Many of the deadlines in my life have prompted something close to terror, with every other concern overwhelmed by that point on the clock indicating when doom descends. And if you’re a perennial procrastinator, you know precisely how that feels and, like me, envy people like Douglas Adams who wrote, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they fly by.”
Well, maybe not that much envy. I suspect that Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was far less composed in the face of deadlines. But while I don’t know about him, I know I don’t experience that level of sang-froid.
Instead, I’m one of those people who have been regularly surprised by how much can be done in the last few minutes. Somehow, there is focus and energy to burn just before assignments are submitted, projects completed, or contracts signed.
Although I know this well, it’s not hard to see how weird it is. Procrastinators are clearly capable of working extremely hard in the face of deadlines, yet they avoid beginning until they are so scared of failure they can think of little else. As deadlines approach that fear is somewhat transformed into excitement, although never completely — fear of failure remains a constant companion.
Why Do People Procrastinate?
People whose lives are less-dominated by deadlines find procrastination difficult to comprehend. I recall many conversations with well-meaning friends who were puzzled by why I repeatedly put myself through this. And it’s not only the during the final push that procrastination is unpleasant. Before finally committing to action, every reminder of the deadline is like a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, something from which I would instantly recoil and start looking for relief, usually in the form of distractions. No wonder my friends would ask, how come you don’t just start earlier?
I often tried this but somehow, it was more of a struggle to start earlier, so for most of my life I remained wondering why I couldn’t find a better way that avoided the ongoing pain of procrastination.
Procrastination & Distraction
One solution I tried was dealing with distractions. Distractions go hand-in-hand with procrastination, which is why people often think distractions cause procrastination. That idea has prompted any number of parents to try banning games or screens from procrastinating children, while an entire industry exists to produce tools for removing distractions from computers and phones.
I’ve tried many of these anti-distraction tools and they rarely work at all and never work for long. In hindsight, those failures are predictable because their logic is backwards. Instead of distractions causing procrastination, it’s procrastination that causes distraction. The reason is because paradoxically, deadlines make distractions seem attractive.
This works like an optical illusion. Goals and associated deadlines appear small when they’re far away, while the tasks required to meet those deadlines loom large. Worse still, those incomplete tasks feel like failure because they are all the things you have not done. This is the procrastinators’ problem: instead of thinking about their goals or tasks, procrastinators see their current failure to achieve, which looms far larger than any outcomes they desire.
That makes every incomplete task feel like a failure and a punishment, something to be avoided and even feared rather than pursued on the path to a goal. This is unpleasant and even painful, which is why procrastinators habitually recoil from useful tasks. Anything seems better, which is what makes distractions become so attractive, even things that would rarely occur to me at other times. For example, I’ve been distracted by tidying forgotten areas of my office, arranging cutlery drawers, even checking for bits of fluff on my clothes or furniture. Those distraction monitors sitting on my computer that prevent internet-surfing are no help in fending off the strange allure of dusting when deadlines appear on the horizon. Instead, anything becomes a distraction if it stops me experiencing the discomfort of unfinished tasks with no goal in sight.
As they approach, deadlines loom larger until they can no longer be ignored, at which point my anxious hunt for distractions is overwhelmed by terror at failing the deadline. In response to that terror, a ferocious energy consumes me until stuff gets done. That can be fun while it lasts, in the same way that addictive drugs can be fun, but each is ultimately self-destructive.
That procrastination process has happened to me throughout my life, more often than I dare think of (except when procrastinating). Yet, like every other chronic procrastinator, the only thing that experience ever taught me was how terrifying deadlines can be and how much you can achieve in very little time.
Little of this makes sense to anyone who is not a procrastinator (they do exist — I’ve met and envied more than a few). For them, a deadline is nothing more than a reminder, a guide for what needs doing now, well in advance of the completion time.
Goals Cause Procrastination
Although simple, that never worked for me until I discovered how I was tripping myself up, luring myself into self-destructive procrastinating habits. And the solution was recognising another paradox: goals are the root cause of procrastination.
For many people, that last statement is heretical. Goals and goal-setting are widely-recognised as one of the most useful tools for improving performance. I know this well and have read the research. Goals really help.
Until they don’t.
For half a century, management by objectives (MBO), key performance indicators (KPIs), and their slightly more humane incarnation as objectives and key results (OKR) have dominated performance management in business. Each of these, like every form of project management (including Agile) is rife with goals because goals work.
Until they don’t.
One of the points at which goals cease to work underlies the procrastinators’ paradox. What people often forget about goals is they always have two sides: achievement and failure. Achievement is what you experience once the goal is completed while failure is everything else. In other words, until you’ve achieved a goal, you’ve failed. The point at which procrastination becomes almost inevitable is when people shift focus from achievement to failure. For procrastinators, that happens as soon as they’ve been given the deadline — quietly at first, then louder and louder until it screams, find a distraction.
Non-procrastinators avoid this, instead remaining focused on what needs doing to reach their goals. For procrastinators, failure remains ever-present, which is why people like me start searching for distractions even while recognising they are literally useless. Worse still, every reminder that distractions represent wasted time merely heightens that sense of failure, bringing increasingly pointless activities into play until the fear of failure can be ignored no more. At that point, fear produces focus and the extraordinary energy non-procrastinators neither know nor envy.
So, what can procrastinators do?
