“Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself “I'll do it tomorrow,” and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.” — Marcus Aurelius
If you procrastinate, you're in good company. Most of us, and I'm talking like 95% of people here, are in the same boat. “To stop procrastinating” is one of the top goals of many people I run into.
In his book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, Piers Steel says “Procrastination is pervasive. Almost as common as gravity and with an equal downward pull, it is with us from the overfull kitchen garbage can in the morning to the nearly empty tube of toothpaste at night.”
Steel perfectly describes the pattern common to all procrastination:
At the start of a big project, time is abundant. You wallow in its elastic embrace. You make a few passes at getting down to it, but nothing makes you feel wholeheartedly engaged. If the job can be forgotten, you’ll forget it. Then the day arrives when you really intend to get down to work; but suddenly it’s just something you don’t feel like doing. You can’t get traction. Every time you try to wrap your mind around it, something distracts you, defeating your attempts at progress. So you forward your task to a date with more hours, only to find that every tomorrow seems to have the same twenty-four. At the end of each of these days, you face the disquieting mystery of where it went. This goes on for a while.
Eventually, time’s limited nature reveals itself. Hours, once tossed carelessly away, become increasingly limited and precious. That very pressure makes it hard to get started. You want to get going on the big project but instead you take on peripheral chores. You clean your office or clean up your e-mail; you exercise; you shop and cook. Part of you knows this isn’t what you should be doing, and so you say to yourself, “I am doing this; at least I am preparing by doing something.” Eventually, it is too late in the day to really get started, so you may as well go to bed. And the cycle of avoidance starts again with the dawn.
At this point, in an attempt to quash our growing anxiety, we often seek diversion. Hello email or our new found love of cricket, a sport we had never thought to watch before but now find utterly fascinating. We go on facebook, reddit, twitter and the like which offers us a rush of dopamine. They provide small quick and continuous rewards, unlike the task at hand, which is a one time future reward.
Soon these temptations have seduced you. The task still waggles itself in the periphery of your vision, but you don’t want to look it in the eye—it will have you if you look—so you burrow deeper into your distractions. … Pleasure turns to powerlessness as you become unable to extract yourself.
Yet the deadline approaches and our diversions need to increase in intensity to match our growing anxiety. Avoidance kicks in, we don't even want to open emails from people or with subjects that remind us of the dreaded task. Eventually something clicks, perhaps our desire to prevent pain kicks in and we start working.
Some inner mind has quietly boiled the task down to its essence, as there are no more moments to spare. You wade into the work, making ruthless decisions and astonishing progress. In place of that menacing cloudiness, a glittering clarity comes over you. There is purity to your work, fueled by the real urgency of now or never.
For some of us this initial rush is enough to power us through. For others, it is only the sprinter failing to pace himself at the start of a marathon. In the face of depleting energy and interest we turn to caffeine, sugar, and all nighters. Time runs out and we deliver what we have content that, while it was not our best work, at least we got it done.
The relief at getting a job done doesn’t always make up for doing a sloppy job. Even if you managed to perform brilliantly, the achievement is tainted with a whiff of what might have been. And this kind of procrastination has likely cast a cloud on an evening out, a party, or a vacation, which you couldn’t fully enjoy because half of your mind was elsewhere, obsessing about what you were avoiding.
Yet this is an excuse. Something that lets us out of committing ourselves. We convince ourselves that we could have done a better job if we hadn't left it to the last minute…but maybe we couldn't have. This way we never fail.
We tell ourselves that we will never never again be in this situation, that the cost of procrastinating is too high, that …
The trouble with such resolutions is that procrastination is a habit that tends to endure. Instead of dealing with our delays, we excuse ourselves from them— self-deception and procrastination often go hand-in-hand. Exploiting the thin line between couldn’t and wouldn’t, we exaggerate the difficulties we faced and come up with justifications: a bad chest cold, an allergic reaction that caused sleepiness, a friend’s crisis that demanded our attention. Or we deflect responsibility entirely by saying, “Gee whiz, who knew?” If you couldn’t have anticipated the situation, then you can’t be blamed.
We tend to explain procrastination as perfectionism. “That we delay because we are perfectionists, anxious about living up to sky-high standards.” But it doesn't pan out.
Based on tens of thousands of participants— it’s actually the best-researched topic in the entire procrastination field—perfectionism produces a negligible amount of procrastination.
Piers offers a simple explanation for why we believe this theory despite the evidence. “Perfectionists who procrastinate are more likely to seek help from therapists.”
“You value rewards that can be realized quickly far more highly than rewards that require you to wait; simply, you are impulsive.”
As for combatting procrastination. That's pretty simple. “Proper planning,” he argues, echoing the likes of Peter Bregman and Tim Ferriss, “allows you to transform distant deadlines into daily ones, letting your impulsiveness work for instead of against you.”
Still curious? The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done goes on to explore the science of procrastination.