Category Archives: Understanding procrastination

Procrastination is about emotions, not time

When we ask ourselves why we procrastinate, a couple of reasons come easily to mind: That we are lazy, and that we suck at time management. The first is actively unhelpful. The time management explanation is also a distraction.

Time management skills are important, don’t get me wrong. Planning, timeboxing, project tracking and to-do lists are all valuable, but you can have all of those things and still be a world-class procrastinator.

woman in corner of dark room

Adapted from Xavier Sotomayor, CC0.

Because to not procrastinate means to do the thing that really matters. And the thing that really matters is usually highly emotionally significant. There is a lot at stake, including our beliefs about ourselves. Ironically, a lot of strategies to beat procrastination involve recrimination and punishment – perhaps something we first experience from our early caregivers, and later inflict on ourselves. For that reason, one of the first things I discuss with clients in tackling procrastination is self compassion, with patience and persistence.

Does this mean letting yourself off the hook? No! Have high expectations of yourself. Aim to be a better person, have a better life and have a greater positive impact on those you come in contact with.

But let go of the self-blame and be strategic instead.

Decision Diary

An exercise I use with clients, for a power boost to achieve their goals, is the Decision Diary. After we identify a specific goal where greater willpower will help them to succeed, I ask them to keep track of each choice they make related to that goal, for one day or more.

One way is to keep a pen and paper handy and jot down (super briefly) the two choices, and place a tick next to the option that they chose – that’s an ideal approach. Another way is simply to mentally notice each decision.

The self-awareness you gain is valuable, but there is more. As one client reported, “I did the diary today but by some miracle I’m happy with all my decisions! I was quite productive today!” By being more aware of you decisions, you are more likely to make decisions that you’re happy with.

Kelly McGonigal describes the practice in her excellent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It:

To have more self-control, you first need to develop more self-awareness. A good first step is to notice when you are making choices related to your willpower challenge. Some will be more obvious, such as, “Do I go to the gym after work?” The impact of other decisions might not be clear until later in the day, when you see their full consequences. For example, did you choose to pack your gym bag so you wouldn’t have to go home first? (Smart! You’ll be less likely to make excuses.) Did you get caught up in a phone call until you were too hungry to go straight to the gym? (Oops! You’ll be less likely to exercise if you have to stop for dinner first.) For at least one day , track your choices. At the end of the day, look back and try to analyze when decisions were made that either supported or undermined your goals. Trying to keep track of your choices will also reduce the number of decisions you make while distracted – a guaranteed way to boost your willpower.

(One important note: Willpower is a valuable resource, but when you set up your goals, it’s best to assume you won’t have any. Create default behaviours that minimise any need for willpower while taking you closer to your goal, and they’ll become easy as you do them day after day. That way, even when you’re tired, emotional or busy, you can still be working towards your goal.)