HOW TO GO FROM PROCRASTINATING TO GETTING THINGS DONE

We’ve all experienced procrastination—that knowledge that you should be doing something productive, but instead of starting the laundry, you’ve spent the last hour watching one YouTube video after another. Because of our impossibly high standards, we perfectionists tend to be harder on ourselves than most people when we procrastinate. In this post, we’re going to take a closer look at how to overwhelm, fear, and perfectionist thinking contributes to procrastination and how to break the cycle by changing our thoughts and behaviors.

Why We Procrastinate

Some people are surprised that perfectionists procrastinate, because we’re generally such workhorses. It’s true that perfectionists will not take a missed deadline or sloppy work lightly, but we aren’t immune to the overwhelm, fear, and negative thinking that fuel procrastination.

Overwhelm

One reason for procrastination is that we become overwhelmed with the multitude of complex tasks we’ve taken on. If you have a hard time saying no to new projects or added responsibilities and are constantly trying to prove yourself, you’ve probably taken on more work (housework, volunteer work, side hustles) and pursued more goals than the average person. You might pride yourself on cleaning the whole house three nights a week in addition to your sixty-hour-a-week work schedule. Or you might find yourself shooting off e-mails as you’re standing on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer practice, desperate to keep tabs on the latest major project even as you try to be the perfect parent cheering your son on. As a result of this drive to extend yourself and do everything you possibly can, you may get burned-out and overwhelmed.

Perfectionism increases the pressure and overwhelm, because we don’t just expect ourselves to do all the things we take on; we expect ourselves to do them perfectly and effortlessly. Sometimes we experience analysis paralysis—an inability to make decisions or take action because we’re overwhelmed by the number of choices we have and the need for every action we take to be just right.

Are there goals, projects, deadlines, or responsibilities that feel overwhelming right now? If so, write them down to help clarify what feels stressful.

Perfectionist Thinking

Overwhelm isn’t the only reason we procrastinate. The need to do things flawlessly adds tons of extra pressure to every task. So projects don’t get started and work doesn’t get done because of our fear of not doing them perfectly. And sometimes it feels safer to not act—to procrastinate.

Perfectionist thoughts are harsh, all-or-nothing messages that underlie our belief that imperfections are the same as failures, inadequacies, and unworthiness. Perfectionist thinking that contributes to procrastination includes many different kinds of thoughts:

  • If it’s not perfect, it’s not worth doing.
  • If it’s this hard, I must be stupid.
  • What if I mess up?
  • I’ll probably embarrass myself.
  • Mistakes are unacceptable.
  • I’m not good at.
  • I have to do everything myself; I’m the only one who can do this correctly.

Perfectionist thinking impedes our ability to try new things, take chances, and stretch ourselves. As we’ve discussed previously, perfectionist thinking is based on cognitive distortions or false information and assumptions. It plays on our fears and increases our feelings of overwhelm and the pressure to perform, which leads to avoidance and procrastination.

Notice and record the perfectionist thoughts you have that may contribute to avoidance and procrastination.

Fear

Fear of failure, rejection, and criticism can stand in the way of acting. These fears are magnified by perfectionist thinking that tells us that mistakes are catastrophic. You can avoid failure, rejection, and criticism by procrastinating or avoiding certain tasks and situations altogether. However, this only magnifies your fears and increases the anxiety and stress that you feel about having incomplete projects or unmet goals.

What are some things that you procrastinate doing because you’re afraid of doing them imperfectly or being criticized?

Does procrastination make you feel more stressed and increase your fears of failure, rejection, and criticism? Can you think of a time that this happened?

Why Procrastination Is a Problem

Some procrastination is normal; but procrastination does cause problems, especially if you do it regularly. Procrastination doesn’t just get in the way of us achieving our goals. Procrastination can also cause us to miss out on opportunities, waste time, and feel even more stressed and overwhelmed.

Missed Opportunities

Procrastination can cause us to miss out on opportunities to learn, experience new things, meet new people, have fun, advance in our career, and challenge ourselves. Ty’s story is an example of how procrastination can lead to missed opportunities.

Ty’s Story

Ty is an avid singer and songwriter. He loves to sing for his family, but he’s never performed in public. When his brother-in-law invited him to perform at a local open mic night, it piqued his interest, and he started thinking about signing up. Naturally, Ty was nervous about the prospect of his first public performance, so he put off signing up. Two days passed, then a third. He kept telling himself he’d do it, but instead of signing up and practicing for the show, he stayed late at work, got a haircut, took his car in for service, and started painting his porch. The deadline came and went, and Ty told his brother-in-law that he was just too busy.

