Overcoming procrastination: 6 common causes and 10 ways to stop

In Latin, the word for tomorrow is cras.
The combination of the prefix pro- (forward), and the suffix -crastinus (until the following day), make up our word procrastination.

Procrastination is the tendency to avoid taking meaningful action, usually way beyond “the following day”.

We all experience procrastination in some form.
Sometimes it’s particularly evident, like playing video games instead of working on a particular task.
Other times it’s much more sophisticated, like making over-complicated plans on how to tackle a particular task.
Don’t be fooled: inaction and unnecessary action are forms of procrastination, just under a different guise.

“Never confuse movement with action.”
— Ernest Hemingway

In this post, we look at the most common causes and forms of procrastination, and then list the most effective solutions to overcome and stop procrastination. (Click the links to navigate).
causes of procrastination

Causes of procrastination

What causes procrastination?
Hundreds of studies have been done on this phenomenon.
Here are the most common sources.

Past failures

Past attempts can set expectations for future ones.
If you’re working on something that…wasn’t very successful in the past, you likely have a negative association with actually completing what you’re working on. As long as you keep it “work in progress”, you’re in a safe place away from further failures.

For example, this could be…a bad experience giving a talk or sharing a presentation in the past. The longer you can drag preparing the new presentation, the longer you can avoid facing that fear.

Bad past experiences also set low expectations (“it won’t work anyway”), which can be pretty demotivating.

Poor focus and bad habits

Your ability to concentrate and give your attention to one thing at a time for…a sustained period of time it’s something we train through our everyday choices.
However, in today’s world most people train themselves to have very poor mental performance, accepting interruptions and doing multiple things at once.

This is a recipe for disaster. Studies have conclusively shown how multitasking is a lie: the brain keeps switching between tasks, losing power and effectiveness in the meantime.
By accepting distractions in your life, you are actually training yourself to have a world-class short attention span.

Unsupportive peer group

As the saying goes, “hang around four serial procrastinators, and you’ll become the fifth”.
Yes, I just made that up.

But the people around you have a massive impact on the standard you expect of yourself.
They will show you what’s possible and what’s acceptable.
Not only that: the wrong people will actually want you to get as little done as possible, just so they don’t have to question their own performance and feel bad.

Unclear goals

Having unclear goals like “change” or “…not my current situation” or “lose some weight”, are very difficult to be motivated towards, and are also…difficult to start.
Make sure you set clear long and short-term goals, and make them actionable.
You can start from here.

Unactionable goals

Big goals are great, but unless you break them down into milestones, they can be incredibly daunting. This can make you feel so far away from your destination, unable to take action: not only you don’t know where to start from, but the outcome feels so big and distant that we tend to overestimate the chances of failure and…decide not to do anything instead.
Make sure you break your goals down, then celebrate your achievements to keep momentum up.

Low energy levels

Having low energy levels doesn’t help when it comes to taking action.
Feeling sluggish can be due to a variety of factors, the most likely ones being…your nutrition, your fitness levels, and…your sleep.

If you feel sluggish, check your sleep first thing.
Sleep deprivation reduces your mental performance, your body’s ability to recover, and causes an overall reduction of glucose going to the pre-frontal cortex and parietal lobe. In other words, you become more emotional and less capable of rational thinking. Being less effective means that you need more time to get things done, and take even more time away from sleep.
This starts a (very) negative sleepless warp.

Taking a nap and giving yourself permission to sleep is totally cool, and it will help you work on what really matters.

Ultimately, procrastination is a form of fear.
Whether you are afraid of taking action and failing, or taking action and succeeding (and therefore having to deal with change, new unknown problems, but also with the possibility to lose what you have worked hard for), fear is fastening you to your current situation.

This isn’t bad news. It’s good news. Fear tells you what’s important to you.
Important enough for your emotions to be stirred up. It’s a compass for what matters.

Fear is good. It’s avoiding that fear that causes problems.

So how can you identify fear and…face it instead of avoiding it?
Here are the most common flavours of procrastination.

procrastination over time

Different ways to procrastinate

Sometimes, procrastination can be tricky because…it hides behinds a useful-looking activity.

Sometimes it’s planning, other times it’s quitting. It can even be…taking unnecessary action.
Sure, a few times these are actions are actually good and positive signals: it’s up to you to become a productivity samurai and recognise the difference.
But when in doubt, let me tell you…you’re procrastinating.

Here’s a list of the classic forms of putting off taking action, so you will never be fooled again.

Postponing things

This is the most common and expected form of procrastination.
“I’ll do it later…”, “I have a lot on…”, “One day…”
These are all forms of procrastination we expect.
Instead of taking action now, however small, we postpone it to a later, undefined time.

At least this one is honest and transparent.

Working around things

This is a trickier manifestation of delaying things.
Instead of working on things, we work around things. Usually, this happens in one of two ways: overplanning and prepping other things that “somehow” will make the main thing easier.

Overplanning is a classic. Spend hours or days creating and action plan. Then tweak it. At the end, it’s so perfect it has become a piece of abstract art: a beautiful but only symbolic representation of reality.

Overprepping is another one. Working on lots of small things that will eventually make working on the main task easier.

Doing small tasks first is another shade of this: wasting time on safe, insignificant wins, so you don’t have to take any risks, nor make any actual progress. For example…starting from replying to all emails, when what you really needed to do was writing that big presentation.

Leaving things unfinished

Never finishing things and putting things on pause is often a way to…avoiding problems (like a big deadline looming) and dodge responsibility. For now.
At least you got started.

