Sometimes I procrastinate. I worry about not getting things perfect and so I take my sweet time. Before I know it, it has been too long and I still haven’t done whatever the task was that I was meant to be doing. And so the cycle continues.
The inspirational memes, self-help books and well-meaning advisors will say, “Stop procrastinating and just do it”. After all, if the action that we want to take is to do something, and we are not currently doing that something, it makes sense to just do it, right?
If only it was that easy.
Procrastination isn’t always like a tap that we can turn on or off. If it was that easy, none of us would have issues with procrastination.
Sometimes there is something that is sitting behind our hesitance for action that is preventing us from seeing “doing it” as a possibility. No amount of being told to just do it is going to shift the procrastination if we can’t even see “just doing it” as a possibility
So what is it that is sitting behind our procrastination?
We interpret the world in certain ways and, to help us do that, we create stories. For example, I hold a story that I am not a great cook. That story mostly serves me because it places me in a position where creating something that everyone enjoys feels like a major success when I know that I am “not a great cook”. If, however, I was asked to create a 10-course meal for my family and friends, the story of “not a great cook” may not serve me, perhaps limiting me instead. It may even lead me to procrastinate!
So how do we overcome procrastination?
When our stories are sitting behind our inaction, it makes sense to identify those stories and determine the best way to use them.
So, we look at the root cause of the procrastination, rather than the symptom of not doing something. We can do this by asking ourselves;
- What stories am I telling myself about this task?
- How is procrastinating useful for me in the context of this story?
As an example, my procrastination story is usually, “I don’t know how to do this and I am worried that I will fail.” Your story will most likely be different. With my story, procrastination helps me because it prevents failure (except it doesn’t really, because not getting the task done could also be seen as failure).
Once we have determined our procrastination story, how do we shift the procrastination? I use the following five steps. You might also find them useful.
Step 1 – Acknowledge the story
The story is present and it is there to tell you something. Acknowledge it and welcome it. You might think it is being a pain right now, however, it is also bringing with it an amazing opportunity to learn.
How I acknowledge my story:
- Oh , hi “I don’t know how to do this and I am worried that I will fail”. I see you are visiting again. Good to know that you are here and thanks for keeping me informed.
Step 2 – What is the useful piece of information that the story is giving you?
Your story is telling you something that is most likely going to be useful for you. What is it?
For example, my story tells me that I don’t know how to proceed. That’s great. Because if I don’t know how to proceed, perhaps that means some help would be useful. Or, perhaps it means that breaking the task down a little more might be useful. Whatever it means, understanding that I don’t know how to proceed has, ironically, given me some information about how to proceed.
So the question here is:
- What piece of useful information is my story actually giving me?
Step 3 – Declare the minimum step that you are able to take to progress the task
When you know the information that your story is giving you, you can declare the minimum step required in order for you to progress the task. When you know the step that you are going to take, it is useful to declare.
In the case of my story, when I don’t know the way forward, I might try to look at the situation differently, or understand the objective and then break the task into steps, or it might be useful to ask for help in some way. For me, asking for help when I don’t know what to do might be asking someone to show me, or it could be asking someone to sit with me and be a sounding board. It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it helps you to take that first step.
Useful questions to ask yourself might include one or more of the following:
- What requests can I make right now to help me make progress, and to whom?
- What is the objective that I am trying to achieve and how can I break this task down so that I can achieve that objective?
- What is the minimum step that I can take to help me to move forward on this task?
It can be helpful to declare the minimum step that you will take:
- “I will ask Alex to review this document with me and be my sounding board”
HOT TIP: Often, if we are stuck somewhere, and don’t feel as though we are able to change the outcome at that point, there will be a request that is missing: we can’t change the outcome because we need help to do so, and we can’t have help in doing so if we haven’t made the request. Ask what request is missing and then create the request that will help you.
Step 4 – Take the declared step – immediately where possible
You have declared the minimum possible step that you are able to take. So take it. Do this immediately if it makes sense to do so.
For example, my declaration in Step 3 was to make a request to Alex to review a document with me. Making a request to someone is a common minimum action that I declare when I feel as though I am procrastinating or stuck. And. as soon as I have declared the request, I will make it. It might be in person, over the phone, via email, or something else. However, I will make the request immediately, because as soon as I take that step, it means that I have moved on from my stuck point and I am on the path to achieving the outcome that I want to achieve.
Step 5 – Determine the next step
Once the first step has been taken, it is time to take the next step. At this point, procrastination may be beaten. If it is, congratulate yourself and move on. If it isn’t, congratulate yourself for taking that first step, and then start again at Step 1. You’ll get there – you are already one step closer!
Procrastination is not always useful or fun. However, it is telling us something about how we are seeing the world in that moment. Just as we can choose to listen when a friend offers something that we think might be useful, we can choose to listen when procrastination pays a visit. Once we have listened, we can then choose the actions that would best help us to take action.