Modern*Simplicity

Creating a Life Free From Chaos

How to Stop Procrastinating and Get Your Act Together

How to Stop Procrastinating and Get Your Act TogetherAre you a procrastinator? I’ve got a gold medal in procrastination. I’ve been known to make huge, aggressive task lists encompassing every little detail of a project, complete with color coding and due dates, and then do absolutely nothing with them. Douglas Adams, one of my favorite fiction writers, is quoted as saying, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go flying by.” Well, that was me.

I wasn’t always a procrastinator. Years ago, as a journalist and graphic designer, I lived and died by deadlines. My anxiety would skyrocket as deadlines approached, and I felt like a failure if a deadline was missed, no matter the reason.

Something changed. I’m not sure what, maybe it was having kids, but I became a procrastinator. I was still diligent about client work, but my own projects, especially writing, would sit stagnant. I would set deadlines but rarely hit them. Why was that? Since I was the one setting my own deadlines, why did I feel like they were less important? Why was it easier to put off tasks I knew were important, but no one was waiting on? There were several underlying reasons, and once I recognized them, I was able to overcome them. Do any of these reasons resonate with you?

Why Do We Procrastinate?

  • Fear: These were my own projects, and my personal brand was reflected there. But what was my brand? What if I didn’t do it right? What if I DID do everything but I wasn’t good enough? Fear kept me from even starting many projects, including books I wanted to write. And it wasn’t just work. I’d delay joining a group or making plans with friends because I was anxious about how it would go. Would I say something stupid? What if they didn’t like me? Fear was speaking to me, and listening allowed me to procrastinate stuff I really wanted to do.
  • Perfectionism: I’m a recovering perfectionist. Procrastination is perfectionism in action. Why start when you think you’ll never do it good enough? How can I finish that project and put it out into the world if it’s not perfect? What if I make mistakes? Will people think less of me, laugh at me? For many people, it is psychologically better to never tackle a task than to face the possibility of falling short. Because perfectionists fear being unable to complete a task perfectly, we put it off as long as possible.
  • Comparison: Thanks to social media, we can play the comparison game all day long. We compare our shortcomings to other people’s highlight reel. How many times have you started a project, only to see someone else’s “after” online and suddenly feel like you’re behind? I’ve found this to be particularly true in simplifying and minimalism groups on Facebook, with members posting gorgeous photos of their cleaned up spaces, and instead of being inspired by them, we can get jealous and start telling ourselves that they did it better than we ever could, so why bother? The urge to compare ourselves to others is so deeply ingrained, we often don’t realize we’re doing it.
  • Believing tomorrow will be different: Tomorrow, I’ll have more energy. I’ll have more free time. I’ll be inspired. We tend to think the future will be different than our now, and the default reaction is to think, “I’ll do it later,” especially if the task seems big and daunting. We overestimate how much free time and extra energy we’ll have, so when “tomorrow” comes, we’re surprised and a little anxious finding that we don’t have that extra we expected.

What to Do:

Procrastination isn’t usually a time management problem. It’s an emotional response, one we often train ourselves to make. If we recognize those responses, we have a much better chance to confront them and work through them so we can confidently move forward.

Putting off a task can make us feel anxious, even guilty. Those negative feelings defeat any energy we have to do the task. Then we feel even more anxious and more guilty. It’s a never-ending cycle. When we say, “I’ll start decluttering my closet next week,” or “I’ll start exercising next month,” what we’re really saying is “I hope that after an arbitrary amount of time, I will be in a better mood to attack this task.”

Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James Click To Tweet

  • Break down the fear: What are you actually afraid of? Is it that you won’t be able to complete the task as well as someone else? Are you afraid it will take too long, and you won’t be able to get it finished? Write down your fears, then look at each one and imagine your best friend telling you these things about her goals. How would you respond to her? We’re much harder on ourselves than we are on our closest friends and family.
  • Done is better than perfect: We often procrastinate because we think we won’t be able to do the task perfectly. But think about it like this: Do you live in a magazine? Is your home going to be on HGTV? Are you going to publish that book without editing? No, of course not! It’s hard to perfect something that isn’t there, so how do you plan to make your project good enough when you don’t have a place to start from? Sculptors make art from lumps of clay. Think of your project as clay, and start molding it, a little bit at a time until your art is done.
  • Kill comparison: Stop and ask yourself how good that incomplete project really is. Thoughts like, “my kitchen will never look like that magazine,” can steal your energy and leave the project undone. Is that what you really want, to stare at your undone project every day waiting for a future time that may never come? Kill the comparison. You don’t have to post everything on Facebook or Instagram, waiting for likes and hearts, so why worry what others will think? Any headway you make on a task will give you energy and a sense of direction. Get started anyway.
  • Do it now: Whenever possible, start the task right away. Don’t put it off. Recognize that you won’t have more energy, or more time, or more inspiration, tomorrow. Make it as easy as possible to start now.

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11 Replies

  1. Love this post! That is one of my favorite quotes by Douglas Adam, too. Yes, our personal deadlines are important, too. A TEDtalk I’ve shared with my students is from Tim Urban (on procrastination). I think you will love it! https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator

    1. Alicia, thanks for that talk! Going to watch it today.

    2. Thanks Alicia! Can’t wait to check out that video!

  2. Great post! I’m right there with you as a procrastinator. It always amazes me how I can put off doing things that I’ve determined are important for me, usually in favor of something relatively minor for someone else! I like the first suggestion of breaking down the fear, definitely going to use that.

    1. Love that Kevin — putting off something important for you in favor of something minor for someone else. I’ve never thought of it that way before, but you’re exactly right!

  3. Great post, Sandy. I like the tip “done is better than perfect.” If I can get past my black-and-white thinking, I’ll get more accomplished. Thanks for the encouragement!

  4. I’m not exactly a procrastinator … (which translates to: “I’m a procrastinator, but I like my denial.”). I have sort-of settled into prolonging certain tasks. Instead of letting them haunt me, I’ve realized when the fire gets hot enough, I’ll grab an extinguisher. I’ve gotten into a rhythm with those things I put off and now I know the deadline is my motivator for those particular types of tasks. For many other things, I chip away daily or have times in my routine where they fit in. Certain types of tasks are just not my favorite, so I do procrastinate, but at least I don’t stress about it anymore. I’m not sure I’ll change that now. It’s kind of working for me. It seems every time I try to make those unsavory jobs a part of daily life, I end up pushing them to the bottom of the list and then they end up haunting me. Better to know I’ll do them when the deadline is nearer – kind of like pulling an all-nighter in college, but doing it 1-2x a month instead.

    1. I tend to wait until the deadline myself — but I’m trying to break that habit, at least for writing! Thanks Patty!

  5. Sandy,
    I think we all have a little of the “procrastinating-gene” inside us. I also sometimes stumble with # 2: it has to be “perfect,” otherwise don’t bother.
    Wrong.
    Just do it!

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