Tomorrow, mañana, morgen – an enchanted strange place far away where I can store the majority of my productivity, drive an accomplishments. Although I did learn over time to get things done (sometimes the hard way), as a student and recently in my professional life, I sometimes keep believing in the promise that tomorrow holds in my daily life. Research shows that many of us procrastinate. So if there’s something you’re avoiding, delaying or dodging, you’re far from the only one.

We are also very good at procrastinating. Sometimes so good that we don’t even realize we’re doing it! It may for instance suddenly happen that I find myself doing the very important laundry, look up cake recipes (I don’t need), organizing my closet by color or watching useless cat/dog/baby YouTube clips, instead of working on my initial task list… But things can only be put off for so long and eventually we will get our tasks done. However, procrastination drains time and energy. If we want to stop procrastinating, why do we do it in the first place?

The answer to this question has many facets, so I can’t provide a thorough answer to this question in one blog post, Today, I want to focus just on that one thought:

“Tomorrow, I will feel more like doing this!”

For some people it is realistic that they will get the task done tomorrow. For them, it’s because a good night’s sleep  restores reserves of self-discipline and they actually do have more energy for the task at hand. That is the thing about our future self, it may have abilities that differ from our present self (at least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves). If our present self is tired and not up to the task, the future self has a fresh start, right?

For others, the task will get done not from the use of renewed energy, but from adrenaline-filled blind panic (this was me during my studies many times just before a deadline). Sure, it’s motivating, but it’s not the most self-directed sense of being ourselves. If we find ourselves acting like this frequently, it can also lead to feelings of uncertainty: Why in the world do I always wait until the last minute to get anything done?

This task avoidance has most likely become a habit when you find yourself asking the above question. When we faced undesirable tasks in the past, we avoided them to seek a short-term feel-good-mood. In other words, our avoidance was rewarded, we felt better, at least for the moment, when we pushed the task off (to tomorrow). This is known as negative reinforcement. The negative stimulus, that undesirable task and the feelings the task stimulated within us, was removed, and this is rewarding. Rewards, as I learned from behaviorist psychology, reinforce behavior, and behavior that is reinforced is repeated. Voila, a chronic procrastinator is born!

So, what’s the bottom line here? Few chronic procrastinators are really happy with their chronic delay, even when they pull it off. Therefore I think there are three main points we can take away from all of this.

  • We procrastinate because it makes us feel good right now. It’s a short-term feel-good-mood that is instantly reinforcing and this sets up a long-term (bad) habit.
  • Once we have developed this habit to perfection, we don’t even stop to think about what we’re going to do. It’s unconscious. When we face an undesirable task, something that is boring, frustrating, low on enjoyment or something we don’t know how to do, we put it off. That’s the procrastination habit.
  • Breaking this habit requires that we first recognize the short-term benefits that we’re looking for with avoidance. I don’t really want to quote Dr. Phil, but he kind off has a point by saying: “You can’t change, what you don’t acknowledge”. Once we bring the habit into our conscious awareness, we then need to do the hard work of habit breaking. We have to act against the response of avoidance, put aside the negative emotions, and just get started as we intended to do.

Bottom line solution: Just get started. Don’t over think it. Just pick a place within the task, anything, and get started. At least, that was my strategy to hopefully develop a habit of getting things done (and I graduated, so I guess it kind of works). Progress fuels well-being, well-being fuels motivation, and there is habit-breaking power in this process. Habit-breaking takes mindful effort, strategic use of energy and it takes time. If we take it one moment at a time, one intention or task at a time, we’ll soon build a new habit, the habit of the possible self who just gets shit done!

P.S. I was invited to start a mindfulness course, after writing this blogpost (things happen for a reason I guess). More about the techniques I learn there in future posts.

Martine