matter how disciplined you are, you’ll have super productive days and not so productive ones.
In the same way, you have your peak productive hours and less productive hours in a day.
Here are only a few things you should consider in this context:
- Push yourself when you have daily peak productive hours, not when your energy levels are low
- Take a nap or a walk and start working right afterwards if you feel tired
- After a period of hard work, take a break and refill your batteries
- If you’re emotionally irritated, talk to other people and calm yourself down first
Accept that sometimes you’re simply not in the state to be productive and that’s okay. We are all only human.
Resolve your energy issues first and then when things calm down, go after the task you procrastinated on.
You also need to be smart about hard work. You can’t just work hard constantly. Sooner or later, a burnout happens. Life is a marathon, not a sprint.
So take regular breaks throughout the day (walk, stretch, hug people etc.) and a long break at the end of the week. You will be much more productive on other days.
Yes, the reason for acute procrastination may be because you’re working hard, not smart. You may be pushing yourself without sharpening the saw at all. When your body is sick of you not paying any love and attention to yourself, it starts blocking you from getting anything done.
Do you think that people on the top are the people who only work hard or those people who work hard and smart?
Manipulate acute procrastination
If nothing else works, there is actually an easy way to manipulate acute procrastination to your advantage in order to keep your productivity levels high. This is one of the rare situations where
This is one of the rare situations where you should put to use every single drop of manipulation skills you possess.
What does usually happen when you procrastinate with a task? Remember when you had to study, for example, how did you procrastinate?
You probably went from your room to the kitchen to check if all the food was still in the fridge and took a bite or two. You surprisingly just needed to go to the toilet. You browsed a website or two to relax, and counted the number of windows in the building next to yours. And so on.
But there is another thing that you probably did. You tidied up your room and your desk, arranged all the notes, stretched a little bit, talked with your classmates about what could be in the test, and other semi-productive tasks.
You see where this is going?
If nothing else works, you can use procrastination as a source of motivation to do other important tasks.
The only key is that you don’t waste time on stupid things, but instead tick off other tasks that are currently marked as important on your to-do list. When the deadline for the procrastinated task approaches and puts more pressure on you, you’ll just get it done.
Don’t fight procrastination, do other important things instead. The concept is known as structured procrastination and it can be one of the best pieces of advice for keeping your productivity levels high.
This is how you become smarter than acute procrastination.
Between chronic and acute procrastination
Before we look at how to deal with chronic procrastination, there is one more type of procrastination that includes the elements of both. There may be a type of tasks that you procrastinate on just because you find them boring or they’re really not your thing.
It's not because of any deep psychological reason or your temporary emotional or energy state. It’s just not your thing.
It’s a dish on your plate, but you just roll your eyes when you have to chew it. You just don’t feel it. Usually that happens with tasks that make you feel apathetic, because they require low skill level and aren’t challenging.
For me, that’s administration. It’s not something I can’t do. It’s not a difficult and complex task. It’s not something that needs a lot of energy.
Administration has nothing to do with my assertiveness. But it’s just not my thing. And I don’t have enough administrative work to outsource it.
Here are a few things you can do with that kind of tasks:
If possible, delegate those low-value tasks. If you can’t delegate, outsource. They shouldn’t use your mental bandwidth at all.
The first money made with this blog will definitely be spent on a virtual assistant.
If you can’t delegate or outsource, outline a process that will minimize your effort in starting and completing such a task.
I try to automate as many administrative tasks as possible. And I group them, so I do all the administrative work in one day at the end of every month. It usually takes me an hour or two, and I make sure my accounting firm puts me under pressure to really tidy up my papers at regular intervals.
Acute procrastination is very different from the chronic one. There is a deep and a complex psychological issue behind chronic procrastination.
If you aren’t lying to yourself about how productive you are when you really aren’t (ask other people to get a better perspective), it’s not difficult to identify chronic procrastination.
You’re in the state of chronic procrastination when you constantly procrastinate with certain types of tasks or, even worse, with all of them.
It’s not a temporary thing, but not procrastinating is an exception rather than a steady thing.
