Everyone does it. No one feels good about it. It can have very negative consequences. So, why do we procrastinate?
The procrastination definition involves the deliberate delaying of things we know we ought to do. Against even our own better judgement, we voluntarily put things off and off and off again.
Procrastination takes many forms. Avoidance is one of them. We find all kinds of reasons to put off a task for some future time. We put it on our to-do list, but other things suddenly seem far more important.
The Pervasiveness of Procrastination
In one research study, 95% of participants admitted to procrastinating, and one of the researchers speculated that the other 5% was probably lying. The person who doesn’t procrastinate is so rare that you might call procrastination part of the human condition. As Scarlett O’Hara says in "Gone With the Wind," “After all, tomorrow is another day.”
We’re all individuals with different personalities, goals and ways of thinking. Our reasons for procrastinating vary too. They not only vary from each other but they vary depending on the project over which we’re procrastinating.
Why We Procrastinate
One theory about why we procrastinate is that we’re hard-wired to do the tasks that provide instant gratification versus the ones that won’t pay off until some future date. Procrastination used to be blamed on an inability to manage our time properly, but it turns out that’s not the case. Newer scientific studies suggest that it has a lot to do with our emotions.
If your blood pressure goes up every time you even think about preparing for tax time, of course you're going to avoid it. If just thinking about it feels bad, imagine what doing it will feel like. There’s also the fear of failing. This is often the reason people procrastinate about things they haven’t done before.
A big step toward tackling procrastination is figuring out why you’re doing it. The why part may be about you, or it may be about the thing you have to do. Maybe the task is:
- Extremely difficult
- Vague and/or lacks structure
- Boring and/or frustrating
More Reasons for Procrastination
Who isn’t overwhelmed these days? Your attention is constantly fragmented between customers, employees, finances and the daily demands of running a business, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. If you're starting from a stressed-out place and looking at something that’s difficult, unrewarding, vague or boring, it’s perfectly natural to put it off.
If you can be honest with yourself about why you’re putting it off, then you’re halfway there. While going through this exercise, don’t be surprised if you see a pattern emerge. You might see one particular reason for procrastinating come up again and again. That would be an “aha!” moment. Try asking yourself:
- Why does this seem so hard?
- Why can’t I take the first step?
- What am I getting out of putting it off?
Not Knowing Where to Start
Not knowing where to begin is a very common reason for procrastinating. It crops up most often when the project is something you haven’t done before, or it could be something you haven’t done in a long time, and the tools and/or processes have changed.
Feeling overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin is perfectly justified in these situations. As an entrepreneur, you're called upon to play many roles. Uncertainty about some of them comes with the territory.
Be assured that you will get through it. Think of other, much more difficult things you had to do to get your business off the ground. That will put things in perspective quickly.
Fear of Failing
No one wants to fail, but failing once in a while is inevitable. Failure only becomes a problem if you don’t learn from it. Remind yourself that you didn’t get as far as you have by failing.
Who knows, maybe you will fail at the project you’re putting off. However, chances are better that you’ll do very well because that's who you are. You won’t know until you tackle it.
If you do fail, try again with your newfound knowledge. It's guaranteed that it will go much quicker the second time around.
You’re a Perfectionist
This is a tough one. Perfectionism is a quality that many business owners possess. Your business wouldn't be so successful if you didn't have high standards. So, some degree of perfectionism serves you well.
However, when it comes to tackling things on your to-do list, being a perfectionist can immobilize you. It’s hard to begin when every single thing has to be done perfectly. If this is you, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself.
High standards are critical for some things and meaningless for others. Consider the restaurant owner who has strict rules about how the trash is handled. Bags must not be too full, and they must be tied and stacked in the dumpster exactly the same way according to his rigid specifications. Really?
It’s a Crap Project
Let’s face it. Some projects suck. Dealing with permits, local ordinances and the DMV are devoid of even the slightest hint of a warm fuzzy.
The thing about procrastinating is that it feels lousy. It makes us anxious and maybe even irritable. It makes us think less of ourselves, and we berate ourselves for it. So, if the reason you're avoiding doing something is because it’s a crap project, you're not avoiding any unpleasantness by procrastinating.
You're just feeling lousy about procrastinating instead of feeling lousy while doing the project. The difference between the two is that feeling lousy while doing the project will end as soon as you complete it, but feeling lousy about procrastinating could go on forever.
