The common perception in the personal development world is that procrastination is counterproductive. You may have come to believe that there isn’t a good reason why you’re procrastinating, and therefore that your behavior is irrational and unhealthy. It must be motivated by some irrational fear or insecurity.
In many cases, that’s probably true. However, there are enough self-help books and motivational seminars that will teach you how to overcome fear, so I’ll spare you on that. There aren’t, however, enough resources that will help you determine if the reason you’re procrastinating is a good one. If you think more about what you’re procrastinating, you might find a good reason.
You might be procrastinating because, deep down, you know you might fail, or because what you’re trying to force yourself to do isn’t in line with your values. In these cases, your desire to procrastinate might save you from doing something that you shouldn’t be doing. This article shares two reasons why we procrastinate and eight action steps for developing a better strategy.
Develop a better plan
You may feel compelled to procrastinate because deep down, you fear failure. You realize that there’s a real possibility that you will fail, and that if you do, it could have significant consequences. According to Cal Newport, the Author of Deep Work and So Good They Can’t Ignore You, you may not come to this conclusion explicitly, but your brain will send you a signal more subtly:
“Complex planning is a pre-verbal adaptation, so it’s not going to manifest itself as a voice in your head exclaiming ‘plan rejected!’ Instead, it’s going to be more intuitive: a biochemical cascade designed to steer you away from a bad decision; something, perhaps, that feels like a lack of motivation to get started.”
When we fail, we lose status with ourselves and our peers. Thus, procrastination may be a defense mechanism. It’s your brain saying that it doesn’t fully buy-in to your plan.
When we fail, we lose more than just status. If that business idea you’ve been procrastinating on getting started is not actually a good idea, and you were to invest more of your time and money than you can afford to lose, your desire to procrastinate may be perfectly rational. If you lose too much money, you will hinder your ability to survive.
Sometimes fear of failure is warranted, and sometimes it’s not. If the fear of failure is warranted, the best course of action may actually be to adjust your goals or keep procrastinating indefinitely. In other words, don’t try to do that thing you’re trying to force yourself to do. Often times, however, you simply need to improve your plan for accomplishing those goals so that your brain can fully buy-in.
Newport describes the importance of having a good plan:
“The evolutionary perspective on procrastination, by contrast, says we delay because our frontal lobe doesn’t see a convincing plan behind our aspiration. The solution, therefore, is not to muster the courage to blindly charge ahead, but to instead accept what our brain is telling us: our plans need more hard work invested before they’re ready.”
A good plan can help ease deep-seated anxiety about doing the work. Here are four ways you can upgrade your plan:
- Spend more time studying, practicing, or learning from mentors so that you’re better equipped to succeed
- Find ways to test ideas or explore opportunities on a small-scale before putting too much at risk
- Set realistic expectations about what you can achieve and do the best that you can to achieve it
- Break a big goal into a series of smaller goals that won’t scare your ego
Live in line with your values
Your desire to procrastinate on a project may be as a result of knowing, deep down, that the project is not in line with your values. Values are a representation of what most important to you and how you want to live your life.
Doing something that’s not in line with your values can be emotionally challenging. Assuming your values are strong, it’s probably good for you and the world to procrastinate. For example, I always procrastinated on doing consulting work for a client that sold a product that I didn’t believe was helping it’s customers. I later realized that I was procrastinating because I value honesty and helping others and that work wasn’t in line with it.
Instead of forcing yourself to do a project that’s not in line with your values, consider finding a project that is in line with your values. The first step to living in line with your values is to discover your values. Here are four ways to discover your values:
- Experiment with different lifestyles and lines of work.
- Meditate and be mindful of your reaction to your actions and the actions of others.
- Write your ideal day – everything you would do from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep.
- Write down a list of people you admire and why you admire them.
Your values will probably change over time as you gain more experiences, learn and grow as a person. Novelty and excitement were very important in my twenties. Now, I value my health and the support I provide to the people I love. Consider your values on an ongoing basis. Never be afraid to reassess and change for the better.
When your work is in line with your values, you’ll feel more motivated to do it.
Mike Fishbein studies psychology and philosophy and writes about how you can apply what he learns to your personal and professional development. He’s been featured on The Observer, Lifehacker, and Tiny Buddha. You can connect with him at mfishbein.com.