Overview: What is Procrastination, and How to We Tackle It?

Post written by Leo Babauta.

What is this beast we call procrastination? It is something we all struggle with, often on a daily basis, whether we’re trying to create, trying to learn, trying to get stuff done, trying to create changes in our lives.

We procrastinate. Let’s admit that, get it off our chests. We all do it, so let there be no guilt about it. We are no worse than anyone else, and the mere fact that you’re taking this course says you’re actually doing something about it. So let go of the guilt, and give yourself a pat on the back.

Let’s start by taking a look at the problem — staring the beast face-to-face. Actually, let’s start by not calling it a beast anymore, or a problem even. It’s a simple matter of creating the right setup that will be conducive to focus.

So we’ll look at the factors that contribute to procrastination, then figure out how to start creating the setup that will work to change the factors to work in our favor.

What is Procrastination?

One of the difficulties is that procrastination isn’t one thing. It looks like one thing, because the result is the same: we put off doing something and then feel guilty about it. But what’s going on can be many different (but related) things, depending on the circumstances and the person.

Let’s take an example: Cara and Julio each have a big project to work on, and they each keep putting it off for days, until it’s too late to get it done (or at least get it done well). They’ve both procrastinated, so the same thing happened in each case, right?

Not necessarily. Cara might be afraid of the task because she’s not sure she really knows how to do it. She’s afraid she’ll fail at it and look bad (ironically, she looks worse by not working on it at all). She might have some drama going on with her boyfriend as well, and that’s giving her anxiety and not putting her in the mood to work. So she goes on Facebook, checking on her boyfriend, putting off the work she knows she needs to be doing.

Julio might not be afraid of doing the task, as he’s done it before and knows he can do it well. In fact, he’s so confident in his ability that he figures he can do it by the end of the week, just before it’s due (he’s actually underestimating how long it will take and overestimating his ability and motivation to get it done in that time). He also has a lot on his plate, including a lot of urgent but smaller tasks that are easier done than this project, so he procrastinates by doing a lot of small tasks, knocking them off his task list and feeling productive. He answers a bunch of emails, goes to a bunch of quick meetings, responds to customer calls. He’s rocking the productivity, but the big project gets put off.

So tackling procrastination really depends on the causes, and there could be multiple factors at work. Unfortunately, we are usually not that aware of what the causes are, so dealing with them becomes even more difficult.

It’s usually not that difficult to deal with the causes once we’ve identified them, so let’s look at the more common causes.

1. Fear. Actually procrastination is usually the result of some kind of fear, so it’s not that useful to just say “fear” here. Fear might be fear that you’re not going to do well, fear of not knowing how to do something, fear of starting in the wrong place, fear of succeeding and not knowing what to do once you succeed, fear of doing something that you’re not already comfortable doing, etc. These are all obviously related, and they can be summed up as “fear of failure or not being good enough”.

2. Perfectionism. Spending a ton of time trying to get something perfect, or having the perfect tool or setup or software, or doing it exactly with the right procedure, is a form of procrastination and a cause of it.

3. Distractions. There are so many distractions it’s impossible to list them all, but they might include Facebook, reading blogs, checking the news, watching TV or YouTube, checking email or text messages, playing computer or video or Facebook games, etc. They all come with a reward (new message! fun game!) while the tasks you’re putting off come with pain (fear, hard work, etc.). So you tend to go for the things with reward rather than pain.

4. Smaller tasks. A new email comes in asking you to do something urgent but easy. So you tackle that rather than the thing you know you’re supposed to do. Or your to-do list has a dozen small tasks and one big one, and so you feel productive by getting the small ones done.

5. Feeling tired, lazy, unmotivated. You just don’t have the energy right now to tackle the hard stuff. So you go to the distractions, go to the easy stuff.

6. Being stressed, worried, anxious, overwhelmed. Related to the last item, these feelings make you less likely to want to focus on something hard. Your energy and focus are on other things — the overwhelming amount of things you have to do, something going on elsewhere in your life, other stressful projects, etc.

7. Task is too complex, vague, difficult. There’s too much to think about with this task! Too many moving parts, too many problems to solve, and you’re not sure how to tackle it, where to start, or who should be involved. You’re not comfortable with this task because you haven’t done it a lot before. Or it’s just too hard.

8. Not knowing where to start. The most important thing is to start, not to start at the perfect place. So pick a place that seems as good as any other, and just start. It can be in the middle or end instead of the beginning. Just start.
You think you’ll be more motivated later: It’s not true. You won’t be more motivated in the future than you are now. Do it now, because now is the perfect time to start.

9. Organizing as procrastination. Spending a lot of time on your to-do list or productivity software, getting your desk or computer organized, trying to perfect your organizational system … these are all fors of procrastination. We think we’re being productive by doing it, and it’s easier than doing the thing we’re putting off.

10. Other common causes: being disorganized, overestimating your ability to do this task later, thinking you’ll be more motivated later, thinking you’ll work better under pressure, thinking it’s already too late so why should I even start.

The good news is that these are all fixable by changing your setup and creating some simple habits.

How to Tackle Procrastination

So we’ve identified some of the more common causes … now what?

The first thing is to realize that while the fixes might be simple, it’s not going to change overnight. Procrastination is a set of habits we’ve formed over years of repetition, and so changing those habits will take focus, conscious effort, and repetition. That’s not to say it will be hard work — it can be fun to change these habits. But just realize it might not change in one day.

Next, the most important step is developing awareness. Start to notice when you’re procrastinating. This is a habit to develop, and we’ll talk more about it in the Four Habits article.

Third, start identifying the causes at work on you. We don’t often look closely at our procrastination, because of feelings of guilt and fear, but let’s instead look at it with detachment, a sense of curiosity about what’s going on. No guilt, remember! Take a look at why you’re putting things off. Go over some of the causes above, and say, “Ah. That’s what’s happening with me.”

Fourth, start changing your setup so that those causes have less power over you. We’ll talk more about that as we go, but creating the right environment for focus can make all the difference in the world, and it’s something that’s not that difficult to do.

Last, you’ll want to develop some small, simple habits over time. This is the part that will take time, but again, it can be fun. Relish these changes!

All of this will be covered in this course, so dive in!