Why do we put things off so much? I have been thinking a lot about this question lately as a few weeks ago, I was supposed to start working on a project that I did not particularly like so what did I do? Obviously, I just kept putting it off till the last minute – and that last minute was yesterday.
And I guess you can all imagine what my yesterday looked like – running all over the place, panicking about the final deadline and spending the entire day on the edge of a nervous breakdown. So yes, it was absolutely horrible and I never want to have a day like that again.
But well, who is the one to blame for this? I guess it is me. I should have started working on my project a long time ago but instead of doing it, I just kept procrastinating. And now I am asking myself why I did that.
Some people may call me lazy but my personal opinion is that laziness does not exist. Or well, not the way most people imagine it. Of course we all have that colleague who never gets things done on time or that friend who never cleans his flat but instead, he spends his whole weekend watching Netflix. But can we actually call these people lazy? I do not think we can because we do not know why they behave the way they do.
Like, let’s just take me as an example – I am the definition of a workaholic. Now, I really do not want to bore you talking about my career and about the different projects I am currently working on but what I can tell you is that I have always been very motivated to do my job (working in Learning & Development).
Even if you are the worker of the year, there will always be tasks that you just do not feel comfortable doing or periods when you are not at your best. But what are the reasons why we procrastinate working on certain tasks but are happy to do others? This is the question that I am trying to answer in today’s article.
Reasons Behind Procrastination
Did it ever happen to you that you were just unable to start working on a task because you felt that you would not be able to do it perfectly enough? Or that you were convinced that the final outcome of your work would be a huge disappointment to everyone and it would not meet your high standards?
Well, I guess you are not alone with this feeling as one of the main reasons behind procrastination is perfectionism. At the first glance, this may sound pretty paradoxical as in a perfect world, we should get things done on time, shouldn’t we?
But then, let’s not forget about our friend: Anxiety. There is a strong correlation between perfectionism and anxiety. Just think about it – if you are a perfectionist, it is very likely that you will set high standards for yourself and meeting those can be extremely overwhelming and stressful.
This is what usually happens in my case – when I receive a new and exciting task, I will usually start “daydreaming” about it. I just love imagining how amazing the final result will be and I have a tendency to spend a lot of time fantasizing about it. But when I actually start working on it, I will realize that it may not be as amazing as I would imagine – I mean, it potentially could, but I work in a corporate environment with pretty tight deadlines – so I will end up being disappointed and anxious, feeling like a complete failure and when I reach this point, I will just start….well….procrastinating.
Now, how to handle your perfectionism?
Yes, I said “how to handle your perfectionism” and not “how to stop being a perfectionist”. Because my personal opinion is that one cannot just stop being a perfectionist from one day to another. However, there are a few things that could help you create more realistic goals and expectations
- If you are doing a task for someone else – like at work or for a client – the best thing you can do is asking them what their expectations are right at the beginning. Everyone has their own standard and there are situations where something you may consider downright terrible is actually perfect for the person who has requested you to do it.
- Setting more realistic goals for yourself – now you may want to write the greatest novel ever written in just a few weeks but ask yourself: would this be realistic? Probably not. But it does not mean that you should give up on your dreams only that you should make your objectives a little bit more realistic.
2. Fear Of Failure
There is a strong link between perfectionism and fear of failure but in my experience, these two things are not exactly the same. So, that’s why I thought I should mention about the fear of failure as an independent reason behind procrastination.
As a perfectionist, you may set very high standards for yourself and you may be anxious about meeting them but in my opinion, the fear of failure is something more extreme.
I guess many of you know the feeling when you just keep putting things off because you are convinced that the final outcome of your work would be a complete disaster. Or when you keep postponing an important meeting because you think the participants would find you unprofessional.
Or talking about our private lives – there are times when you really want to go on a date with your crush but you are just scared of the whole situation. Like, what if he thinks you are a weirdo? Or what if he won’t like you at all?
Now, what can you do about this feeling? The answer to this question is pretty complex as I think it also depends on your personality and on your mental health conditions.
