Breaking Bad: Procrastination |

5 min read

This post is part 1 of a new series, in which I explore some of our most problematic unhealthy habits, how they impact our lives, why they are so hard to shake, and how we can break the persistent negative patterns in our lives. In this post, I examine procrastination.

Most of us have done it at some point. For many of us, it’s an ongoing, persistent, and highly problematic habit we would love to break. We put off a dreaded task until the time comes when we can no longer ignore it. Procrastination is a choice—and a bad one that can become an entrenched habitual way of approaching work that we find challenging, overwhelming, or uninteresting.

Temporary benefits

As any habitual procrastinator will tell you, procrastination is a major problem that causes them nothing but grief and harm. Rather than ride out these uncomfortable emotions—which subside as we get down to the task at hand—we procrastinate, and temporarily relieve and avoid uncomfortable symptoms of anxiety.

When we struggle with mood, anxiety, and high-stress symptoms, procrastination can feel like a healthy choice in the moment. But since it is a choice that inevitably leads to even greater states of anxiety, a far better choice is to focus on managing symptoms to make healthier choices.

Longer-term problems

Eventually, delaying a task is no longer an option. Here, procrastinators find themselves working long, unreasonable hours to complete assignments or tasks, while experiencing overwhelming symptoms of anxiety. With symptoms of anxiety and dread raging and little time to complete a project, we are forced to push through and complete the task at hand. We are trapped and forced to push ourselves beyond the point of exhaustion to complete a task on time.

Procrastination negatively impacts our performance, leads to burnout, and leaves us emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted. It compromises our immune systems and makes us susceptible to illness.

The stories we tell ourselves

Procrastination is an avoidance behavior. We tell ourselves a lot of stories to justify such behaviors, but such stories do us more harm than good. Some of the most common false narratives about procrastination include the following:

  • I don’t want to start a task when I’m tired. Putting off tasks while feigning self-care concerns is a slippery slope, considering the lost sleep, skipped meals, and other unhealthy choices we make to complete a project at the last minute,
  • I work best under pressure. Even if you do pretty well when rushing to complete your work, when you procrastinate, you sell yourself short. When you allow yourself sufficient time and energy to complete a task in the allotted time, you have time to review and rework areas where you see room for improvement, to reflect, contemplate, revise, and polish your work.
  • Imagine how well I would have done with more time. If we have managed to complete a task fairly well—even though it falls short of what are capable of—we tell ourselves how brilliant we must be and feel good about how capable we must be and how well we would do if we had the luxury of the time allowed to complete the task.

This final narrative, a false sense of accomplishment, leads to repeating patterns of procrastination. And each time we procrastinate, the habit and choice of procrastination sets in and grows stronger and less manageable.

6 steps to breaking the bad habit of procrastination

Here’s the good news. Through awareness and practical strategies, you can break harmful patterns of procrastination.

  1. Realize that procrastination is an unhealthy choice that does not serve you. Awareness is the first step to dealing with our problematic habits, behaviors, and choices.
  2. Accept the fact that procrastination is never a good choice. It is a fact. Let go of any false narratives or beliefs you hold around procrastination.
  3. Notice your problematic choices and habits of procrastinating. Reflect on how procrastination has affected your performance, your health, your relationships, and your life. Remember the many times you’ve promised to change your ways but find yourself trapped in habits of procrastination.
  4. Challenge the stories you tell yourself about procrastination. If you tell yourself that you procrastinate because you’re waiting for inspiration, a little research will tell you that inspiration is found in showing up, staying present, and sticking to the task at hand. Renowned screenwriting guru Robert McKee famously reduces the writer’s fear of the empty page to having nothing to say and instructs struggling writers to get to work, and seek inspiration in libraries, books, and other resources, rather than procrastinating under the guise of waiting for inspiration.
  5. Identify practical strategies to help eliminate procrastination. Time, project management, and project-planning strategies, like breaking large projects into small, achievable, incremental tasks; scheduling; and goal setting can help create new approaches to undertaking even the most overwhelming tasks and eliminating procrastination.
  6. Seek the help of a mental health professional to address and manage your anxiety, learn and implement effective strategies to tackle problematic patterns of procrastination, and build skills around organizing, planning, and completing tasks.

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