Do these ‘procrastination lyrics’ resonate? 

How often do you kick things down the road? 

Are you aware of the knock-on to your health and performance? 

What really really matters to you? What do you want to prioritise now given the turmoil in the world? 

Procrastination can be defined as the ‘voluntary delay of intended action despite expecting to be worse off for not doing it’. It seems to be a fairly common, yet hidden affliction that can hold leaders back from expressing their best selves. 

Tim Pychyl, PhD, has spent most of his career researching and writing about procrastination and shares his fascinating findings on the Waking Up app, with practical actions to start shifting some of these patterns. Here are my key take-outs:

#1 Procrastination happens more than we care to acknowledge

Before diving into this topic, I didn’t realise just how much I procrastinate. I didn’t think it was part of my make up as I’m quite productive and focused. Then I started noticing the pattern of delaying the things that really matter to me. 

That said, delay is a part of life and procrastination is only one version even though we tend to label all delay as procrastination. The following are a normal part of life:

  • Sagacious delay e.g. doing some thinking before writing
  • Inevitable delay e.g. a delayed plane flight or ill child
  • Emotional delay e.g. grieving a death 

Procrastination, however, is a habit that becomes hard-wired and has real costs and impact.

Take a moment now to ask yourself where you are procrastinating. 

For me, it is not being fully present with my now almost grown-up children and my husband (who is grown up!). It’s not creating and putting out there the offering that energises and inspires me, that may not get take up in the market. 

#2 The costs of procrastination can be substantial

What is the impact of your procrastination?

Tim’s research cites these costs that often come with procrastination:

  • Health issues – Procrastination increases stress, reduces healthy behaviour, often interrupts sleep, and can cause hypertension and heart disease.
  • Wellbeing – We can feel time-robbed, increasingly anxious and often feel self-loathing, guilt and shame when we don’t do what we intended to. We can also regret that we didn’t do the important things with the people we loved while we were alive.
  • Performance in world – With inaction, productivity declines and performance decreases.  There is an increased perception of being unreliable. We also don’t get to the important things. 

The bottom-line: procrastination gets in the way of us doing what is best for us in the finite time we have on Earth. 

#3 Procrastination is not a time management issue; it’s an emotion regulation issue

As we list the things we procrastinate, we might fall into the myth that procrastination is a time management issue. Tim’s research reveals, however, that procrastination is actually an emotion regulation issue.

For me this is the crux of it – we procrastinate tasks that have perceived negative emotions or associations, such as:

  • High in negative feeling such as boredom, frustration, resentment, fear
  • Negative appraisals

The upshot of this is that:

  • We try to avoid the perceived negative feeling and association by trying out easier, more pleasant short-term regulation strategies such as retail therapy and binge eating / gaming / watching / gambling … We give in to feel good now, to be in self-control, and kick the task down the line for our future self to handle. 
  • We over-estimate how good procrastination will make us feel.
  • We over-estimate how stressful the task is; it’s often not as bad as expected.

For me, the negative feelings are often in the fear realm: Fear of not having success with an offering I’m passionate about. Fear that if I’m really present with my loved ones I might not be productive or valued as much by others. 

#4 Practical ways to start shifting a procrastination pattern

Now that we’ve got to grips with some of the source issues of procrastination, how can we practically start shifting the pattern?

  1. Pre-empt that which tempts – when we struggle, we go to distraction by seeking diversion, often self-deceiving that we’re still focused. 
  • Notice what you use as distraction e.g. tech or randomly cleaning the kitchen or another cup of coffee or snack
  • Limit your accessibility to obvious distractions such as tech that are designed to take us down rabbit holes e.g. put your phone away, limit the browsers you have open
  • Single task – start with baby steps, take a break when you need to in nature (not on tech) and then come back to the task at hand

2. Manage your Amygdala hijack – this refers to the reaction our brain produces to keep us safe when it feels under threat. The Amygdala is the almond-shaped part of our brain associated with learning, memories, and reaction (fight-flight). Individuals with less action control i.e. higher tendency to procrastinate have a less functional resting state of the Amygdala. This increases the intensity of the reaction or hijack as it’s known, with increased fear, hesitancy, and postponement. If we try to suppress the hijack, it gains more power and we start ruminating on negative thoughts, in a vicious cycle.

  • Deliberately relax any tension in your body muscles, by softening into and around the tension
  • Calm your breathing by breathing in slowly (through the nose) and out (through the mouth) for double the count of the in-breath
  • Observe your emotions and thoughts with no judgement, labelling the emotions as you’re having them and allowing them to be there; feel the emotion, don’t be the emotion
  • Cultivate a muscle of acceptance which will support you to increasingly tolerate what is happening inside you – everything is impermanent and will pass
  • Offer yourself some compassionate self-support – understand and acknowledge the imperfection of being human and let go of negative self-talk (which only intensifies the problem) 

3. Add intention, structure and weight to your will

  • Set an implementation intention using WOOP – your wish (e.g. going for a morning run), the outcome (e.g. healthier body, healthier mind), obstacle (e.g. feeling tired when it’s time for my run), plan to address the obstacle (e.g. be with the tired feeling and follow the Amygdala hijack steps above and then run)
  • Bring some fun to tasks
  • Reward yourself 
  • Create structures that support you to follow through, like running with someone or putting your running shoes out the night before 
  • Hang out with people you want to be more like e.g. high performers rather than procrastinators 

4. Bring your Present Self and Future Self closer together – when we procrastinate we often think of our Future Self, who will have to implement the task we’ve delayed, as some other person, not ourselves. When we are more connected to our Future Self, procrastination decreases because we know it’s ME that will deal with it. It’s like taking care of our Future Self by planning for retirement. 

  • Time travel in your mind to your Future Self to bring it closer
  • Explore the relationship between your Present Self and Future Self 
  • Cultivate empathy for your Future Self

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