As most of you know, I am suffering from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) and this greatly impacts the way I handle the fear of failure. In my case, something that really helps me is trying to make a difference between my “real thoughts” and my “OCD thoughts”. I have published a few posts about how I do it:
- The Face Of The Devil – Personifying Your OCD
- OCD: Living A Hell Of Uncertainty
- Set Yourself Free – How To Break The Vicious Cycle?
- Demons are real: Stop Negative Self-Talk!
And well, if you have managed to get rid of your OCD thoughts – or if you do not even have OCD, two more things that could help you handle these situation are:
Looking at the worst-case scenario
Now, you are afraid of failure – just like most of us – but what would that failure exactly mean? What is the worst thing that could happen? Would it really be that horrible?
Something that my Mum has taught me and that has always helped me a lot was the “So what?” question. She told me that whenever I am worried about something, I should just ask myself – “So what?” (like, what happens if my worst nightmare comes true). And I am normally able to give a pretty scary answer to the first “so what” question but then, I will just ask myself the same question again and my answer to the second question will be much comforting.
– I do not want to start working on this presentation because I know it will be a complete failure and my manager will not like it.
– So what?
– He will be disappointed at me.
– So what?
– He will give me a negative feedback.
– So what?
– It will make me feel uncomfortable.
– So what?
Obviously, if you have OCD, there is one thing that you have to bear in mind before starting to use my “So what” questioning style:
OCD can be a real nuisance and some of the potential answers that come to your mind could actually be the answers that your OCD is suggesting you. So as I mentioned above, it is important to learn how to make a difference between “real thoughts” and “irrational ones”. (For example, my boss giving me a negative feedback is a realistic scenario but getting fired over an average looking presentation is definitely not – even though my OCD may try to make me believe that it is)
Having a plan B
In some cases, the “fear of failure” is an irrational feeling but there are situations where it’s better to be prepared for a negative outcome. So, it’s always a nice thing to have a plan B.
It’s a new day, the sun is shining and you are feeling super motivated. You feel excited about getting things done and you cannot wait putting your presentation together or writing your book or cleaning your house (or whatever else, just replace it with your own example 🙂
So you start working on your project but suddenly you get a call. Just a short one but it’s perfectly enough to interrupt your work. Then an email comes in – a co-worker is asking you to urgently check something. A few minutes later, you get an invite for a short conference call. And it goes on and on. People keep interrupting your train of thoughts and you get to a point where you just decide to give up working on your project and well, put it off until tomorrow.
Well, how to minimize distractions? The reason why it is difficult to give a very specific answer to this question is that it really depends on your job. I am an office worker and what I normally do to minimize distractions is putting myself on “do not disturb” in our phone system, switching off my email notifications and having my “personal opening hours” – so the time slots when people are free to contact me.
But as I said, it really depends on your work environment. Like, I have been working in Learning and Development for the last few years and I have the authority to manage my own calendar but a couple years back, I was working at a call center and that was a lot less flexible (guess you can imagine, when you are there to pick up the calls, you’re definitely not allowed to put yourself on “do not disturb” )
4. Being Overwhelmed
Sometimes there are just too many things going on. A lot of requests at work, issues in the family, friends needing help. And such situations can make you feel overwhelmed and you often may not even know where your head is – so no wonder you start procrastinating.
I am not sure if any of you ever had the same feeling but when I am overwhelmed, I will not only put things off because I simply do not have time to do them but also because of this terrible feeling of hopelessness that I get. Like, there are moments in life when you just do not see the light at the end of the tunnel – you know you could complete a few of your tasks but there are so many of them that you do not even see the point to get started.
Learn how to say “no”
The reason why I often end up having a crazy amount of things to do is because I usually find it difficult to say “no”. Well, you can imagine that it’s not the actual word that is hard for me to pronounce but I am just the type of person who normally says “yes” to everything. Why am I doing that? That’s a long story and it will be a topic for another post.
Do you also find it difficult to say “no”? Please check out my post about this topic:
5. A Vague Deadline
When you do not have a concrete deadline for completing a task, you’re much more likely to put it off. Like, there are so many other things that are way more urgent so why would you start working on something that you do not even have a deadline for?