Starting tons of things at once

Another sophisticated form of procrastination is…starting tons of projects at once.
This is just a way to stay in your comfort zone and ultimately…sabotage your efforts. Instead of pushing through your “comfort ceiling” and grow (by making mistakes), you start another task or another project. Because you start from scratch, you can remain comfortable and go through the same initial phases you have learnt to deal with in your previous endeavours.

Usually, the old project is used to justify the new one.
“Doing this first will make it easier” or “I put the other on pause for now, it just made sense.”.

External blame

Looking for external excuses (“there are no x available” is a classic one.) is a great way to put off taking action. Instead of accepting what’s not in your control and changing your action plan to influence what you can control, blaming circumstances is a great way to delay having to take things into your own hands.

overcoming procrastination

Overcoming procrastination

So what is the antidote to stop procrastination?
First of all, it’s important to set expectations: things won’t change overnight.

I like to say we’re always training.
If you’ve been training to accept procrastination for years, you’ve likely become a world champion.
The good news is that you can change your performance by changing your standards, but it will take time and disciplined training to become a master anti-procrastinator. Here are 10 tools and practices you can use from today to step up your concentration game and get stuff done fast.

I have listed these in order of mastery: start from the top ones, and make your way down. As you become better and more focused, these will help you to keep stepping up your game.
No more letting fear make you run around in circles.

Reduce distractions

The first step is to reduce external distractions.
From intrusive people to pinging apps, make sure your environment does not provide you with excuses to postpone action until…later.

You can detox your phone from distracting apps and notifications by following this step-by-step guide.
Setting expectations by letting other people know you are going to immerse yourself into deep work will also help you prevent interruptions.

Have a dedicated space

The name of the game is to eliminate distractions instead of avoiding them.
Avoiding distractions is…a distraction. And distractions eat away at your willpower.

Don’t work or study where you play or sleep. That will ruin both.
Instead, have a dedicated space for doing your best work and taking action. For example, I love to write from a certain bar. I only go there to write. Nothing else.
Equally, I have a no-laptop-in-my-bedroom policy, which makes sure I get the best sleep and…I don’t procrastinate when it’s time to get some rest.
Avoiding distractions is…a distraction. Click To Tweet

Pomodoro technique

I wrote a guide to using the pomodoro technique to train your focus: you can find it here.
Essentially, using a timer to force yourself to concentrate on one task at a time (after having eliminated all distractions) is a great training ground to improve your concentration. Read the full guide.

Get enough sleep

Making sure you get enough sleep, and enough quality sleep, will make sure your mind is sharp, and perform at your highest level.
Tiredness and sleep deprivation result in slower execution, a 12-14% reduction in the amount of glucose transported to the most rational region of your brain, and a decrease in short-term memory and reaction time comparable to that of having drunk over the legal limit for driving.

Getting enough sleep will make sure you are more effective and faster, supporting the quality as well as the quantity of your output. Sleep also helps replenish your willpower, making sure you can overcome the temptation to “do something else” and choose the right thing to work on.

Create a supportive peer group

We like to lie to ourselves and pretend we’re immune to the environment around us. But, just like where we work has an impact on our performance, so does who we have around.
In fact, the people you surround yourself with set the example you will follow. They set the standard you will expect of yourself. They judge your performance. They even impact your own biochemistry.

Procrastinating friends will actually be invested in your worst performance, just so they don’t have to question their own poor performance. Make sure you have the right people around you to support your positive efforts, rather than entertain your hesitations.

Set simple metrics and milestones

Instead of creating over-complicated plans, set some simple milestones and metrics to measure your progress. This will also help you break down scary goals into smaller, defined steps.

For example, if you want to read 24 books in a year, break that down into…one book every 15 days. 16 pages a day. 6 books a quarter. Much more manageable, and…measurable, so you can adjust on the way.

Set winning actions

As well as having checkpoints and metrics, it’s important to set daily actions.
I call these Winning Actions (read the full guide here): small actions you can take every day to make sure you make progress on your goal without having to think about what to do.
These are forward-looking metrics, keeping up your momentum and propelling you forward before it’s too late.

Accountability partner

Having an accountability partner is the ultimate peer group hack (provided you find the right person to match your drive). Being able to share your goals with someone else, regularly check-in on each other’s progress, but also see that you’re not the only one working hard to achieve your personal objectives, makes such a difference.

First, you’re guilt-tripping each other into taking action, then you’re sharing the results and celebrations.
Click here to read more about finding your accountability partner.

Set stakes

Having something to lose is generally much more motivating than having something to gain.
We value more what we already have than what we might have.

Setting stakes uses this principle to spur you to take action.
To do this effectively, it’s much better to do it with someone else. You could decide that, if you don’t do something by a certain date, you’ll have to go without your phone for a week. Or you’ll have to buy an Amazon voucher for someone else.
Bonus points if it’s someone you would never want to give anything to.

Find a coach

This is the ultimate procrastination hack.
Having the right coach gives you extra commitment to your own goals, as well as having someone who keeps an eye on your short-term actions and long-term goals, every week.
You also access the insight and lessons learnt by someone else and…the other people they work with, accelerating your own growth and progress.

I am lucky to work as a coach with a few high-performance individuals, to push their expectations and keep their actions aligned towards a clear direction. (It’s awesome.)

What now

Ok. That was a long list. Well done on reading till the end without postponing. Or delaying.
Now that you know how procrastination manifests, what causes it, and what to do about it, you have no excuses. Let me be clear: you will still catch yourself procrastinating, and as you do, you’ll find more and more sophisticated ways to delay taking real action.

But now you can recognise real action from movement, and do something about it.

– Matt

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