Here are the most frequent reasons for chronic procrastination:
- Lack of assertiveness, fear and self-sabotage
- Unreasonably big goals and high expectations (you know deep down that you can’t meet them)
- Unhealthy lifestyle
- A lack of skills or fake passion
- Perfectionism and other cognitive distortions
Let's see how to deal with the stated causes of cronic procrastination above.
Lack of assertiveness, fear and self-sabotage
A lack of assertiveness is the number one reason why people usually procrastinate. The source of a lack of assertiveness lies in upbringing.
Instead of trust, autonomy, initiative and competence, you develop mistrust, shame, guilt, doubt and inferiority. A lack of assertiveness means that you’re an emotional midget and that you need to emotionally grow up.
Luckily, a lack of assertiveness usually happens only in a specific context; much like being an alpha (fe)male usually happens only in a specific context.
For example, an alpha male on a soccer field may not be that alpha in intellectual things. An introverted successful professor may not be an alpha when it comes to money.
Similarly, there are usually areas of life where you know how to assert yourself and others where you don’t. In the areas where you don’t know how to assert yourself, you procrastinate.
The only way to fix this is to learn how to assert yourself in a healthy way in that area of life. The best way to do it is to observe yourself how you act in your strong areas of life and use the same behavioral patterns in the areas of life where you procrastinate. Role models, mentors and people who are assertive in your weak areas may also be a great help.
The situation may be even more dramatic. If you constantly procrastinate with everything in your life, you may suffer from a lack of assertiveness in all life areas.
A general lack of assertiveness leads to a zombie life, full of frustration and unhappiness. Since you have only one life, start doing something about it. It may not be easy, but it can be done.
If you aren’t sure if you’re a healthy assertive person, read the bullet points below and observe your feelings to see how much you identify with them.
The more uncomfortable you feel about any point below, the more problems you probably have with assertiveness. An assertive person:
- Likes themselves as they are
- Has a strong sense of self and their autonomy
- Has no problems with their needs being met
- Knows how to express feelings
- Knows where they’re going in life and what they want
- Is not afraid of conflict and knows how to set boundaries
- Takes initiative and contributes creative ideas
A lack of the assertiveness usually leads to one of two extremes: greed or symbolic self-castration.
It may come out in many different forms, including addictions, depression, isolation, gluttony, self-sacrifice etc. Anyway, you get the picture. Healthy assertiveness or a pile of emotional shit – together with fears.
Healthy assertiveness or a pile of emotional shit – your choice.
Fears are closely connected to a lack of assertiveness. The two most common fears that are connected with a lack of assertiveness and are potentially holding you back are the fear of failure and the fear of success.
The fear of failure means that you not only lack assertiveness, but also probably suffer from poor self-image. The truth is that nobody likes to fail. Failing sucks big time.
But if you do fail, it doesn’t mean that you’re a complete loser and nobody will ever love you.
There is a big difference between being hurt by failure, going through a recovery period, reflecting on what you learned and then trying again in a smarter way, and being paralysed by the fear of failure and thus never trying anything new in life at all.
You have to disconnect failure from your feeling of self-worth. They are not the same thing.
Nevertheless, failure is an integral part of success. Success is nothing but going from one failure to the next without giving up; until you succeed.
So if you want to succeed faster, you have to fail more. You have to learn to love failing and constantly learn from it.
One way to deal with failure easier is to introduce the search mode into your life; I will talk more about it further on in this article. Now we have one more type of fear to deal with.
It may be hard to believe, but there is another funny fear that may be holding you back and causing you to procrastinate – the fear of success. Success brings things like fame, financial abundance, being the center of attention, good feelings about yourself, and so on.
If you don’t feel like you deserve success and everything that comes with success, you will always self-sabotage.
The best solution to this problem, besides professional help, is active visualization and developing the abundance mindset. You want to mentally picture yourself as a highly successful person and connect strong positive feelings with this picture.
If you don’t see yourself as a successful person, you will never become one.
Having unreasonably big goals and expectations in life
Unrealistic expectations lead to disappointments, and big life disappointments usually lead to procrastination or even giving up.
You are obese and expect to lose weight after the first two exercises. You want to be an investor and you’re disappointed because you haven’t made any ROI with your first investment.
