Why we Procrastinate and What to Do about it

June 16, 2011

I did an interview with John Assaraf the other day and we discussed the topic of procrastination. John is doing a series on that and he wanted my thoughts on why we procrastinate and what we can do about it. After putting it off for a while (just kidding) I did some thinking about it and came up with these guidelines.

So why do we procrastinate?

I think there are three reasons you may find yourself putting things off.

1) First, you may be truly overloaded and so you are just letting some items fall off the bottom of your day (the ones you procrastinate on). That’s not really procrastination, that’s just being too busy.

2) Or you are truly avoiding some items you don’t want to do. These are tasks that sit on your list day after day. I call these “Sinker” tasks—your heart sinks when you see them on the list and so you skip over them.

3) The third is more subtle: you just don’t know what to do on particular task to progress it forward. I call these “Huh!” tasks because when you get to one of these on your list you just say “Huh!” not because you dislike them, but because no action comes to mind. You don’t mind doing the task; you just don’t know what to do next. So then you just skip over it and go to the next item on the list. And they just sit on the list forever.

So what can we do about procrastination?

Well, first identify which of the reasons we just discussed are at play in the stuck thing. Each one has its own solution, so let’s talk about each one.

1) If you are merely overloaded and not really emotionally avoiding any particular task, then use my Workday Mastery To-Do List—also called the MYN task list. It’s a great way to get overload under control and to prevent important things from slipping through the cracks. Using this, you sort your tasks into urgency zones, and manage each zone appropriately. My books Total Workday Control Using Microsoft Outlook and Master Your Workday Now! discuss how to do this, as does my training. See this link for more information.

2) The second type of procrastination, Sinker tasks, require self-evaluation… some personal work. In typical business talk, you have not motivated yourself enough. So you need to do that. This has to do with setting goals and achieving goals, really, because most of these tasks that your heart sinks on are usually related to outcomes that you haven’t wrapped your heart and mind around yet.

Most people set goals incorrectly. The reason for that is that accountability in goals has been overemphasized—these days I think we focus too much on the measure, the number behind goals.

Instead, I think people need to focus more on the vision behind the goal.

So, if a rather large goal is stuck on your list and your heart sinks when you look at it, ask yourself what the vision behind the goal is.

The best way to identify vision is to ask yourself why you want the goal. Ask yourself how would you feel once the goal were complete; find the positive feelings behind the new way your life would look once the goal is in place, and focus on those. Create what I call a vision statement that focuses on all the positive outcomes of the goal. If you do that effectively, you can get past that kind of procrastination.

See Part II of my book Master Your Workday Now! for more information on how to manage goals like this.

3) Huh! tasks, the one that you just can’t figure out what to do next on, can be easy to fix. In this case, it’s just a matter of identifying the next action for the task. David Allen in his book Getting Things Done has great discussions on this and I talk about it in my Master Your Workday Now! book (next actions have been discussed for decades in the time management world). Just ask yourself what is the very next step you need to do on this task, and write that down on your list. Small next steps are easier to do than large general statements.

It may take some thought to figure out what that next step is. So if you cannot determine it quickly and you don’t feel like wasting time on this at the moment, then write on your list: “Determine next step for [task name]”. Then when you have more time and see that on the list, spend a few minutes and think about it.

For more information, search the indexes of my books for next actions.


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2 Responses to Why we Procrastinate and What to Do about it

  1. Irene Ochoa says:

    I’m really looking forward to the webinar! I’m doing well with the prioritizing so far; but I know there’s more to learn. I’m especially looking forward to leaning to manange the email situation; which is out of control.

  2. Like so many things, the solution is obvious – but it’s usually me standing in the way. As I write this I have one particular task that I just don’t want to do. It needs to be done and will probably take about an hour to do. It is on my To Do list for today and I have just scheduled a time for it.
    At the end of the day it will be a question of ‘Just Do It’ – and I will feel much better this evening.
    Thanks for the post.

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