Has this ever happened to you? You wanted to do something, but you put it off, stalled, made excuses, and didn’t make a decision until the opportunity had passed you by. Maybe it was a job you didn’t apply for, a relationship that you didn’t pursue, a trip you didn’t take, an appointment you never scheduled, or a party you didn’t attend.

What opportunities have you missed by procrastinating or getting stuck in analysis paralysis?

Wasted Time

When we’re avoiding something, we often end up wasting time doing things that don’t really matter or don’t benefit us. For example, if you really want to spend an hour watching YouTube, it’s not necessarily a waste of time. When we allow ourselves simple pleasures and enjoy them, they are restorative and bring us joy. But when you watch YouTube to avoid starting the laundry, it probably isn’t giving you the same boost of happiness. Often, you’ll end up criticizing yourself for the things you procrastinated on.

How does procrastination lead to wasted time for you?

Stress, Overwhelm, and Self-Criticism

Putting things off generally increases anxiety. Even if you’re distracting yourself, it can be hard to fully relax when you still haven’t made that difficult phone call to your boss. The unfinished task nags at you and continues to stress you out for as long as you postpone it. In contrast, most people feel relief when they complete a difficult task, even if it didn’t go well. To further understand the connection between stress and procrastination, let’s take a look at Madison’s experience.

Madison’s Story

Madison is a new case manager for a maternal mental health program, and all of her clients adore her. She’s totally in touch with their feelings and personal needs; she helps them navigate their insurance benefits, goes above and beyond to provide them with resources, and is on call for their needs 24/7. This sounds like stellar job performance, but Madison procrastinates other essential job responsibilities. She puts off writing required notes in the clients’ charts after each interaction and delays entering her billing, which is supposed to be done within forty-eight hours of her client meetings, because these are tedious tasks and because she’s anxious about making a mistake. She has over a month’s worth of paperwork to do, which has resulted in her being given a written warning. Her anxiety and stress have skyrocketed. The task has become so big and overwhelming that she can’t get herself to even start. Madison has known for some time that she isn’t meeting her employer’s standards or her own expectations, which made her become frustrated with herself. She sits at her computer and thinks, Just do it, you idiot. You’re going to get fired if you don’t do your paperwork. This self-criticism initially got Madison to sit down and start on the paperwork, but she found herself getting more discouraged and self-critical and ultimately falling even further behind.

I can relate to Madison’s and Ty’s experiences with procrastination, and I imagine you can too. Avoidance and procrastination are common strategies that perfectionists use to deal with overwhelming and anxiety-provoking tasks. As a result, we miss out on opportunities, or we create even more stress by not doing things that really need to be done.

How does procrastinating create more stress, overwhelm, and negative feelings for you?

Now that we’ve identified the problems caused by procrastination, let’s begin to change the thinking patterns and behaviors that support procrastination.

Challenge Your Perfectionist Thinking

Our perfectionist thinking is based on inaccurate and distorted beliefs and assumptions. We can learn to be more aware of how perfectionist thinking leads to procrastination, challenge the underlying distortions, and replace them with more realistic ones. This will help us reduce procrastination.

Reframe Negative Perceptions

The way we think about a task creates our feelings about it, and how we feel about the task then leads us to either do it or procrastinate. Most likely you’re giving yourself negative, defeatist messages about the tasks you’re avoiding without even realizing it. These messages may sound like one of these:

  • This is so hard. I can’t do this.
  • I hate doing my taxes. I’m sure I’m doing them all wrong.
  • I know I have to do this, but I really don’t want to—it’s just so boring.

This negative thinking contributes to procrastination, which, in turn, creates more negative self-talk. We start beating ourselves up for not being productive or perfect, calling ourselves “lazy” or a “failure,” which further decreases our motivation. We can’t possibly be our best selves and do our best work when we call ourselves disparaging names.

We can get out of this negative cycle by shifting our thinking from focusing on the negative to acknowledging the positives. This could sound like: This is a challenge, but I actually like learning new things! or Taxes aren’t my favorite thing to do, but I know that I’m capable of figuring them out, and it feels so good when they’re done.

Be on the lookout for these cues that you’re thinking negatively about a task, and add your own cues to the list:

  • It’s boring.
  • It’s hard.
  • I hate this.
  • It’s not important.
  • It will take too long.
  • I don’t know how to do it.
  • I might fail.

Now, practice cognitive reframing by completing the following table with the realistic or encouraging self-talk statements you might use for your most common negative thoughts

Negative self-talkRealistic or encouraging self-talk
I hate mowing the lawn.It only takes thirty minutes. It’s not that bad. I can listen to music while I do it to make it go by faster.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.
.