When you have unrealistic goals and realize, after your first try, that it will be much harder to achieve your goal than you thought (and it always happens like this), you may start to procrastinate.
You may start doubting yourself and asking yourself if you even have what it takes to achieve your goals. For a while, you struggle with procrastination, and soon you give up. It happens to most of the people who have unrealistic expectations.
There are three ways you can tackle this problem. First of all, trust the process. You have to see that a goal you want to meet comes after a long and demanding process.
You have to deserve it, nothing worthwhile comes easy. You have to put in the small daily efforts that accumulate in the long run. There is no other way.
Nothing worthwhile comes easy in life.
The second thing you can do is to not bite off more than you can chew. You shouldn’t be afraid of progressing slowly; what you should be afraid of is quitting completely.
It’s okay to have big dreams, but start small.
Slice and dice your big goal into smaller steps. Steps so small you can act on them on a daily basis.
Your vision must be your compass in life, but make sure that your vision isn’t also the source of your procrastination, because you don’t see the small steps you must take.
But what are realistic goals? Well, the third thing you can do will give you the right answer. Introduce the search mode into your life and first get the whole picture of the terrain before you start running.
The search mode again? You just have a little bit more to read and then I’ll explain what the search mode is. Now let’s move on to laziness.
There are many reasons why you may be a lazy person. Maybe everyone did everything instead of you when you were young and now you expect the same from life. Maybe you never saw or enjoyed the reward for trying harder.
If you see yourself as a lazy person, the only solution to this problem is an identity shift.
If you want to deal with laziness procrastination once and for all, you’ll first have to see yourself as an ultra-productive person.
Visualization and a more encouraging self-talk, supported by actions may help with that.
Ask yourself: what beliefs are supporting your laziness? Imagine yourself as an ultra-productive person, never suffering from procrastination. How does your life look? Do you see any benefits?
Here are a few additional ideas that may help you:
- Visualize your new identity and try to feel good about yourself.
- Write down the rewards you’ll get if you try harder (your whys). And make sure you really do reward yourself for small efforts.
- Try to support your new identity with small productivity actions – when you would normally procrastinate at a small task, do it immediately instead.
If you don’t see yourself as a lazy person and you actually are (we all have blind spots), well, first you have to become aware of it. Maybe you can ask 10 people in your professional and personal life if they see you as a lazy person.
Or benchmark your working outputs with 5 other people that have the same position as you do. That may be a good start.
If you don’t have high levels of energy, it’s very normal to procrastinate. A lack of energy may be caused by overworking, burnouts and temporary exhaustions.
But it can be also caused by an unhealthy lifestyle. If you have a really poor diet with no exercise, small changes can already have a big benefit for your productivity.
Here are a few recommendations for improving your lifestyle:
- Get enough sleep (7 – 8 hours) and make sure it’s quality sleep
- Eat a healthy diet with lots of green veggies, healthy fats and low levels of sugar
- Have a few smaller meals throughout the day, so you keep your insulin levels steady
- Avoid unhealthy snacks
- Help yourself with core supplements
- Exercise a few times per week
- Drink enough water
- Make sure you aren't destroying your body and spirit with addictions
There’s no big philosophy here, just do it. Go sleep early, add veggies to every meal, always have healthy snacks at the reach of your hand, go for a walk or exercise every day, drink water and so on.
Introduce one of those things into your life every month and in half a year, you’ll enjoy a completely new you.
When we talk about a healthy lifestyle, you should pay special attention to addictions.
There are many addictions that can be destroying your life and your productivity, and cause you to procrastinate; addictions like too much chocolate and sweets, watching TV shows late into the night, sleeping too much, hanging out in bars, not to mention harder addictions like smoking, alcohol or drugs.
Negative habits in your life should become triggers for positive ones.
One way to deal with addictions is to exchange bad habits with new, good ones. Actually, you can’t really quit an addictive habit, you can only replace it with a new one, either a negative or a positive one.
You want to replace most of your negative habits with positive ones. Negative habits should become triggers for positive ones. Do push-ups every time you want to eat a slice of chips.
A lack of skills or fake passion
As said before, if your skill level for a certain task is high and a task is not even a little challenging to you, you get bored – and you may procrastinate.
