Procrastination and Laziness
How to start getting things done
There are probably almost as many causes of procrastination - putting things off - as there are people. How can we stop procrastinating and get things done? Is it just laziness, or is it deeper than that?
Well, as it turns out, there are some general guiding principles that you can apply. While the details may differ from one person to the next, for a great many people, whatever the reasons and method of procrastinating may be, the process of putting things off is actually the same. And no, it probably isn’t “just laziness,” whatever that may mean exactly.
Most people try to bully themselves into doing things, and for a few it even works. For most, it may work but only for a short time, because it doesn’t address what is really going on. The same applies to motivational self-talk for many people. You can get yourself excited about some new project for a while, but then, for most of us, it all fades and we find ourselves stuck in our armchairs once again.
Maybe the whole task seems too daunting. We fear failing perhaps, or we are just not very energetic. Maybe we resent the fact that we “have” to do it (we don’t have to, in fact, but we must then be prepared to take the consequences). When we are trying to get ourselves to do something, a whole host of different feelings and action-stopping thoughts could come up. For a given individual, usually it will be the same feeling and set of negative ideas most of the time. Step 1 in solving the puzzle of procrastination is to figure out what the feeling is in you that tells you to stop rather than to go. It could be fear, sadness, resentment, anger, or something entirely different. The accompanying thoughts could be anything from “I couldn’t do this,” “It is too much effort,” to “I won’t do this,” or “I’ll just do (something else) first.” Identifying that feeling will help you to recognize it when it comes up, so you can step beyond it, as I describe below. Identifying the feeling may sound like a flaky kind of thing to be doing, but surprisingly, it is the first step of a very simple process that can get you to learn to move, so I strongly recommend that you don’t skip it!
What are these feelings doing, exactly? Well, the simple answer is that they are keeping you in your armchair, of course. But why? Well, it turns out, that is exactly their function: the whole point of these feelings, and any thoughts accompanying them, is to keep you in your comfort zone. When you were a young child, you may have had too many expectations of “success” heaped onto you, and so you become afraid of doing things in case you “fail” and cause too much disappointment. The feelings protect you from “failure.” Of course, procrastination is itself a slow road to failure, but that is in the future, at least for a while. Maybe you had parents who didn’t respect your autonomy enough, who tended to boss you about without regard to your feelings, so now you feel resentment at any task that you feel needs doing, and put it off to make them suffer a bit for their disrespect. These feelings are protecting your sense of your own autonomy and independence. There could be a thousand reasons and a thousand feelings, but the result is always the same. You do not act!
The feelings basically make you feel more comfortable in the present moment. Sure, things may need doing, but right now, this instant, you feel better if you don’t do them. This comes straight from Mother Nature. In the wild, an animal only knows the present moment, and their instincts and feelings guide them as to how to behave. If something looks too risky, they’ll skip it unless the motivation is very high - they may happen to be starving hungry, for example. This is what we humans do too, until the deadline approaches and our motivation increases accordingly: then we act, but too late to do a good job, often enough. Of course, a wild animal doesn’t understand the future consequences of their action or inaction, but as domesticated humans, we are aware of the problem. Not acting to improve our lives pretty much definitely leads to a slow downward spiral in our standard of living! But Nature still operates in us, and when presented with any sort of challenge, those feelings come up to stop us - to keep us safe, to protect us in one way or another.
Knowing this, knowing that those feelings are just trying to protect you, it is possible to begin changing. Here is the really quite simple process to eliminate and overcome procrastination.
- When you are wanting to do something but are stopped by that feeling, stop and focus on the feeling. See what feeling it actually is. Doing this will probably cause the feeling to fade a bit, both because you are now not trying to do whatever it was trying to stop you doing, and because a feeling is a signal: by paying attention to it, you show that you have received the signal.
- Having clearly noticed the feeling, remind yourself that the feeling is just trying to keep you safe. What the feeling is, and what thoughts or excuses have come up, don’t matter in fact. The whole purpose of the feeling is to protect you in some way.
- If the feeling is very strong, take a deep breath to calm yourself a little.
- Say to yourself, gently, as if talking to a young child, “It’s all right. I know you’re just trying to help me. I know it will feel a bit uncomfortable at first, but I’m going to do this anyway. It’s for the best.”
- If it is a short task, you can add, “It’ll all be over in a few moments, anyway.”
- When you are ready, start moving! If the feeling comes back strongly enough to stop you, go through the steps again.
And that’s it! Astonishingly, this ridiculously simple method actually works!
It is very important that when talking to yourself that you do it as described, that is, gently, as if talking to a young child. This is because you must not make achieving your goal feel unpleasant. If you are not nice to yourself, you will resent your own intervention and your procrastination will actually increase. So be very kind and understanding of yourself, as if talking to your own “inner child.” These feelings were probably set up when you were a young child, and that part of your inner psychological make-up is still there, and will still respond in the same way as it would have then. So, treat it with the kindness and understanding it needs and it will gradually learn that you don’t need so much protection any more.
Sometimes, when you are tired, or when you have mixed motives, this method won’t be so effective: we all need to rest sometimes, and we all have to have to be clear about what we want to achieve too, to get things done. Also, don’t try to achieve too much change at once. This process is best developed as a habit, over time, as you learn the new way of getting things done. Start small, and work up to more productive, proactive habits, step-by-step.
For some people, lethargy can be biochemical in nature. For example, if you are overly sleepy after meals, maybe get yourself tested for diabetes just in case: that is one of the symptoms you get when your blood glucose levels go too high. A type II diabetic can counter this to some extent by eating a lot fewer carbohydrates (sugary foods and starchy foods like potato, rice, pasta and bread).