Look for Partial Successes

Procrastination can lead us to not starting or finishing things. If we procrastinate long enough, it becomes impossible to do time-sensitive things like going to an exercise class or registering for an event. Sometimes we use procrastination to get out of doing things we think are unpleasant. My kids quickly figured out that if they procrastinate washing the dishes long enough, there’s a good chance I’ll end up doing them!

It’s tempting to not start things when we think we can’t do them perfectly. This type of all-ornothing thinking makes it hard to see that often there is still a benefit in doing part of a task or project or that some things don’t need to be done to exceptionally high standards. Let’s say I decided to go to the gym every morning before work, but I dawdled too long over my morning coffee, and now I don’t have time to go to the spin class that I like. If I let my perfectionist thinking dictate, I’d say, “It’s too late now. I guess I can’t exercise today.” Alternatively, I could say, “Well, I missed my spin class, but I could still go walking for twenty minutes before work.” My perfectionist self would be inclined to see this as a failure, because I didn’t meet my commitment to go to the spin class and the walk wasn’t as good of a workout. A more compassionate and accepting way to think about this—one that will keep me from falling into disappointment and procrastination in the future—is as a partial success.

It’s very hard to motivate ourselves when we frame things only as “success” or “failure.” So much of life is truly shades of gray. When we set unrealistic expectations and believe we are failures (or lazy or stupid) when we don’t perform flawlessly, it’s easier to not do things at all. Going for a short walk wasn’t my ideal workout, but it still provided me with health benefits. The same is true for journaling, following a budget, meditating, healthy eating, and really any positive activity we’re trying to do. In other words, we don’t have to do things perfectly for them to have value.

Here’s another example of a partial success. Madison set a goal to spend one extra hour at the office every day to catch up on her paperwork, but she didn’t achieve this goal. She skipped one day completely and worked on her paperwork for only forty minutes another day. Instead of considering this a failure, Madison could see it as a partial success, because the time she did put in allowed her to complete the overdue paperwork for two of her clients. She now feels encouraged that she can manage the paperwork and succeed at her job. She didn’t follow her plan perfectly, but there was a positive result. Like Madison, when we measure by progress rather than perfection, we’re more motivated and energized to continue. When we see every imperfection as a failure, we’re more likely to give up.

What’s an example from your life of how doing some is better than doing none, as a partial success?

In addition to challenging the perfectionist thinking that drives you to procrastinate, there are strategies you can use to make the tasks you procrastinate on easier to handle. We’ll explore some of these techniques in the next section.

Decrease Overwhelm, Increase Motivation

Now I’m going to share five strategies to decrease procrastination by lessening the feelings of overwhelm that can stop you in your tracks and by increasing your motivation for the things you find difficult: the five-minute rule, breaking tasks down, doing the hardest thing first, accepting imperfection, and minimizing distractions. I encourage you to try each of the strategies over the course of several weeks to see which ones are the most effective for you.

The Five-Minute Rule

Getting started is usually the hardest part of any task, but often the task isn’t as difficult, unpleasant, or time-consuming as we’ve made it out to be in our minds. The five-minute rule works by committing to do something for just five minutes—and then you can quit if you want. So if you’ve got three boxes of old bank statements, bills, and taxes that you need to organize, just commit yourself to work on it for five minutes today. Most things are tolerable for five minutes, and psychologically, it’s much easier to motivate yourself for five minutes of filing than for five hours. If you get some momentum and end up doing more, great! Often, things aren’t so bad once we’ve gotten going; it’s just getting started that’s the hard part. And even if you don’t continue, you’ll still be five minutes ahead.

For the next few weeks, try the five-minute rule for some of the tasks you procrastinate on. You can use this chart to help you determine whether the five-minute rule is a helpful strategy for you. I encourage you to try it on several different tasks.

FROM PROCRASTINATING TO GETTING THINGS DONE

Break It Down

Breaking complex or large tasks into manageable pieces is a commonly used productivity strategy that you probably already use. It’s much easier to do anything that takes sustained focus, whether it’s finding a new job or composing a song, when you break it down into bite-sized pieces. It’s also motivating to set goals that are achievable. It’s discouraging to see “get a new job” on your list of goals week after week. By contrast, it’s hopeful and motivating when you see pieces of this goal, such as “update resume” and “set up networking lunch with Helen,” crossed off your list.

Try creating a visual map of the steps to accomplish your goal. For bigger projects, just keep adding more tasks and sub-tasks. When you’re ready to begin, focus on just one sub-task at a time.

Goal:
Task 1:
Task 1.1:
Task 1.2:
Task 2:
Task 2.1:
Task 2.2:
Task 3:
Task 3.1:
Task 3.2:

Do the Hardest Thing First

Most people are inclined to do the easiest thing on their to-do list first. There’s something very satisfying about checking something off (no matter how small). So we make a beeline for the quickest, easiest task, like reading and replying to e-mail, and do that first. However, this probably isn’t our most important chore or task, so we can end up using our optimal energy and focus on something that doesn’t require it and then potentially having less to give to our most challenging or important projects.