Some people try to manage procrastination by tying goals to rewards, while others think they should punish failures to make people less likely to repeat them. Neither works well and never for long, because both effectively add a goal on to that big, fear-inducing goal, making it even scarier. Punishment is at least honest about trying to scare people but a moment’s reflection makes it clear that is simply going to make things worse.
Others get hooked on the rush produced by running out of time and look for jobs where they are constantly confronted with deadlines as a way of avoiding the wait before goal-focus arrives. Newsrooms and production companies are full of these deadline-lovers, as are emergency-service organisations. There are few areas where deadlines are more compelling than publication houses, fire response, or health emergencies, which gives these occupations a magnetic attraction for thrill-seekers.
Yet the thrill eventually wears off, leading to burnout and/or career-change. In any case, thrill-seekers are often undesirable in emergencies, where systematic approaches usually provide better outcomes. For example, airline pilots are among the most boring people to sit beside at dinner parties because their methodical approach to life makes them ideal for managing the occasional mind-numbingly huge crisis. Likewise, rather than indulging deadline-dependence, it is usually better for procrastinators to find systematic ways to manage the downsides of goals.
There are two key skills that limit the power of procrastination, the first of which is subtle and takes time. Procrastinators need to learn to be comfortable with the thought of failure, especially the thought of their failure to yet achieve their goals. Consciously, repeatedly, procrastinators need to mindfully recognise the anxiety produced by goals, especially when reaching for that distraction. This mindful acceptance is the start of the process of curing procrastination.
So, when you notice yourself getting anxious or reaching for a distraction, stop and do something different. Instead of submitting to the distraction or refocusing on your goal, mindfully refocus on the discomfort itself, the anxiety emerging from your current failure to achieve or even progress your goal. Once you’ve refocused, let yourself sit with that discomfort for however long it takes to subside. You may need to slow your breath but over time, the anxiety produced by failure to achieve (or even commence working towards) your goals will reduce. As anxiety abates, distractions become less compelling.
This is not always easy and it can require a lot of practice (I know that it took me a long time), but it’s often surprising how quickly that goal-induced anxiety will subside. Even when I started, it often took no more than a few seconds for my feelings of discomfort to melt away. I still have times when it takes longer but even when I began it rarely took more than a few minutes for calmness to return. I still occasionally have longer bouts of goal-induced anxiety and I suspect I always will, but I know I can mostly outlast the anxiety. And the same is true for you — you can do this and it does make a difference.
And yes, there are times it doesn’t work, either because I’m too tired or the anxiety is just too big. At those times, I need to do something else, like write in my journal or talk with a mentor or coach or counsellor. Regardless, mindful acceptance of goal-induced anxiety is one of the most powerful tools for overcoming procrastination.
Cutting Failure Down to Size
There’s a second skill for managing procrastination that works in a very different way: change the size of your failure so that it is less distressing. Every failure is the same size as the goal you haven’t achieved so the easiest way to diminish a failure is by changing the size of your goal.
The straightforward way to achieve that is simply choosing a new, smaller goal. For example, instead of cleaning the house you might choose to clean the hallway; instead of completing a report you might focus on writing the introduction. Smaller goals are much easier to face and produce far less anxiety, making it easier to remain focused on achievement instead of failure.
That’s not always an option — your housemates may not accept a clean hallway in place of a clean house, and your teacher or manager will probably insist on the entire report. Even then, you can cut goals down to size by chunking.
Chunking means splitting the big goal into small, easy-to-finish chunks. The first time I consciously used that strategy was in the early months of my Ph.D. Most people who do a Ph.D. will never complete a larger project on their own, because it has to be the student’s own work, requires large amounts of reading, data collection and writing multiple drafts and reviews, and takes years. A Ph.D. is highly intimidating and when I recognised how large it was, I was tempted to do more than just get distracted. Instead, I wanted to quit.
It was then that an old proverb sprang to mind: the only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time. While I like eating meat, I don’t want to eat even a mouthful of an elephant, yet I recognised the wisdom in that proverb. To complete the Ph.D., I needed to find a way to consume it one mouthful or chunk at a time. In other words, I needed to split that huge project into bite-sized chunks, the size that I could complete in a month, a week, a day, or even less. Once I began chunking it down to size, the Ph.D. became far less intimidating. Instead, it became part of my daily and weekly routine, something no more anxiety-provoking than writing an email or reading an article.
Rising Above Your Fears
In other words, chunking is the perfect match for mindful acceptance of goal-induced anxiety. Each time I mindfully accepted my anxiety, I was able to mindfully refocus on the next activity, the next bit of reading, writing, and analysis. It wasn’t until I’d submitted that sucker that its size came back into view, at which point I noticed my feet were no longer touching the ground — instead of recovering from terror, I was floating with pleasure at my achievement.
You can do the same, regardless of how much a procrastinator you are. Cut your big goals down to size to reduce anxiety, while recognising that at some point you’re still likely to get anxious. When you notice that is happening, Stop. Take a breath or two and accept your anxiety, and acknowledge that anxiety makes you distractible. Then Stop, again. Stay stopped long enough time to calm yourself, letting the anxiety diminish or dissolve. Once you’ve calmed, you can refocus back on a little goal, a chunk of the big goal, something you can achieve today, or this morning, or this minute.
That’s how you can chunk to conquer both procrastination and any goals within your grasp.