Not sure if you have the same impression but I think that in comparison to the problems listed above, this one is pretty simple to solve as you can create your own deadline.
6. Vague Objectives
Do you want to lose weight? Or want to learn a new language?
It can be challenging to achieve our objectives but you can make it easier by setting specific goals for yourself. The reason why this can be helpful is because it just gives you a long-term vision and a short-term motivation.
Let’s say you want to learn French. That’s a really great goal (and well, also a beautiful language) but is it specific enough? Well, I do not think so. What could we do to make it more specific – and much more motivating?
Make it SMART!
A lot of businesses use SMART goal setting to define their objectives – and if it works for them, why would it not work for us?
What does “SMART” mean?
SMART is an acronym that stands for:
Now, how could we apply this in practice?
So again, let’s say you want to learn French.
First of all, how could you make this goal specific? By specifying the level of fluency you would like to have. Let’s say, you would like to reach the B2 level.
How to make it measurable? Well, that is a little bit more difficult, but you can measure your knowledge by actually taking a B2 language exam.
Is this attainable? In order to decide that, we will also need to give ourselves a deadline. So how can we make this timely? Well, I guess it depends on your native language but as for my experience, 1 year should be perfectly sufficient to learn French at a B2 level.
And is this goal relevant to you? That’s an easy question to answer – of course it is!
This was only a short summary about SMART goal setting. If you want to read more about this topic, please check my post:
7. Lack Of Supportive Feedback
We all need feedback. And not only for improving ourselves and for learning from the feedback that people give us but also for staying motivated.
But what happens when we do not receive any supportive feedback? Well, I can only talk about myself – when I do not get any feedback, I will feel pretty demotivated.
Is there anything I can do about it? Absolutely! One thing that we need to understand is that the lack of positive feedback does not necessarily mean that your work is not appreciated – it can simply mean that others just did not have time or forgot to give you a feedback. So, why not ask for it?
8. Having A Too Complex Task
Did you ever have to work on a task that was so complicated that you just did not know how to even get started with it?
I guess it has happened to many of us. And this may be another reason behind procrastination. When you do not fully understand the project you need to work on, you will just want to put it off and to just “wait & hope”.
But what could you do instead?
Again, I can only share my personal experience with you but what normally helps me is breaking everything down to smaller steps as this will help me see what I can and what I cannot do. Seeing that there are a lot of things I can complete will keep me motivated and there is always someone who can help me with the ones that I am not able to deal with on my own (in the worst case, it is Google).
9. “Unenjoyable” Tasks
Now, we should not ignore one of the most obvious reasons behind procrastination: unenjoyable tasks.
Let’s admit – there are a lot of tasks that we have to do on a daily-basis and that we do not enjoy. For example, I hate cleaning. I obviously have to clean my home sometimes but it is really something that I just keep putting off until the last possible moment.
And it is the same with our jobs. Even if you have the most exciting job in the whole universe, you will always have tasks that you just do not feel like doing.
How could we make any boring task more enjoyable? I have found a pretty interesting article that answers this question:
There are times when you just feel so tired. Your alarm goes off at 6 in the morning and you know you should get up but you are just unable to. An important deadline is approaching and you know you should work on your project but you just too tired to do so.
There are a lot of reasons behind fatigue – depression, physical health conditions, lifestyle factors or in my case, anxiety. So, I do not think I could possibly give you one single piece of advice that would solve this problem but I think this article gives a pretty good summary about the different causes of fatigue as well as treatment options.
- When Your Brain Is Drained – OCD & Mental Exhaustion
- The Face Of The Devil – Personifying Your OCD
- Coping With OCD At Work
- Why People Procrastinate (solvingprocrastination.com)
- The 5 Most Common Reasons Why We Procrastinate (Psychology Today)
Note: All the amazing photos are from Pexels 🙂
As you know, there’s one thing that I enjoy more than sharing my stories: reading yours. Do you often put things off? If yes, why and how do you overcome your procrastination habit?