The idea behind starting with the hardest thing is that you’re probably at your best—the most focused and energized—early in the day or at the outset of a project. The more you put off the hardest task, the harder it will seem, and the less likely you are to do it. Getting the most painful tasks done first and ending the day with the easier or more enjoyable ones can also contribute to a greater sense of happiness and success. If you’re unsure about applying this to your entire to-do list, try using it for a multipart project, such as cleaning your house.

Look at your to-do list or write one. Rank order the items from most challenging or unpleasant to easiest or most enjoyable.

Once you have your ranked list, try using it to complete the tasks you hoped to finish.

Was it helpful to do the hardest things first? Notice whether doing the hardest things first increased your productivity and satisfaction. Will this be a useful strategy for you?

Accept Imperfection

We can also decrease our feelings of overwhelm by reducing the pressure we put on ourselves to be faultless. For many tasks, I find the mantra “done is better than perfect” helpful, because often trying to do something perfectly means it doesn’t get done or I spend far too much time on a task relative to its importance. I could wash and shine my car to perfection or edit a blog post endlessly, but it wouldn’t be a good use of my time, as neither of these things needs to be flawless. It can be hard to choose between done and perfect, because we really want both, but this is often not realistic or practical. Ultimately, it’s more fulfilling to plan and host an imperfect graduation party for your son than to not have one at all. It’s simply unrealistic to expect that you can get all the moving parts of a party—decorations, tableware, invitations, food, and drinks—all put together perfectly.

In the space below, come up with your own mantra to accept imperfection. You can try adopting my mantra or write your own.

Once you have a mantra, you can reinforce it by writing it on some sticky notes you put around your house, or you can make a screen saver for your computer or phone with the mantra prominently displayed.

Certainly, telling yourself to let go and accept imperfection is one thing; actually doing this is quite another. But we can apply a “good enough” standard to many tasks without any negative consequences except our own initial discomfort, which will lessen the more we do it. We can move toward accepting imperfection in small steps by intentionally leaving one piece of the task imperfect or undone. Another strategy is to set a timer for the amount of time that we’re willing to dedicate to a task, and then, when the timer goes off, we stop. This prevents endless checking, fixing, and redoing. I know I am guilty of rewriting e-mails and reloading the dishwasher, neither of which is really a priority or good use of my time.

What tasks eat up your time unnecessarily due to checking, fixing, and redoing?

Are there tasks or projects that you can apply “done is better than perfect” to? If you’re not sure, ask yourself, Is it more important for this to be done or for it to be done perfectly?

What do you think would happen if you left things imperfect?

Minimize Distractions

Distractions are everywhere, especially when you have a challenging task at hand! Set yourself up for success by making it as easy as possible to do the desired task and as hard as possible to engage in other activities. The first step is to notice what distracts you and then create a plan to avoid or minimize the distraction. For example, the Internet and e-mail are huge distractions for me when I write. To deal with this, I put my phone in a drawer in another room so it takes a lot more effort to play games and check social media than if it were sitting right next to me. My kids are also a huge distraction, so sometimes I have to get out of the house and go to the library or my office so I can concentrate.

What are your biggest distractions?

When are you most likely to fall prey to these distractions?

How can you make it hard to engage in these distracting activities?

Treat Yourself with Compassion

Being kind to yourself can also help you get things done. As we discussed in the last post, this idea can be counterintuitive, because we’re used to thinking that cracking the whip and being punitive is the way to get things done. In reality, self-criticism tends to discourage people rather than motivate them. If we’re hard on ourselves every time we procrastinate, we’ll perpetuate avoidance and a negative self-image.

When we procrastinate, we often label ourselves “lazy,” “irresponsible,” or “disorganized” (or other people call us these names). These types of negative labels become part of how we see ourselves—our identity. These distorted beliefs, along with the negativity bias, mean that we’ll seek out evidence to confirm that we’re lazy. For example, if you take a nap, you’re likely to see it as proof of laziness rather than normal and healthy response to having been up late the night before.

In this exercise, practice noticing your critical self-talk and the names you call yourself when you procrastinate and then writing a compassionate response to try instead. Use the chart below to record some examples that have come up recently.

Summary

In this post, we explored how to overwhelm, perfectionist thinking, and fear can contribute to procrastination, and how we may miss out on opportunities, waste time, and increase stress, overwhelm, and self-criticism when we procrastinate. The exercises in this post targeted ways to challenge perfectionist thinking, decrease overwhelm, increase motivation, and use self-compassion to ward off procrastination.

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