Tips for Overcoming Procrastination
Consider a couple of precursors to the six tips for overcoming procrastination in your business:
- No amount of willpower will help you stop procrastinating, and you’ll probably never completely stop procrastinating. However, you can do a lot less of it for the things that really matter.
- Never put something off until you feel like doing it. Some tasks are so unpleasant that you’re never going to feel like doing them — for example, firing someone whom you really like but who does poor-quality work. Focus on how relieved you’ll feel after you’ve taken care of the matter.
- Not procrastinating will increase your self-esteem, so get ready to start feeling great!
1. Take Baby Steps
When you don’t know where to begin or if you are just feeling completely unmotivated, try taking one itty-bitty step. Pick a small piece of the task or project, something that will take 10 minutes or less to complete. Sometimes, the hardest part is just starting. You might be surprised that by taking that one step, the next one is a lot easier, and pretty soon you’re on a roll.
Continue with baby steps. Break down the project into the smallest steps possible. Then, try doing two or three of them a day. Schedule a time for when you’re going to do them — for example, 8 a.m., 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. but no later than 1 p.m. because the later it gets, the more distractions there will be and the more tired you will become.
2. Disengage and Eliminate Interruptions
This one is critical. Close your door, forward your calls and close your virtual door. That’s right — no texts, IMs or emails. Anything that interrupts you when you’re finally getting a grip on something you’ve been procrastinating will send you off in another direction for sure.
You’re not going to miss anything important. If you’re really and truly needed, your employees know where to find you, and you can’t control everything anyway.
3. Envision It Done
Sit still for a moment. Take some deep breaths and a nice big sniff of the lavender oil you keep in your desk drawer. Now, picture yourself with the object of your procrastination completed. Have a nice long look at yourself with that project behind you.
Feel that weight lift off your shoulders and feel that rock gone from your gut. Imagine the great sense of relief and satisfaction that you’ll feel.
4. Envision It Not Done
Take a hard look at the consequences of not doing the task. Look it straight in the eyes. Don’t embellish but don’t minimize either. This is not meant to be punitive; it’s meant to be informative.
Make a list of the fallout that will result if the task remains undone. One nice surprise that can come from this little exercise is that it may reveal that the task isn’t that critical after all. If there will be serious negative consequences, then envision it done.
5. Enjoy a Reward
This one is fun. It works well with baby steps. Set up a series of small but really enjoyable rewards for each step you take in getting the thing done. Come up with one big reward for completing it.
Consider a pumpkin spice latte, that coveted kitchen gadget or movie tickets for interim steps. How about a 1-hour massage or a collection of audio books for finishing it? There should be no cheating, so keep your fingers off the A, M, A, Z, O and N keys until you’ve seriously earned it.
6. Ask for Help
Get some help for goodness sake. This is especially applicable when the reason you’re putting something off is that you don’t have a clue as to how to begin. You know other business owners, so ask them for advice. Search the internet for “how to” instructions.
If what you’re procrastinating deals with data or requires writing, check online for templates. There are templates for everything from how to write a business plan to how to calculate the lifetime value of your customers. Use organizations that are set up to support small business owners, such as:
- Small Business Association
- Business USA
Take It Easy on Yourself
You may have noticed that these tips have little or nothing to do with willpower because willpower doesn’t work. They also eschew any form of judgement. Being hard on yourself for procrastinating is like being hard on yourself for being human, so quit it.
Know that we all carry the burden of procrastination to one degree or another. Know that self-criticism won’t help. Part of conquering procrastination is being kind to yourself about it.
Be compassionate as you grope around for the reason you’re procrastinating. When you figure out why, don’t judge it. It’s neither good nor bad. It’s just an explanation that will help you decide which approach to take for getting on with what needs to be done and discarding what doesn’t.
- American Psychological Association: Is Perfect Good? A Meta-Analysis of Perfectionism in the Workplace
- Business Insider: 6 Science-Backed Reasons You Keep Procrastinating — and What You Can Do to Beat it Once and For All
- Entrepreneur: How to Beat Procrastination As You Grow Your Business
- Harvard Business Review: 5 Research-Based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination
- Harvard Business Review: How to Beat Procrastination
LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.