In the same way, if a task is way too demanding and you lack skills, your actions are hindered by worry, anxiety and procrastination. It’s a similar issue to having too high expectations, just from a slightly different angle.
What you want to do in order to not procrastinate is to undertake tasks that challenge you, but also meet your competence level; those are the tasks that are just a little bit more demanding that your skills.
Again, the solution is to slide and dice tasks into small challenges that you can undertake. These small challenges are like early wins that will motivate you to continue following your goals and do more and more demanding tasks. That kind of an approach means smart work.
But if you persist on the path where there is a big gap between the task you undertake and your skills, you may fall into a big trap that will backfire nastily on all your efforts.
Here is why. In psychology, we know the comfort zone, the learning zone and the panic zone. If a task is way too challenging for your current skillset, you push yourself directly into the panic zone.
As the name implies, in the panic zone you start panicking and quickly run back to your comfort zone; maybe even forever.
In the panic zone, you may face such severe negative emotions that it becomes much harder to go out of your comfort zone for the next attempt. With good intentions, you may additionally cripple your will for action. Don’t crush yourself so hard that you’ll never try a new thing again.
Never overestimate what you can accomplish in a month but, on the other hand, also don’t underestimate what you can accomplish in a few years’ time.
Feeling lost? Follow your effort
Another big reason why you may chronically procrastinate is because you feel lost. Every highly motivated person I’ve meet had a big vision for themselves and the world, a powerful mission with whys stronger than any problem and a life strategy aligned to their goals and needs.
Therefore, you want to make sure that your goals are totally aligned with your own life vision, your talents, competences and values. If your goals aren’t true to your real self, you will never be motivated enough to achieve them, since they won’t be your real passion.
If your goals aren’t true to your real self, you will never be motivated enough to achieve them, since they won’t be your real passion.
And make sure you don’t have unrealistic expectations regarding work that awakens passion in you. There’s rarely a scenario where you have a passion for something (like a hobby) and then that thing also becomes your job with which you can pay your bills.
It can happen, but usually successful artists and computer geeks are rare exceptions in this.
There’s rarely a scenario where you have a passion for something (like a hobby) and then that thing also becomes your job with which you can pay your bills. It can happen, but usually successful artists and computer geeks are rare exceptions in this.
Passion will then come with mastery. The bottom line is that you have to provide value to the markets, and value is what other people are willing to pay for; unfortunately, those are usually not your hobbies.
Don’t follow your passion, follow your effort. Become a master at something market the needs and passion will follow.
Perfectionism and other cognitive distortions
Cognitive distortions and negative thinking are the last big reason why you may be procrastinating.
Here are just a few examples of how cognitive distortions may contribute to procrastination and how negative thinking and toxic beliefs are preventing you from acting:
- All-or-nothing thinking: I have to do it perfectly or I won’t do it at all.
- Overgeneralisation: I never do this type of task right, so why would I do it okay this time. It’s better if I don’t do it at all.
- Mental filter: I have to work with that a**hole on this task. I can’t get anything good out of it except frustration and humiliation.
- Disqualifying the positive: I shouldn’t be the one doing this task, I will have zero gain from it.
- Jumping to conclusions: Anyway, I won’t be rewarded for completing this task.
- Minimization: It’s another unimportant task I have to do even though anyone else could easily do it.
- Emotional reasoning: I don’t feel like doing this task, so it must not be worth doing.
- Should statements: I should perform better in life and I should have already completed this task a long time ago. Does it even make sense to finish it now?
- Labelling: I’m a lazy person, if I always procrastinate, why wouldn’t I procrastinate with this task as well?
Especially the first one, the all-or-nothing thinking, leads to perfectionism and perfectionism leads to procrastination.
Since I can’t do it perfectly I don’t want to do it at all. You’re never satisfied with your products, so why add another thing that you just won’t be proud of? But in reality, this is the sort of toxic thinking that may prevent you from achieving anything in life.
The best solution for any cognitive distortions is emotional accounting. Try it, it may change your life forever.
