Asking For A Friend: It takes time to learn how to stop procrastinating

Putting things off until the last minute is stressful and causes anxiety. So why do we all do it?

Karen Hawthorne 5 minute read April 15, 2022
man with feet up at his desk

Procrastination is often rooted in the fear of failure, says life coach Lisa Jeffs. GETTY

Dear Asking For a Friend,

I can’t seem to get going on my work projects. It’s sort of funny to joke about procrastinating, but sometimes I literally feel paralyzed staring at my computer screen — then time passes, and I get stressed about falling behind. But the next day, it’s the same thing all over again. Are there strategies to help me keep moving?

Signed, Stalled on the Job


Dear Stalled on the Job,

Procrastinating can be a bad habit that causes a cycle of mounting stress and anxiety. You know that the keep-putting-it-off routine is self-sabotaging your productivity and confidence in meeting work deadlines — yet, you keep on doing it.

Before you start beating yourself up, however, you have to understand that procrastination is not about being lazy or lacking self-control. In fact, some people who tend to put things off also live with mental health issues like ADHD, depression and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Why can’t we just get it done?

Studies have shown that procrastination comes down to managing negative emotions that you associate with certain tasks. Maybe it’s a feeling of boredom, insecurity or frustration of working on a project. You might be thinking, ‘I’m not smart enough to write this, the assignment isn’t clear, or I can’t face another boring spreadsheet.’ So in response to these thoughts, you decide to avoid the task or situation — and doing so makes you feel better in the short-term.

Of course, the long-term consequences of the aversion start to pile up.

“You have to look at the underlying cause of the procrastination,” says Lisa Jeffs, a life and career coach in Toronto who specializes in this particular — and very common — challenge.

“I see people trying to treat their procrastination with apps and special schedulers and they’re like, ‘what’s wrong with me? Nothing seems to be working,’” she says. “That’s because you’re not treating the real issue.”

Jeffs works with a lot of entrepreneurs who are focused on innovations and new ideas, and she says they procrastinate because of fear.

“For a lot of people, what’s going on is fear. They’re afraid of whatever is on the other side of getting this stuff done,” she explains, whether it’s fear of success and not knowing what’s next, or fear of failure that is tied to feelings of rejection and abandonment.

This can be much the same for people who are working at a job, trying to please a boss and colleagues or hoping to get a promotion.

Breaking the procrastination habit starts with self- awareness

Changing the procrastination habit starts with self-awareness and recognizing the motivation for the behaviour, she says.

“It’s important to understand how most humans function. There’s what we believe is pleasure and what we believe is pain, so most of us are going to move toward the pleasure if it’s available to us.”

If you think the work is going to be difficult or boring, you might get up and head to the water cooler to chat or start scrolling online.

“Understanding this, we want to create an environment where you believe that that pain is going to lead to pleasure, so we can focus on what happens after the work is finished,” she says. “‘It’s going to feel really good because it’s completed; I’m getting the recognition from my boss,’ or maybe, ‘I’m going to treat myself because I got it done.’”

Creating the best environment to be productive is another key strategy. If your desk and work area is a cluttered and chaotic mess, your brain may feel equally cluttered and chaotic. And if your work process is over-stimulating or overwhelming, that’s another hurdle.

“People often have all their tabs open with every single work assignment that they need to do, or their phone is ringing constantly, or they have someone coming in every two seconds asking for something,” says Jeffs

Ideally, you want to set some boundaries and have a process where your mind can stay calm and focused on your work.

For example, Jeffs recommends closing all the tabs when you shut down at the end of your work day, so you start the next day with a fresh, clean desktop.

Ending procrastination takes time

Here’s the thing to keep in mind: procrastination is a habit that is going to continue unless you make changes. It doesn’t matter if it’s bothering, you’ll keep procrastinating because the brain creates and sustains habits. You have to create a new habit to focus on your work and get things done.

“We need to make changes in small increments. This can be challenging because most people want to go gung-ho and change their entire morning routine, or change everything in their environment,” she says. “Can that work for some people? Sure. Does it work for most people I’ve worked with? No, because we don’t respond to a big, enormous kind of change.”

It really is about baby steps and learning what works for you as you go. Remember, procrastination is a habit — just like it takes time to form a habit, breaking one can be really hard. But if you reframe how you think about failure, you get closer to the possibility of success.

One of Jeffs’ favourite mottos has to do with challenging the negative perception of failure: “Failure is just data,” she says. “It’s just information that we need to improve and keep moving forward.”

Karen Hawthorne is a Toronto-based writer.

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