Procrastination when you want to try something new and the search mode
If you’re developing a new competence or trying to do something new and you are a perfectionist at the same time, it’s a killer combination for procrastination.
The problem is, of course, that there is a big gap between the masterpiece you want to create and your skill level. This brings frustration and a desire to quit.
It’s the “lack of skill” problem on steroids. You have an overly demanding task in front of you combined with a completely new territory.
Here is a very good quote that explains it:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
I often suffer from this kind of procrastination. And I spent a lot of time looking for a solution.
The rational solution is, of course, simple. As presented in the quote above, don’t quit. But it’s an emotional problem, not a rational one.
The good news is that there is actually a simple solution, a process and a system that also deals with your emotions and expectations. Btw, I got the idea from the lean startup theory.
You have to divide all your activities strictly into two phases. One is called the search mode and the second one is the execution phase. Yes, this is the search mode I mentioned a few times before. Now is the time to learn more about it.
The search mode
In the search mode, perfectionism is simply not allowed – you only research, you learn, you prototype, you acquire new skills, and so on. The goal is not to be perfect or to make a perfect masterpiece, but to acquire new skills and set a strategy. The goal is to learn something new.
You should learn and get insights about a few important things in the search mode:
- Get to know yourself better and what you really want in life
- Developing new competences
- Understand your environment better
- Make sure you don't play against the market
In the search mode, you shouldn’t have any expectations, you shouldn’t make any commitments and you shouldn’t do any hard work.
Expectations lead to wrong assumptions and before you understand something, your expectations are definitely completely wrong.
In the search phase, you just try, experiment, observe, reflect, and learn about yourself and the world. The most important thing in this phase is to have no fixed ideas and no expectations at all.
In the search mode, you have to emotionally say to yourself “f*ck it I just want to play and learn, no matter the result”.
When you acquire the desired skills, understand yourself and your environment better, and you have a clear vision of what you want to do with your new skills, then it’s time for execution and perfectionism.
If you manage to divide all your activities strictly into the search and execution ones, and you have a completely different mental framework for what to expect from one or the other type of tasks, you will never again have problems with fear of failure or procrastination based on the perfectionism.
There is one trick and that is that in the search mode, you don’t fool around, you strive for validated learning. You can find many articles on this blog talking about that. If you’re interested in more info, start by reading the AgileLeanLife manifesto.
Deal with procrastination once and for all
Now you should have a really good understanding of procrastination and what you can do about it.
The next time you procrastinate, first determine what kind of procrastination you’re dealing with and find the real source with self-reflection – simply ask yourself “why” enough times.
After you know the type and source of procrastination, you now have many tools available that can help you deal with it once and for all. Here is the summary, you can also download a free PDF below the table if you want to save it to your computer.
- AgileLeanLife – Procrastination – Solution table (PDF)
|General advice||Try to force yourself to make the first step
Don’t fight it, do other important things instead
|Temporary low levels of energy||Take a walk
Take a nap
Wait for daily peak productivity time
Come back to work when refilled
|Overworked or burned-out||Tale a few days off
Increase your margin (just delete some tasks)
Sharpen the saw
|Being in irritated emotional state||Accept it
Talk to people
Listen to music
Come back to work when you calm down
|You think the task is not your work||Learn something new
Focus on the positive things you can get out of it
Just do it
|People you don’t like are involved||Analyze why you hate them
Learn something new
Focus on the positive things you can get out of it
Just do it
|It’s a type of a task you just don’t like||Delegate
Just do it and get it over with
|Lack of assertiveness||Learn to become a healthy assertive person
Analyze where and why you act strong and where and why weak
Disconnect failure from self-worth
See yourself as a successful person
|Big goals and high expectations||Have big dreams, but start small
Slice and dice
Focus on the small things you can do every day
|Laziness||Make an identity shift
Support the shift with small actions
Taste the rewards you get with the effort
|Unhealthy lifestyle||Get enough sleep
Eat green veggies
Drink enough water
Avoid any addictions
|A lack of skills or fake passion||Be in the learning, not the panic zone
Slice and dice
Go for the early wins
Follow your effort
|Perfectionism and other cognitive distortions||Emotional accounting|
|Perfectionism + something new||The search mode
The execution mode